Clare Laxton: Charities must be brave and own up to failure

Our beneficiaries will thank us if we admit where we went wrong and what we learnt

Clare Laxton
Clare Laxton

It’s that time of year again. No, not Hallowe'en or Christmas, but the time when social media and email inboxes are awash with impact reports from charities.

I love seeing charities' impact reports because you can really see the value organisations add and the difference they make to people’s lives. The best ones tell a story and have their beneficiaries at their centre (as well as some jazzy infographics), and reading through them can make your heart full of the joys of the sector.

At Clic Sargent we published our Impact Report recently. It included a page that was headed "Hands up, we’re not perfect", which listed the areas where we haven’t made the progress we wanted to and things we haven’t done as well as we wanted.

It’s basically a public "to-do" list for the charity for the next year or so. As one of our organisational values is to be brave, we thought that this this fitted nicely into being brave and admitting your mistakes.

We had loads of reaction to that page in particular on social media, much of which has been really positive (started by a tweet from Anthony Nolan, picked up by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations). Families, funders and friends have said it was refreshing to see an organisation so publically saying what didn’t go well and what we were going to do about it. It made me feel proud to work for Clic Sargent and feel that the bravery had paid off.

But this is not how we usually do things. I remember in previous organisations being told to write about how we did the stuff we said we were going to do in our impact report. It’s just not very often that you hear a leader in the charity sector or an organisation proactively saying "we didn’t do this well" or "we got this wrong", rather than doing so in reaction to something.

Maybe we don’t do it very often because when you do see people apologising or admitting their mistakes openly the reaction they can get is so visceral it makes you want to never admit to anything. I’m thinking of the infamous Nick Clegg video, when he apologised for the Liberal Democrats’ position on student tuition fees. It didn’t go down well.

Or maybe it has a funding angle. We could be scared to admit when something hasn’t gone as well as it could have or when we got something wrong, because we think it might put people off.

To be fair, a lot of funders such as trusts and foundations do have a "what have you learnt" section on their evaluation forms, so I think they are just as keen as we are to understand what could have gone better. And as the reaction from supporters on social media has shown, it can be really powerful to see an organisation learn in public about where it could do better.

It could be that we’re just a bit scared of ’fessing up to making a mistake – something that is totally understandable. But how will we learn and make our work even better if we don’t recognise what we did wrong and own up to it? Maybe we should all be a bit braver and open up about what hasn’t gone well for us. I genuinely think that our beneficiaries will thank us for it in the end.

Clare Laxton (@ladylaxton) is associate director for policy and influencing at Clic Sargent, chair of the Kids Network and a trustee of the National Children's Bureau

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