Giving Compass' Take:

• Caroline Fiennes argues that famous failures in philanthropy are essential steps to eventual success.

• How can philanthropists minimize the cost and ill effects of unproven philanthropic interventions? How can learning best be gained from failed projects? 

• Learn about the value of iterative feedback

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation seems to have wasted six years and $1bn, having initiated a programme to improve teaching effectiveness in US schools. An evaluationreleased last month showed that it had a negligible effect on its goals — some of them worsened — which included student achievement, access to effective teaching and dropout rates.

Much the same happened to Ark, the UK-based charity founded by the hedge fund industry. It created and co-funded a programme in 25,000 schools in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, supporting the government to improve school performance. It was based on sound research about how to reduce teacher absence, improve teaching and create more accountability through school inspections. Ark has worked on it since 2012.

The results of an evaluation of that programme, presented at a conference in Oxford last month, found it had no effect on learning, as measured by how well children perform in tests after 18 months, nor on teacher absence.

Should we berate these foundations for their profligacy? No. On the contrary, we should applaud their willingness to investigate properly what their programmes actually achieve and, moreover, their willingness to publish those findings, even if it embarrasses them. These two programmes both happen to be in education, but evaluations in plenty of sectors show null results.

This is science. This is how we learn. If a programme isn’t working, it’s surely better to find that out after six years than after 20 — and better after 20 years than to persist obstinately forever. Kudos to these foundations for asking the questions.

Read the full article about philanthropic failures by Caroline Fiennes at Giving Evidence.