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Dear Supporter: We’re sorry, the project you supported failed…

Dear Supporter: We’re sorry, the project you supported failed…

In honour of World Humanitarian Day, the WhyDev team wants to recognize an unfortunate truth: humanitarian projects often fail. We believe NGOs need to confront their mistakes, talk about them and learn from them – it’s the only way aid will get better.

By Ravinder Casley Gera

Every year, development and aid projects fail. Whether they are run by donors, NGOs, government agencies or a combination, some projects will fail. Maybe not spectacularly – it may just be that they don’t accomplish all their intended outcomes or achieve the expected impacts. This is inevitable. With complex interventions, too much can go wrong for failures not to happen sometimes.

Donors are getting better at acknowledging such failures. But to listen to many NGOs, you’d think no intervention ever fell short of its intended aims. Outputs – be they schools, medicines, agricultural training or whatever – are lovingly documented, photos taken, quotes obtained. But what about the interventions that don’t go according to plan, or that begin to unravel as soon as the NGO running it departs?

2012 Failure Report - Engineers without Borders Canada
2012 Failure Report – Engineers without Borders Canada

It’s not like NGOs are unaware of their failures. Monitoring and evaluation departments are becoming commonplace within large NGOs. But when it comes to talking about failure to external audiences, there’s resistance.

It’s not surprising: organizations dependent on public donations are hardly going to want to put out the message that money is going to waste. But, as Engineers without Borders founder David Damberger pointed out in a great TED talk in 2011, NGOs that report their failures are more likely to learn from them, and doing so helps prevent others from wasting time and resources making the same mistakes.

So if you’ve sunk resources into a project that hasn’t produced results, what do you say to your supporters?

Here’s my (entirely fictional) take on how NGOs could clearly, but unapologetically, talk about an unsuccessful project.

***

Friends,

At Partners Fighting Poverty, we never stop thinking about new ways to help the world’s most vulnerable farmers. Every year we try new approaches and new projects to help people earn more, learn more and live healthier, safer lives. This innovative approach has led us to some of our biggest successes, such as our unique plough-to-plate value chain financing system.

But when you try a lot of new things, inevitably some will work better than others. And a small number of projects won’t work at all.

I want to take a moment today to tell you about one recent project that didn’t work.

Our cassava program in Eastern Uganda built on the success of our previous farming support projects. In five villages, we helped farmers access seeds and training to grow and sell cassava, a nutritious local crop.

We spent around $100,000 on this five-village pilot project. I know that sounds like a lot. But pilots are expensive, because they mean designing the intervention, obtaining suppliers, doing surveys and so on, to lay the groundwork. That takes time, and staff time costs money. When a pilot is successful, you can ‘scale up’ a project, and the cost goes way down.

But on this occasion – as with one or two pilots every few years – the pilot was unsuccessful. We underestimated the sheer costs of transporting cassava from these remote villages to market. It’s a six-hour journey on bad roads from the villages to the main market town, and farmers didn’t have cheap enough access to transportation to make a decent profit. Of the 500 farmers we trained, only around 70 started growing cassava for the market, though lots more did grow a little for consumption at home. Those 70 farmers who sold their cassava found that they did make a small profit, but it was much less than anticipated.

Overall, we estimate we increased farmers’ incomes by an average of $40 last year. That’s not much considering $100,000 works out to $200 per farmer.

We know that we couldn’t do the work we do without the support of people like you, and we’re grateful. And I hate to ever have to tell you that your money wasn’t well spent. But even though this project wasn’t a success, we learned some valuable lessons. We learned to do more thorough research into local market conditions, and to have more detailed discussions with farmers about what sort of return they expect when they put time and energy into growing a new crop. We’re now reviewing our plans for new initiatives supporting smallholder farmers in East Africa, to ensure we’ve learned the lessons of this experience and achieve better outcomes next time.

This kind of failure doesn’t happen to us often, I’m proud to say. More than two-thirds of our pilot projects achieve more than half of their goals. But failure does happen. And we believe it’s better to be open about it.

I’m so, so grateful for your support. In my next newsletter, I’ll tell you about one of our pilot projects that’s proven a great success – training women in Zanzibar to farm seaweed.

Thanks for reading,

Janet van Susskind

CEO, Partners Against Poverty

Ravinder Casley Gera is a development research, communications and M&E consultant. You can check out his website or follow him on Twitter.

Featured image is Cain, by Henry Vidal. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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4 thoughts on “Dear Supporter: We’re sorry, the project you supported failed…

  1. Our society is driven by “results”—good grades, job performance, etc.—so it’s understandable that donors what to see the outcomes of the funds they contribute to an effort, and that organizations feel the pressure to paint a positive picture.

    The power of communicators making the link between results and the failures that lead to them is that it can inspire another kind of confidence in an organization – that they care about doing quality work. The demonstration of learning and adaptation in development programs can lend credibility to the staff and leadership. They may not have all the answers, but they can build their reputation by asking the right questions, being transparent, and continuing to learn. In doing so, telling the story of failure successfully can be a catalyst for innovation and sustained interest in an organization’s work.

    More here: http://issuu.com/howmatters/docs/the_development_element

    1. Dear ‘How’ – I’d very much like to read The Development Element, but I’m having trouble with Issuu. Is it available to download anywhere?

  2. Dear Ravinder,

    I am not a fan of this discussion about failure but here goes nothing! I will keep it short because I think that there was no need for anyone to send that letter — save a stamp!

    Outside of doing what you do for work …do you have a bank account, do you consult a doctor or sometime purchase medicine? do you pay taxes, do you invest some money? Do you plan for your retirement? If you answered NO to all of the above, please give me an address…this is where I want to live. On the serious side…I imagine you answered YES to at least one. If anyone of the people/organizations/governments involved would send you a letter one year later to tell you …Listen…

    Dear Ravinder

    ……We recognize that we should have been honest from the onset and told you that when you try a lot of new things, inevitably some will work better than others. And a small number of projects won’t work at all. We thank you for using our medicine, paying this extra taxes, coming for a heart surgery BUT yes unfortunately it wasn’t the right drug for you, the heart surgery will not last or we wasted your tax dollars. Don’t worry the great majority of our efforts are successful…but not for you. Thank you for supporting us.

    Option #1 — Shouldn’t that information be made available from the onset?! From medicines to tax dollar shouldn’t the investor know before making the financial commitment? Shouldn’t you have the information on your website…something like a disclaimer that you get before making the donation? Should it be the investor’s right to make the decision before committing?

    Option #2 — Maybe you volunteer where you work so this is irrelevant to you! If you are paid to do what you do…to be intrusted wit public funds to make good decisions…do you also give money to the organization you work for?

    I also agree that nothing is perfect and that sometime..well…”S_ _ _ Happens” but if you want to experiment with public funds…(I believe) it should be made clear from the onset to “donors” — Maybe they don’t care and this is good. Maybe this whole failure discourse us useless as donors might not be preoccupied by the outcome and impact of their money.

    Governments do this every day….experiment …waste money and that doesn’t make me very happy but we keep on electing the same people all the time.

    Once again…save a stamp! Make it explicit, clear, and transparent …that this is how the world works…sometime it works ..sometime it doesn’t

    1. Luc, thanks for the comment! To be clear, I didn’t see this as an ’emergency communication’ from the NGO, but something that would go in a regular supporters’ newsletter.

      And yes, in the long run, a much higher level of transparency is the answer. But we’re starting from a pretty low base here…

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