Nonprofits Admitting Failure: A Refreshing Change of Pace!

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December 1, 2011; Puget Sound Business JournalWe all know that most nonprofits are loath to admit failure. This plays havoc on our ability to learn from what does not work as well as what does. So we are happy to see the launch of the Canadian “Admitting Failure” website.

The community it is seeking to attract appears to be development professionals on the international scene. From the website home page:

The development community is failing . . . to learn from failure. Instead of recognizing these experiences as learning opportunities, we hide them away out of fear and embarrassment. . . . No more. This site is an open space for development professionals who recognize that the only ‘bad’ failure is one that’s repeated. Those who are willing to share their missteps to ensure they don’t happen again. It is a community and a resource, all designed to establish new levels of transparency, collaboration, and innovation within the development sector.

Under the tab “Why Admit Failure?” one finds out a little more about the site’s raison d’etre:

A mistake is made somewhere in rural Tanzania. It is not publicized—a donor might be upset. Two years later, the same mistake is repeated in Ghana. 6 months later in Mali. And so the story continues as it has for over 60 years….

A district water officer in rural Malawi has a radical new idea to get communities to invest in repairs. A mid-level bureaucrat at UK’s Department for International Development comes up with a bold plan to change the reporting requirements for one of their grantees. A project officer at an international NGO writes a memo proposing a pilot project that would target only market-ready farmers. But none of them share or execute on their ideas because the failure associated with innovation is not rewarded in development. . . . By hiding our failures, we are condemning ourselves to repeat them and we are stifling innovation. In doing so, we are condemning ourselves to continue under-performance in the development sector.

Check out the section that allows you to browse the failures already submitted!—Ruth McCambridge


  • Don Tebbe

    Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson wrote a wonderful book on this topic, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.” One of the things they profile is a session conducted some years ago at the annual conference of the National Council of Nonprofit Associations, on failures. As a participant in that session, it was one of the best, most impactful learning sessions I’ve ever participated in. At first folks were timid about sharing failures, but after they got revved up, it was hard to get the group to stop. I recall learning more from that one session then probably the next three conferences combined.

  • Marc Baizman

    It’s worth checking out the TED talk of the David Danberger, who started “Admitting Failure”:
    Both moving and informative.

    Also, there is an article about encouraging failure at your nonprofit by Dahna Goldstein and me in NTEN’s quarterly “Change” magazine: