Many NGOs have a "blame culture" that leaves them badly prepared to deal with a crisis, according to the fundraising consultant Gunes Yildirim.
Speaking at the International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands yesterday, Yildirim said too many organisations were failing to learn from past mistakes. Talking openly and honestly about mistakes would help organisations to improve their culture, she said.
"Many NGOs are suffering from a blame culture where people take an approach to leadership in which they decide to ask only one question: ‘who did it?’" she said. "This is not the same as accountability.
"We need to look at the context and root cause of the failure, and instead of just focusing on who, we should ask what has happened and how and why it happened."
Key signs of a blame culture, she said, included frequent attempts to cover up mistakes rather than fix them, indecisive staff who felt the need to check every decision with management and conversations that excluded part of the team.
Yildirim, who founded the Turkish School of Fundraising in Istanbul, said managers were often too quick to treat a failure as a "blameworthy" failure, rather than recognising that some failures could be the result of unforeseen circumstances or part of the process of innovation.
"At some point every crisis comes to an end," she said. "But then the learning part starts: it is the key element of the crisis, and we generally skip it. Only a few organisations and departments really focus on learning after a crisis. It’s unbelievable that some organisations are not documenting either their learning or their failures."
This, Yildirim said, made it difficult to move forward and risked repeating the same mistakes in the future.
She said it was also important to cultivate an atmosphere that encouraged testing.
"When you label something as testing and inform others that this is testing, it becomes easier for both the accountable person and the rest of the staff to understand if it does not go entirely to plan," she said.
"This creates a safe environment where we say that failures can happen in here and it becomes a calculated risk.
"It’s hard to talk about failures and mistakes, and we have a tendency to cover them up, but we need to talk about them. If you are willing to talk about your failures, it becomes easier for others to talk about theirs."