Our mission is to solve the unsolvable - so it's important that we learn from our failures

But failure's not just about mistakes - it's also about trying and learning from what works and what doesn't

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

Failure is in vogue, it seems – it's almost a virtue. The Institute of Fundraising recently held an event called Oops! (Don't Panic, Failure is the Key to Success), at which major clangers were exposed for people to scoff at. A joint publication from ActionAid and the think tank NPC, called Insights on Innovation, talked a lot about failure.

It's important to learn from mistakes. But failure isn't just about mistakes; it's about trying things and learning from what doesn't work as well as what does, in a controlled and planned way. It's not just about throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.

So why now the talk of failure? Innovation has been the sector's number one buzzword for years. But to move from saying it to doing it, you need a culture that accepts risk and tolerates failure, as the ActionAid/NPC case studies show. That culture is rare in a context of performance management and external demands for accountability, impact, cost-effectiveness and zero waste, and risk-averse caution is often imposed by the charity's board itself.

It's true – as a sector we don't talk about failures as much as we should, for obvious reasons. It's just not safe. Imagine the field day the Daily Mail would have, given that it's happy to go to town on a £5,000 project it disapproves of.

Greenpeace famously held a Dog's Bollocks Award for the year's biggest fundraising cock-up in order to stimulate learning from failure, but that was an internal event. Most good fundraising operations are a hive of controlled testing and learning, an approach to distilling best practice that is probably less rigorous in service operations. Charities are caught between a rock and a hard place: they have to show they are professional and that they make a difference so they can secure funding. They can't show doubt or failure for fear of being seen as wasting money.

Another recent NPC report suggested that charities were needlessly running scared, with a large majority of those surveyed apparently happy to hear about failed projects. A pinch of salt is required here – this was in a question about wanting charities to use evidence to make decisions. That's a no-brainer, but doesn't mean people get inspired to give by failure.

The marketing expert Seth Godin has a different take. "People don't look at the facts when they buy a chocolate bar, when they buy a car or – guess what – when they make a donation," he says. But he is adamant that not-for-profits are in the risk business and have permission to fail. "We don't know how to solve these problems," he says. "If we knew, we'd have solved them already. You'd be a for-profit company."

So one of the sector's problems is that it presents what it does as doable and easy, when it is generally the hardest stuff going. As the investor Warren Buffet says in his foreword to the ActionAid/NPC report: "In business, you look for the easy things."

So why ape business by competing on price, just trying to deliver more for less, when you've got a higher mission – to solve the unsolvable? Risk, innovation and, yes, failure, could be something of a competitive advantage to be embraced.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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