That’s not the way most organizations would start their holiday appeals. In fact, there seems to be an unspoken rule in the nonprofit world that failures should be expediently swept under the rug. “What will our donors think?” we mutter. Yet, changing the perception of – and how we talk about – failure has the potential to fundamentally change the sector for the better. There’s no need for us to fear failure.
Last month, this NY Times opinion piece discussed initiatives such as FailFaire that address unsuccessful nonprofit ventures head-on. The individuals behind such projects are working to transform a nonprofit culture that fears failure to one that embraces failure as a natural side effect of creation and innovation. As explained by Playworks leader Jill Vialet, nonprofits should fail “‘out loud’ and ‘forward,’ meaning that the people involved in the failure should speak about it openly and work to prevent history from repeating itself.”
Emmett Carson of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation echoed a similar philosophy in a philanthropy video from the Bridgespan Group. What’s necessary, he says, is a partnership of trust between grantees and foundations (or any donor, for that matter). In order for nonprofits to feel they have the freedom to innovate and explore different solutions to problems, foundations have to build that rapport and a philanthropic culture of acceptance that failure is OK. Carson says that grantees of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation can “come into a room and say, ‘it [our solution] is bombing out… It’s not working.’” Then, because of the relationship that has been built, “the result is not, ‘you’re out’ it’s, ‘what do you think we ought to do to fix it?’”
So how should your organization go about “fixing it”? Meeting with your team to discuss the failure is an essential first step. Here are 3 suggestions for how to approach the conversation:
1. Encourage constructive criticism
When debriefing with your team, allow for open dialogue but don’t allow finger-pointing. “Victoria missed all her deadlines,” is critical, not helpful. “We missed a lot of the deadlines that were necessary for us to roll out our solution in the timeframe we had set” is a better way to understand what issues need to be addressed for next time. “No one benefited from the program; it was a waste of time,” is an over-generalization. It’s also probably not true. “We reached 70% fewer people than we had anticipated; so we didn’t have the impact we had hoped for considering the resources we put into it” is much better.
2. Understand the problem
Rarely are projects complete and total failures, so be sure you understand clearly why things didn’t turn out the way you had anticipated. Did things go wrong because your theory of change was wrong or because your idea wasn’t implemented correctly? Note that in order to answer this question, you’ll need to seek the viewpoints of people at all levels of the organization. Too frequently, post-event meetings take place behind closed doors, with only the senior level managers or executives participating. Instead, get the perspective of people at all levels of the project so that your understanding of the challenges is complete.
3. Create a communications plan
While some failures only result in a loss of resources without results to show for it, unfortunately there are times where failures may have longer and more detrimental consequences. If, for example, your nonprofit works with marginalized communities who were negatively affected by a failed project attempt, your first priority should be set things right with them.
Additionally, consider how you will discuss the issue with those outside the organization. Should a Board member meet with your major funders to discuss why the project didn’t work and how your approach will change? Also consider if the failure may impact the public’s perception of your organization. Be prepared to respond to questions through traditional and social media. A PR consultant can assist with crisis management if the public outcry is greater than you can handle. Keep in mind that the public and your stakeholders don’t want to hear apologetic, excuse-ridden jargon from talking heads. Be honest, straightforward, and demonstrate that you and your team have assessed the situation and are taking clear, discernible measures to change your strategy for maximum impact.
In our personal lives, we’re constantly encouraged to take failure in stride, embracing it as an opportunity to learn and improve ourselves. The philosophy should be the same in the nonprofit sector.
How has your organization grown from a failed initiative? Share with us!
Photo credit: sarahandthegoonsquad.com