Failing Forward: Reflections on the National Summer School for Arts Fundraising and Leadership

Failing Forward: Reflections on the National Summer School for Arts Fundraising and Leadership

 Steph Hawke is Senior Manager for External Funding & Policy at Curious Minds and 2017 Professional Fellow on the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Fellowship Programme.

Thinking about failing

During the Summer School, we were part of a group that undertook an interesting experiment. If you type the word ‘success’ into the search box on the Arts Council England website, there are 282 returns. Type the word ‘failure’ and there are 3.

We were taking part in University of Leeds' Arts Fundraising and Leadership Summer School. Our task was, in a short space of time, to research and succinctly present an idea to our fellow delegates by the end of the week. We set about exploring the notion of failure in arts funding.

After days of head-scratching and circling the notion of failure, we stumbled into searching the ACE website under those two words: success and failure. The results helped underline the question that seemed to be emerging from our conversations: Are public arts funders operating with an anti-failure bias?

An Antifailure Bias

The literature from business studies appeared to contribute the most to our theme. Rita McGrath (1999) for example, suggests our thinking, interpretation and analysis is distorted by our ‘obsessive failure avoidance’ or what she calls an ‘antifailure bias’. Is this true of the arts? We looked at evaluations from publicly funded arts projects. The language did seem to obfuscate when it came to failure. Claire Antrobus described this as ‘evaluator speak’ – putting spin on programmes that are yet to evidence the immediate achievement of their objectives.

Ben Walmsley told us resilience is all about finding new ways of working. Innovation, in other words. Surely innovation emerges from testing ideas and learning from failure? As the arts and culture sector is encouraged to innovate in order to become more resilient, shouldn’t we be more open to an examination of what hasn’t worked? Are we thinking about this right?

Errors in thinking

McGrath (ibid) suggests that an antifailure bias leads to errors in our learning and interpretation of our failures. There are three main errors in thinking relating to:

  1. Extrapolating the future from past success
  2. Cognitive bias
  3. Interventions designed to avoid repeating failure

Does the arts and cultural sector operate within an anti-failure paradigm?

The business studies literature seems to warn us not to be afraid of failure, that failure is good for innovation. Some of what we read told us that the churn of small businesses entering and exiting the market is a feature of a thriving economy. Others argued it doesn’t matter how many entrepreneurial enterprises fail because all the failures are worthwhile if just one initiative achieves significant success. We learned about the Pareto Principle – that 20% of effort often achieves 80% of success. Aren’t the arts inherently risky? “…the whole point of the arts is that they are unpredictable. The artist launches off on a project, not knowing quite where it will lead, or whether it will lead anywhere at all” (Hewitt, 2016).

Intelligent failure

Perhaps the arts and cultural sector would benefit from shrugging off the antifailure bias in favour of intelligent failure (Sitkin cited in Cope 2011, 14). This is the notion that failure shouldn’t be pursued for its own sake, but that there are lessons we can take from the features of intelligent failure which:

  • Is planned
  • Has uncertain outcomes
  • Is modest in scale
  • Is executed and responded to with alacrity
  • Takes place in domains that are familiar enough to allow effective learning

We concluded by reflecting on Brian McMaster’s 2008 recommendations to DCMS that the sector should operate as a more trusting environment, where innovation and risk taking are better rewarded.


Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail betterSamuel Beckett.


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