Founder of the trust, Ewan Kirk, appeared on SolarAid’s Permission to Fail podcast, hosted by Kirsty Adams, to discuss funding projects with permission to fail alongside SolarAid CEO John Keane and the non-profit’s Fundraising Director Richard Turner.
Ewan delves into what it means to give permission to fail to projects when funding them and how it can create a more transparent, innovative, and effective philanthropy and charity sector.
Kirsty Adams (K): Welcome back to the Permission to Fail podcast from SolarAid. I’m your host, Kirsty Adams. This episode we speak to philanthropist and SolarAid funder Dr. Ewan Kirk.
Ewan Kirk (E): You have to be willing to allow people to fail, the permission to fail. It’s in the title.
K: Ewan is an advocate for funding with permission to fail. Some funders support development projects which may fail. This episode we’ll be talking about why some organisations or individuals are willing to take risks. Is it a good idea? Is it a good thing for the charity sector? And we’ll also discuss whether restricted funding holds back sustainable development. Let me remind you what SolarAid does. They’re a pioneering charity developing innovative enterprise programs for solar energy distribution in rural communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. This episode you’ll also hear from Richard Turner, fundraising director at SolarAid.
Richard Turner (R): But we’ve had a funder who’s been fabulous to support us throughout the journey, and we think this project has the potential to scale and we’re now going to take it to the next level.
K: And SolarAid CEO John Keane.
John Keane (J): They know what you’re trying to do is not easy and they know that if the solution already existed, they probably wouldn’t need the funding.
K: We are really pleased that we got to pin down Ewan for a chat. He’s the founder of Cantab Capital Partners and a tech entrepreneur. He’s also founder of the Turner Kirk Trust with his wife, Patricia Turner. They first supported SolarAid back in 2012, contributing to its innovation work. Most recently, their trust has supported part of SolarAid’s project called Light, a village in Malawi.
E: I mean, I am a massive geek. I like STEM and STEM across all of its types like science, technology, engineering, mathematics. And there are lots of things that we can do there and being involved in things like that, either on a professional basis or in this case in a philanthropic basis, is something that makes me happy. So I think I should do that. Similarly, my wife is really focused on early stage child development and conservation, and that’s something that she feels passionate about. And I think it is important and I guess it’s probably rare for philanthropists to get involved in something that they don’t feel passionate about. But I think it is important to have that excitement and enjoyment in in doing this.
K: When I spoke to SolarAid CEO John Keane at the start of this series, he described the different kinds of funders to me and it was a really useful part of the story. You can probably guess which camp Dr. Kirk falls into.
J: There are different kinds of funders. Some funders will give you permission to fail, and so they are more interested in what you learn and what you’re trying to achieve and taking the risk to achieve. They know what you’re trying to do is not easy, and they know that if the solution already existed, they probably wouldn’t need the funding. So there are certain funders who think that way, rightly so, that there are many funders who ironically are not there to take that risk. It may be tax payers money. It might be people have worked hard to raise funds and so they want a greater level of assurance that their money is going to have an impact. And so that then means that you will not always be able to convince funders to support something that is overly risky or does have the risk of failure.
K: So Ewan is the type of funder who is clearly very comfortable taking risks. I mean if he wasn’t, we wouldn’t let him on this podcast, would we?
E: There are two things here. One is that you have to be willing to allow people to fail. Because you will be doing high risk things, things which might fail. And if you’re going to do things which might fail, that does mean that sometimes you are going to give money to a project or to a charity to do a particular thing and they will fail. It’s one of these things where people say, of course I’m incredibly willing to do high risk projects, particularly charities, but then when you actually give people money and they fail, people go, oh wait, I didn’t mean you had to fail. So you have to be absolutely upfront about the fact that every project you do might be a failure and might not do any good. But that’s what high risk philanthropy is about. Philanthropy should be high risk. It shouldn’t be low risk.
K: Ewan believes in high-risk philanthropy. And this is a really valuable thing that helps spearhead innovation for SolarAid and the other charities his trust supports. It is still fairly rare, though, to have funders that welcome risk the way that Ewan does, but he tells us that he strongly believes in experiments and that it’s okay if things don’t work out.
E: Experiments are a good thing. This is what has taken science over 5,000 years. We’ve done experiments, we’ve worked out what’s worked, we’ve done what’s worked in most cases. So I think my view on this and look, I’m completely open to the fact that we might be wrong or I might be wrong and this might not be the right way to do things. But, if you expect success, then it makes it difficult for the charity to experiment.
So let’s do a little thought experiment here. Somebody wishes to give money to a charity to sink wells in Africa for clean water, and they give a certain amount of money and they expect that a thousand wells will be done in a year or five years. We’re making up numbers here. So for them, if at the end of five years they get a 1,000 wells, everyone’s happy, everyone’s done a good thing. And also, of course, the people who are receiving the clean water are incredibly happy. And it is amazingly important. If they get 1,500 wells done, great, that’s even better. And if they get 500, well, it’s not quite so good but at least 500 wells and 500 villages. If they get no wells done, that’s a big failure and everyone’s going to be unhappy about that. So the charity knows that up front. So their incentive is to make sure make sure that they can really do what they say they’re going to do.
