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Why NGOs need to admit failure

Why NGOs need to admit failure

In 2008 a brave non-profit organisation, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada, decided it was time to start sharing their failures so that the non-profit sector could learn from them. They began publishing an annual Failure Report, and in 2011 we were excited to hear about how this had transpired in an exciting TED Talk by David Damberger, an engineer who worked for EWB.

David’s presentation begins with the image of a Malawian man named Anok. Anok is pictured next to a donated water tap, signifying the ‘success’ of a typical water development project. What the average person doesn’t know is that the tap not only stopped working soon after the photograph was taken- it was also a model that some non-profits had identified as not being sustainable ten years earlier.

Clearly this failure could have been avoided by sharing lessons with one another.

EWB Canada also began an online portal, Admitting Failure, where non-profits can share their experiences and learn from one another. These failures are presented in short reports, which provide frank conversations about unexpected obstacles experienced in project failure. They are even holding a Fail Forward conference in July to help organisations “move from theory to the practice of transforming failures into learning and innovation”.

However, this practice of sharing failures hasn’t taken hold throughout the entire non-profit sector, at least partly due to our funding structure. Those of us working with communities generally operate on a shoestring budget, often kept afloat by an army of volunteers. Limited money is available, and the mad scramble for a piece of the grant pie does not encourage us to share our failures publicly. In order to be successful when applying for grants we are encouraged to be innovative- but not to take risks that could lead to failures. This is a tricky line to walk.

How the non-profit sector is expected to operate:    How the non-profit sector     actually operates:
Generate amazing, innovative, fail-safe idea    Generate amazing, innovative idea      which may not work, but if it does will  be a game-changer

Be funded (sometimes)

Implement the idea

Generate amazing results    Generate results with some  shortcomings
Tell everyone how well it worked so that we can replicate it everywhere    Tell everyone how well it worked so  that we can replicate it  everywhere**unless it was a complete  failure, then pretend it never happened  at all

When non-profits submit final project reports to donors, it is often compulsory for us to detail ‘lessons learned’. So many non-profits examine their own failures during internal audits, but keep quiet about them in the wider world- considered a necessary evil in order to be awarded funding to continue with other work we know, or at least hope, will be successful.

So the culture ensures that even when non-profits are willing to share our failures with donor agencies, this is not what’s shown to the public or shared within the sector. Glossy photographs (for example, David’s picture of Anok) and a swanky YouTube video are normally what the rest of the world gets to see.

But really, what is a failure?

As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Perhaps that is a large part of the problem: we traditionally see projects that don’t achieve the desired outcome as failures, when often they can be termed ‘intelligent failures’.

Intelligent failures are those that we choose to share and learn from. They are a catalyst for us to do things better. This is important because non-profits aren’t talking about a light bulb that doesn’t work- we are talking about people’s lives. If projects designed to assist communities go wrong, unanticipated consequences can be potentially deadly- take for example where humanitarian food aid in Afghanistan was coloured the same as US cluster bombs.

Good one, guys. (Matador Network)
Oops. (Matador Network)

Luckily this resemblance was noted before disaster struck, and Afghani civilians were informed that they should only touch the rectangular yellow packages (don’t forget that both the food and bombs were inscribed with English, not the local language). Admitting this mistake saved lives.

But most failures aren’t this sexy. The public aren’t interested in hearing about non-profit projects that ‘didn’t work’. The people whose money was ‘wasted’ on the projects are even less thrilled, which may cause a backlash against the use of government and private funding on ‘unsuccessful’ projects. This raises “fears that programmes could be axed prematurely if initial results are disappointing”.

To make a lasting impact in community development, funding structures need to drive non-profit organisations to prepare for marathons rather than sprints. Earlier this year, Roger Riddell of Oxford Policy Management used his keynote address to the Australasian Aid and International Development Policy Workshop to point out how short-sighted it is to focus aid money on short-term obstacles to resolve much deeper-rooted development problems, saying:

“It has meant channelling less aid to support more complex initiatives that take longer to achieve their intended results, and whose outcomes are uncertain and more difficult to predict; and it has resulted in less attention being paid to addressing the array of systemic problems of aid-giving…”

We need to revisit the apparent end goal of community development projects. As projects become more constrained by tight timelines and funding rounds, growing pressures mount on non-profits to address long-term development issues through vehicles of short-term change.

The irony of perpetuating short-term wins in favour of losing the game is similar to an elite athlete aiming to compete in marathons by winning short distance heats.

Some failures during the marathon are necessary for us to further innovate if we are to finish the race, but we can help each other out by sharing them and innovating together.

There is no silver bullet to ‘fixing’ the world. If there were, we would have halted population growth, stopped world hunger and achieved world peace years ago. We are clearly still learning and continuously improving. A more sector-driven approach to failure will create a safer dialogue for individuals to highlight specific project difficulties, failures and solutions, and for us to all learn from them, and improve our practices, together.

As novelist Samuel Beckett said: “Fail, fail again. Fail better.”

And tell others about the failures, too.
And tell others about the failures, too.

Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow and Toltu Tufa a Research Associate at Monash University. They have extensive experience working in leadership roles in the not-for-profit sector, both within Australia and abroad. Tweet them at @dani_barrington and @toltutufa.

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10 thoughts on “Why NGOs need to admit failure

  1. […] It can be incredibly frustrating and unfortunate that community programs such as this one can be planned, funded and implemented, yet are not sustainable to endure and provide such a valuable service. These kinds of scenarios occur all the time in the community/international development sphere. Whether it is a community group or multilateral international aid organisation, sustainability and how/why projects finish is a massive industry issue. […]

  2. […] out by NGO’s is to examine others failures. In 2008, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada began publishing an annual ‘Failure Report’ in order to start breaking down some of the walls of secrecy. This secrecy stems from […]

  3. […] NGOs are paralysed by fear of admitting failure to their donors and other NGOs. Dani Barrington and Toltu Tufa explain why that needs to change.  […]

  4. […] non vi chiediamo di fare lo stesso, anche se vi diamo come spunto un’interessante lettera di scusa di una ONP per un progetto non riuscito. Però pensateci. Riflettete per un secondo, voi che siete ormai ‘voci autorevoli’, a […]

  5. […] Why NGOs need to admit failure | WhyDev. In 2008 a brave non-profit organisation, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada, decided it was time to start sharing their failures so that the non-profit sector could learn from them. […]

  6. MJ

    As you know I agree strongly with your basic premise, and “Fail better” is a nice turn of phrase, but I don’t see it stopping some journalist with an agenda twisting round the facts, so it doesn’t really address the fundamental problem of the strongest incentives being aligned against public admission of failure by NGOs and other development agencies. (Small NGOs can get away with and indeed promote it as the good thing that it is, but anyone receiving significant dollops of government money, and thus are on aid sceptics’ radar, are likely to be very cautious.)

  7. […] It’s time for NGOs and other nonprofits to admit it when they fail in different […]

  8. […] NGOs are paralysed by fear of admitting failure to their donors and other NGOs. Dani Barrington and Toltu Tufa explain why that needs to change.  […]

  9. […] In 2008 a brave non-profit organisation, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada, decided it was time to start sharing their failures so that the non-profit sector could learn from them.  […]

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