It’s funny. In the private sector it’s common to hear about failure. The world is filled with stories about entrepreneurs who went bankrupt multiple times before they finally hit it big. For the most part, it's an accepted part of private enterprise. (for some great examples, check out this month’s Harvard Business Review -- it’s entirely devoted to business failures.)
Non-Profits are Uneasy with Failure
It’s not the same for nonprofits. We rarely hear about programs or organizations that fail. Yes, there are exceptions. The New York Times has been reporting on Madonna’s failed foundation, Raising Malawi, whose project to build a girls' school collapsed after a $3.8 million investment. This failure is an outlier, though, picked up by the media more because it was sponsored by a high-profile celebrity than anything else. In fact, the only other nonprofit failures I’ve read about are crazy sting operations where someone gets caught saying something they shouldn’t have.
A Missed Opportunity
In general, the social sector has a way to go before we openly discuss our failures and accept them as inconvenient, but necessary, stepping stones to success. In my mind, it’s a missed opportunity. Some of my biggest failures have generated the greatest learning. Have you ever said to yourself, “I’ll NEVER do THAT again!” That was probably one of those moments for you. In that moment, you are certainly feeling frustrated, but don’t you also feel a sense of relief? Lesson learned, case closed. And, I’m better equipped to handle that problem next time.
So, why do nonprofits have a hard time embracing failure? I’m not talking about something as drastic as an organization closing its doors. I’m talking about our failures to communicate clearly with the people who matter most, the failure to plan a pilot project properly, the failure to honestly and proactively address poor performance, the failure to provide enough or the right resources to your team, etc.
Embracing your failures means taking a big breath, putting them under a microscope, and taking a good, hard look. And then, doing something about it. Sunshine is a wonderful natural disinfectant, so why not air that laundry?!
Why the Resistance?
By now you’re probably thinking, “I have my reasons, believe me!” They might even include one or more of the following (If I missed any, feel free to post them in the comments).
- Our funders want to see progress and outcomes, not excuses.
- Our agency has a combative and competitive culture, and it isn’t safe.
- We’re already being pummeled by political groups that are out to get us, seriously.
- I’d love to, but I don’t have time.
- My team expects me to have all the answers, not to bring up more questions.
- If our volunteers find out, they'll run for the hills!
- I’m stressed out already; you want me to do what?!
These are all valid reasons, and they are driven by one common denominator -- fear. I think it’s time to address those fears head on. We need to change this culture of denial because it is not helping us. It may, in fact, be hurting us in the long run.
On the positive side, total transparency can be very empowering. Just imagine if you took a look at your tired, out-of-date, text-heavy home page and said, “Yep, true dat. Our website sucks.” OK! Glad you got that off your chest! Now you can set about finding ways to deal with that reality. Maybe it doesn’t get fixed overnight. That’s OK. At least it’s on the radar, and you can begin to think creatively about how to get it done.
Stay Tuned for More
You may still be skeptical about this whole idea. Reserve your judgement for a bit and stay tuned for Part II of this post. I’ll share some ideas on how to make failure work for you and feel manageable at the same time.
Meanwhile, if you want to learn how others are learning from failures, check out Admitting Failures, a new website created by Engineers Without Boarders. It’s a refreshing look at failures from brave development professionals around the world who are willing to open up and share.