But I think this is the critical thing in the permission to fail approach of the trust – explicitly saying to the charity, it’s okay. Well, it’s not absolutely fine. Obviously, it’s disappointing if somebody goes ahead and does something and it doesn’t work out. But it is also beholden, if you’re going to do this, on you or me in this case, to say it’s okay, take a risk, take a chance, we’re not going to think badly of you. And in principle, although we do try and do controlled rather than ongoing funding into things, we try to do project based rather than just let’s keep the charity running forever. It doesn’t impact the probability of future funding. If it all goes terribly wrong, then you will have learned something. And so the next project will be different and be less likely to fail. And we’ll be happy to talk about that. We’re not going to think that you’re idiots because you’ve tried something and failed. And actually that’s also true in good business organisations. That’s also true. People get to be entrepreneurial, go and give something a try. It’s all right if it fails. The one place of course that doesn’t work is government. That’s not a good place to fail.
K: It’s really clear to me that maybe if Ewan didn’t have this attitude and didn’t take this approach, that, if he was more restrictive with his funding, some of the sustainable development that SolarAid has achieved recently just wouldn’t have been possible, like with the Light a Village project.
R: So a project we’re really excited about at SolarAid at the moment we’ve nicknamed Light a Village, and this is bringing not just small solar lights, but what we call a solar home system. So this would be a system that could light up three rooms, could charge some devices like a mobile phone or a torch or a radio, and you’d have a small panel on your roof. Now, something like that’s about, you know, can cost up to $100. So it’s beyond the means of most families. And even if they were to pay in instalments, you know, with a 10, 20 dollar instalment, that’s still going to be beyond the reach of people living below the poverty line.
So what we’re doing is light as a service. It’s no different to how in our homes, we haven’t paid for the infrastructure to have electricity. We just pay for the electricity. So what SolarAid has done is set up those solar home systems and then people rent back the solar energy that they use for less than the cost of buying candles each week. The take up has been fantastic, far better than we thought. We’ve had a few problems along the way. Rats chewing through the cables was something we didn’t anticipate.
But we’ve had a funder who’s been fabulous to support us throughout the journey, and we think this project has the potential to scale and we’re now going to take it to the next level. So it’s an example where we’re working with one of the poorest countries of the world with some of the poorest communities in that country in some of the remotest places which are not going to have electricity by the end of the decade. We know that they’re not on any plan for a national grid expansion. And if we can do that in that situation, I think we could we could do it just about anywhere.
K: Funding with permission to fail is experimental, but it sounds to me like it’s as much about trust. So how do funders know which organisations they can trust? Richard told me a story about another funder who came on board when he told them about SolarAid’s big, hairy, audacious goal, which if you remember from episode one, is about eradicating the kerosene lamp.
R: I recall meeting a supporter. This is what we would call a major supporter, someone who was willing to give significant funds. But he hadn’t supported us for a long time. And it was my first meeting. We were meeting in a cafe in London, and I shared with him our new goal. And I also put on the table a kerosene lamp, and he immediately responded and said, you know, that’s fantastic. Now I get what you’re up to. And he instantly committed to give a very significant sum, we’re talking £50,000 or upwards to support SolarAid as a result of that. And so it had an instant impact. It just gave a clarity about what we were about. Instead of doing lots of different initiatives, there was a focus that all added up to one thing.
K: You know, from episode one, how important big, ambitious goals are to SolarAid. And as we know from episode two, where we spoke about listening to the community when monitoring and evaluating programmes, we know that feedback and evaluations play a major part in the success of programmes that they use, processes which are carefully crafted to listen to the entrepreneurs on the ground, to the families using the lamps and the medical practitioners working in the remote centres. Accountability matters. So I want to know how do funders hold charities like SolarAid to account?
E: Accountability is an issue, now, although I don’t want control, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be involved. I just don’t want to be involved in telling people who know much more than me what to do. I want to be involved. You know, you want to go and visit the project. We’re, at the Trust, doing something with early-stage mathematics in Glasgow, and it’s an interesting programme that may transform the teaching of mathematics to primary school children. Or it might not because it might fail. So, I went up to Glasgow last week and spent a day with the teachers who were being trained on this new way of doing it. That’s a nice way of doing it and it’s not a formal report. The last thing in the world I want SolarAid or any other charity to be doing is thinking, oh my god, we’ve got to write that 20-page report for the Turner Kirk Trust by next Tuesday. Quick, let’s spend all our time doing that. You know that that’s not required. You just want to spend time with people and shouldn’t be worried about what’s going on that’s really holding them accountable. And also, if you’re really explicit about saying, oh, that’s because everyone wants to tell you how great everything’s going, and then you can say, oh, well, that’s fantastic. I’m really glad that all that’s working, what’s not working quite so well. And they go, oh, well, you know, we’ve got a bit of a problem with this and a bit of a problem with that. That’s the sort of accountability that you want. I mean, as long as you choose people who are honest and passionate, then they’re going to do the right thing. Your level of accountability is maybe just to help them not continue to make mistakes or to think about other things or to come up with problems and ask for advice, which of course, they are completely within their rights to ignore because they’re the expert, not me.
