Ewan Kirk: Why charities need permission to fail

Ewan Kirk, sitting at a laptop.Ewan Kirk is an investor, technology entrepreneur, and co-founder of the Turner Kirk Trust, a family foundation that supports causes in the UK and developing world. It has disbursed over £7 million to charitable causes since 2007.

Ewan’s focus is on innovation, and he believes that donors should give charities ‘permission to fail’.

Quick facts

The causes

  • STEM
  • Conservation and biodiversity
  • Early childhood development

The funding

  • Family foundation
  • Working with charitable partners to find breakthrough solutions

Funding for innovation

Q: What cause areas do you work in?

A: When we set up the Trust, we wanted to find solutions to problems that were stifling growth and innovation in STEM, conservation, and early childhood development. Our main priority is to attract funding and add value in crucial areas that often struggle to raise money, such as fundamental mathematics research or biodiversity.

A major issue in the philanthropic sector is that many charities are reluctant to experiment and find new ways to solve issues, and this is something we wanted to change. At the core, our work is evidence-based and driven by robust impact evaluation. This allows us to encourage our charitable partners to engage in smart risk-taking to find breakthrough solutions.

Rather than trying to solve a problem in its entirety, we support initiatives that have the potential to help reach faster, more scalable solutions. The Trust provides a platform to bring a wide range of people from different disciplines together to share their expertise and have the potential to create long-term, sustainable change in policy and practice.

Q: Why is it so important to catalyse innovation?

A: Charities don’t experiment because they are afraid of failure. Any experimentation they do around their ways of working is often minimal, which can make them less efficient and deter them from continuing.

This approach slows down innovation and leads to missed opportunities in fundraising and philanthropic work. To tackle this, we give our charitable partners what I call ‘permission to fail’.

What this means in practice is allowing our charitable partners to run projects that trial new ideas, even if they might not work. They may fail initially, but with each failed experiment, you are one step closer to discovering something that works.

Most charities operate in problem areas that are so vast they are impossible to solve with philanthropy alone. We aim to fund projects that drive change through trialling new methods that improve the way charities work, rather than funding initiatives themselves.

You can’t do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. Charities need to run a lot of cheap experiments in the short term so that they have the chance to discover a solution that drastically improves their long-term efficiency.

There are countless charities all over the world doing amazing work, but they are forfeiting the chance to amplify that impact if they don’t experiment. That’s why this method of support is so important, and we believe it’s something we need to see more of in the sector.

Approach to funding

Q: Should donors be hands-on or hands-off with the charities they support?

A: Hands-off is always better. The charities are the experts, and they live and breathe these problems every day. Some donors have historically had the bad habit of coming to a charity and making well-meaning suggestions that aren’t backed by research or evidence. Charities then feel obliged to take these suggestions into account because they come tied to funding.

That said, it is important for donors to know enough about the project and to understand the issues, so they are able to ask difficult questions – and ensure that they know what is going on.

The good news is that evidence-based philanthropy has become a tremendous force for good in the charitable sector. Donors are learning – rightly – to back up their giving with research and hard data, rather than making decisions based purely on gut instinct and emotion.

Q: What is the project you are most proud of supporting?

A: It’s difficult to choose just one, because all the organisations that we support are run by passionate, inspirational people that do amazing work. But looking back, one project that jumps out was establishing the Cantab Capital Institute for the Mathematics of Information. Hosted at the University of Cambridge, the Institute is tasked with addressing some of the world’s biggest problems in data and fundamental mathematics.

Every one of us churns out endless streams of data every year, which is a huge challenge no matter the industry. The questions that big data poses rely heavily on fundamental mathematics research, yet it is one of the most underfunded research spaces in the UK.

That’s why we were proud to help establish the Institute. Fundamental mathematics research might not be the most glamorous or heart-wrenching cause, but that doesn’t make it any less important, and new discoveries in the field could have far-reaching consequences on all our lives.

The Institute has already done some very important work, including research to make climate models more efficient and specialist modelling on the coronavirus pandemic. Most recently, Professors at the Institute won an ESPRC Programme Grant Award on the mathematics of deep learning, and it’s great to see how far the Institute has come since its foundation.

Advice for philanthropists

Q: What advice do you have for those looking to get into giving?

A: Treat philanthropy like a job. To have a real impact with your giving, you need time, effort, and passion. If you are missing even one of these, you are passing up an opportunity. Philanthropy isn’t something you can just dip your toe into. You need to fully immerse yourself in a cause you are interested in, because it’s the only way to see any meaningful results.

Similarly, don’t make impulse decisions. Philanthropic giving is very tied to emotions, but it’s important to back up your choices with evidence. Always encourage your charitable partners to experiment and think about problems in new ways. This is the difference between having an impact today, and creating long-lasting, sustainable change for the future.