As a young program director at the Council on Foundations (some years ago!), my bosses determined I needed less of a direct supervisor and more of a mentor.  Pairing 20-something eager staff members with the wisdom and encouragement of a “senior consultant” was nothing short of genius.  Not only were the results terrific for the Council, I had an experience that was nothing short of life changing.

Because I was responsible for grantmaker education, my senior consultant was Paul Ylvisaker, distinguished educator, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, preeminent foundation staff person and a trustee of every kind of grantmaking foundation – in this country and beyond.  I was in awe and stunningly grateful.  Like a good philanthropic groupie, I soaked up every story, anecdote, memory, and experience he was inclined to share.  Candidly, I was almost as thrilled to listen as he was to have a rapt pupil.  Paul loved an appreciative audience as, first and foremost, he was a born teacher.

Sometimes we would travel together, meeting the extraordinary people in Paul’s wide circle of friends, and his favorite joke was to introduce me as his boss.  Mostly, though, he would come to the offices about once a month and just spend time in my office.  Whatever was on his mind or my plate would be fodder for some of the best conversations I will ever have.  Regardless of the topic, however, he always had the same question: what have you failed at lately?

In Paul’s mind, if you weren’t failing, you weren’t trying hard enough.  If you were experimenting, pushing the edges, finding new issues, causes and strategies, or just developing an interesting idea, you were going to make mistakes.  People who carved out a new path ran into problems.  People who followed the path had a lovely walk.

Paul knew that I was a new person in a new position.  The dynamic was ripe for risk and reward.  He wanted to make sure I plumbed every possibility.  Hence, the focus on failure.  He wanted me to see stumbling as a powerful learning tool.  The good news is I almost always had plenty of stumbles to relate.  If I didn’t, he would help me find ways to push the boundaries a bit further.

My work at the National Center for Family Philanthropy has reinforced that same life lesson.  Some of the most exciting accomplishments of family giving programs was born from or included some element of error and failure.  But something else I’ve learned is that we are not as comfortable as Paul was talking about those failures.  If things go wrong, some are reluctant to tell the story for fear of ascribing blame – especially if the story included a grantee.  Others are concerned it might appear that charitable dollars were “wasted.”  Some are so used to success in many parts of their lives that they’re uncomfortable with the learning curve of philanthropy.

As we have been planning for the National Forum on Family Philanthropy, I’ve had a few personal goals for the program along with all the professional ones.  Learning from mistakes and encouraging discussion about them as a learning device are high on that list of goals.  Therefore, I’m delighted to announce the session: “The Best Mistake We Ever Made!”

  • I invite you (and really encourage you) to nominate yourself and your Marvelous Mistake to be part of this very special program. 
  • I’m looking for 20 people who plan to be at the Forum to present at the session.  All eligible registrants are welcome and family members and trustees are especially urged to step forward.
  • You’ll have just two minutes to describe a mistake your foundation/fund made.  If you learned something, great.  If you’re still figuring it out, that’s great too.  If you’d like a power point slide to help focus your two minutes, it’s yours.  I’m hoping the brevity, the number of presentations and a very supportive audience will help everyone get more excited (maybe just easier?) talking about failure. 

All the mistakes will be presented and an open conversation will follow.  Conversation about the individual presentations or about risk and error in general is encouraged.  Eligible registrants can send stories to Marlene Corrado at  Marlene is coordinating presenters for this session.  If you have any questions about eligibility or to register for the Forum, visit the website at

In this season of gratitude, it is lovely for me to remember Paul, my Council bosses, and all those who have made my work in philanthropy such a wonderful (and mistake-filled) journey.  Those of you who share your stories – the triumphs, the stumbles, the sweet and the bittersweet moments – add something to the fabric of family philanthropy.  The field is in your debt.  I know that I am.

Have a very Happy Thanksgiving!