K: I love that idea that accountability can simply mean encouraging people not to make the same mistakes. It feels like a really positive approach, the opposite of micromanaging an approach which creates space for honest conversations. Nice. So we know that Ewan likes experiments, and we know that he thinks that philanthropy should be about risk. But what we don’t yet know is why he works with SolarAid.
E: Why SolarAid is a really good question, and I’m not really sure I’ve got a good answer beyond meeting John and just being bowled over by his enthusiasm, his vision for it. And of course, his vision is enormous and lots of people have huge, enormous visions. But he blended that huge, enormous vision with the enthusiasm for solving the small problem as well. And a lot of philanthropy is about personal stuff. It’s about personal relationships. You know, nobody’s really going to fund a charity that’s run by somebody they don’t like, although maybe in reverse, maybe charities would take money from a donor they don’t like. But I think I think you have to have a good connection with people. And it just when John first approached me, the problem that they were trying to solve in 2012, which was how do we distribute the light, just seemed like a really interesting problem that they would find it incredibly difficult to get money to solve. And I thought, oh, I can do that and I can do that with a bunch of really enthusiastic, nice people. I mean, across the organisation they are really easy and fun to deal with. And that’s a thing, right? Nobody, nobody needs any more heartache in their life. You might as well deal with people you like.
K: Last mile distribution for SolarAid was an interesting problem. You probably remember from the first episode that that problem was resolved by replacing the small vans which were traipsing across Sub-Saharan Africa with a new network called Head Teachers.
E: I think it’s probably the case that we came up with this idea of permission to fail together. I think John, when I first met him and this is 11 years ago and probably lost in the mists of time and my brain doesn’t remember everything, but remembers quite a lot. But I think we kind of jointly came to this view that we didn’t really know the solution to this problem. And wouldn’t it be interesting to run some experiments, for want of a better word, in Malawi, to see what the answer is? And I think that then encouraged them to be a little bit riskier about what they were going to do. And we, of course, were happy to support that. And so far, touch wood, it seems to have worked out quite well for both of us. So I think we’re all pretty happy with that approach.
K: I’m going to let Richard explain why risk has been so important to SolarAid.
R: The reason why having permission to fail is so important is I think we’ve learned that there’s a very thin line between success and failure. And so being able to sort of push those boundaries and try something allows you every so often to have quite extraordinary breakthroughs. But if you don’t have that permission to fail, you withdraw back when things go wrong. It depends on the funder, it really depends on the funder. So we work in very difficult areas. You know, there’s all sorts and we’re trying to make something change that, you know, the status quo will be it is what it currently is. So to initiate change is difficult. So things will go wrong. And a lot of funders don’t like the idea of funding something that will go wrong. So given we are, innovation is really, really key to us. You know, we’re not just about delivering a service, if you like. We have to find the right funders. We have to find those that that perhaps understand that. And if we don’t, you know, chances are someone isn’t going to continue supporting us. And actually, the most sustainable source of funding is someone, you know, whether it’s an individual or a foundation is someone who supports you and continues to support you. So it’s in both our interests to find those, I suppose, shared values, if you like.
R: So it’s yeah, it’s, it’s being able to be to say that there are some risks to this, but there are some opportunities and you know, there have been some ups and downs along the way, but we’re still striving to achieve an ambition. And if we can communicate the importance of that permission to fail, many funders seem to understand that. But I would say there are a select few. We just have to find them. I don’t know if I’ve sort of feels you. I say many funders. Well, there are a few funders out there, but we have to find them. But there’s enough certainly for us to start doing the fantastic work we’ve managed to achieve. I wish there were more of them, though. I wish there were more that understood that to initiate change requires risk. And the beautiful thing is those donations we get allow us to take that risk in a way that other organisations just can’t. Other enterprises operating in Africa, maybe someone who started a solar business, they, you know, they’re trying to make a profit and, and they can’t take the risk to work in remote and impoverished communities in the way that SolarAid can.
K: Meeting Ewan and learning about funding with risk has been a really interesting and useful. By choosing a riskier road and trusting that experiments work, charities like SolarAid have been able to innovate their way to diminishing light poverty. If you want to learn more about the great projects that SolarAid is working on thanks to its committed and diverse set of funders, visit solar-aid.org. While you’re there, why don’t you take a look at SolarAid Shop? Every purchase from its store supports SolarAid’s work. You can buy a virtual gift, e-cards, merchandise visit shop.solar-aid.org. And look, I know you’re busy, but if you could follow us and leave a review, that would be great. Why don’t you tell us how taking a risk in your charity or business has led to some really good results? That’s all from me for now. See you next time.