Skip to main content

Dr Ewan Kirk – Philanthropy & giving ‘permission to fail’

In this episode we talk to philanthropist Dr Ewan Kirk, founder of the Turner Kirk Trust, about why he believes it is so important that philanthropists are willing to take risks and give the organisations they support ‘permission to fail’.


  • Why is it so important to give charities permission to fail?
  • What factors make something a “good” failure rather than a “bad” one?
  • What is the nature of the risk in philanthropy?
  • Is philanthropy as a whole too risk averse?
  • Can we do anything to encourage donors/funders to take more risks and be willing to “fail”?
  • Why is it important, in terms of giving charities the freedom to take risks, that we get away from asking them to deliver specific outcomes?
  • Should we still try to gauge the effectiveness/success of funding?
  • Would more unrestricted funding help to foster a culture of risk taking and innovation?
  • When looking for genuinely transformative solutions to long-standing problems, it is necessary to support ‘upstream’ work (e.g. research, policy and advocacy) as well as ‘downstream’ work (e.g. direct interventions)?
  •  Is there sometimes a danger that philanthropists go too far in looking for “big bets” or “moonshots”, and overlook more immediate issues and potential solutions as a result?
  • Is it necessary to rein this tendency in at all? (i.e. to set parameters for what is “acceptable risk” when it comes to deploying philanthropic resources?)
  • If one of the potential “exits” for risk-taking philanthropists is to get the state to adopt innovations or change the way it does things, what is best way of ensuring that this happens?
  • If philanthropy genuinely has a higher risk tolerance than the public sector, why is that?
  • Could the state itself become more risk-tolerant, or will it always need philanthropy?

Related links:

Learn from our past to better understand our future.

Philanthropy has a long and varied history. We’ve created bite-size chapters that you can jump in and out of to better understand philanthropy.