Being among the new kids on the block, we have been immersing ourselves in the nonprofit sector and we have been making some observations. For instance, we are noticing that the nonprofit sector does a bit of a bad job at openly talking about its failures. There is a certain sense of aversion to non-successes.
Take a moment to google any 10 random organisations and go through their websites. Did any of them have a section on “our failures?” Cross over to their social media pages, are they talking about their flops? I don’t think so. What you shall find in large fonts and bright colours (as should be) are “our successes”, where testimonials and statistics have been displayed in a demonstration of making impact. The sector romanticises success.
The Reality On The Ground.
We were just recently incorporated as a trust operating in Kenya — a struggle in its own accord. Then, there was the processes of defining our mission and vision. We were clear on what we wanted — to use commercial marketing techniques to influence positive change in individuals and communities (especially in millennials and Gen Z). But oftentimes, doubt and lack of clarity caused us to revise and tweak the mission and vision here and there until sometimes we would completely go off track. We are now clear, but that was a headache.
For young people (I am a Gen Z and my team is comprised of late millennials and other Gen Zers) who were new to the sector, we have had to quickly learn the language, culture and knowledge. We have had moments when we are not sure what we are doing, where to begin, whether an idea will work, who we should be reaching out to and even how we should continue to keep our motivations high as we bootstrap to build our street credibility. And yet, these are not unique struggles. Many other organisations went through or are going through similar frustrations in silence.
So, Why Don’t Nonprofits Talk About Their Failures?
Truthfully, we do not have all the reasons. But after speaking to some friends and going through some literature, we considered the following three reasons:
a). Failures are shameful, and no one wants to be shamed. For any normal human being, it is easier to talk about successes than it is to talk about failures. There is a way it makes us feel good. It affects how we are perceived and how this perception makes us feel. Successes give organisations ‘bragging rights’ and when donors see that their investments are working, they are likely to continue giving.
b). Secondly, the sunk cost fallacy. When we have already made huge investments in an activity, we feel a difficulty to let it go even when it stops being worth our while. When organisations spend a lot of time, money and resources on a program, they tend to stick with it even when its costs outweigh its benefits. To a great extent, sunk cost fallacy occurs due to our aversion to losses, and we certainly do not like how we shall be judged for ‘wasting so much resources’ only to barely achieve anything.
c). Lastly, it has been talked about before in many forums that there is a tendency by many nonprofits to dance to the tune of donors in efforts to keep money flowing. And donors have facilitated the entrenchment of this culture. As such, it may be perceived that reporting non-successes dent one’s CV, and may cause donors to reconsider their support.
Nonprofits Are Experimenters, And Experimenters Make Mistakes.
We reckon that nonprofits deal with extremely difficult issues that do not necessarily have direct answers. Climate change, women empowerment, inspiring civic participation, solving the hunger problem, using social marketing to sell good ideas — all these are far more complicated than they sound. We take the view that nonprofits are experimenters. There is no clear-cut way to reduce inequality, so various nonprofits try out various approaches and ideas to achieve equity. Some work, others show potential to work and others don’t. As we are, practices that work are scaled up, improved upon and talked about in blogs, podcasts, videos and conferences. But what about the ones that fail? Where do those go?
Embracing Failure, OPENLY.
I put a comma in front of ‘openly’ and wrote it in caps because that’s the point. Nonprofit reports now have sections for “lessons learnt” — where they share their observations and what could be done differently in future. This is a good step, but it appears to me as attempts to marinate reality. Failures don’t just occur in the implementation of projects, they also occur internally, for example when an organisation struggles with temporary stagnation.
David Damberger, the Managing Director of M-KOPA Mobility and M-KOPA Labs, talked about the value of publicly admitting failures, scrutinising them and learning from them. We share in his view — that there is need for donors and organisations to be real. A culture of failing and talking about failures as loudly as successes should be seen as one of the ways to make development interventions more sustainable. Specifically, we think this will have some of the following impact:
- It will strengthen the relationship between donors and their grantees in the sense that the need for organisations to hide their weaknesses shall reduce. Donors will be able to see the true detail of what their grantees deal with before succeeding.
- It creates an opportunity for deep learning and collaboration between all stakeholders. One organisations weakness can be another’s strength, and so by combining efforts the interventions formulated may be more effective.
- Less resources will be wasted in duplication of projects and in continuation of strategies that are not working. Additionally, it will accelerate learning, which has an impact on how time and resources are spent.
- It may inspire other nonprofits to have courage to take on issues, because the pressure to be perfect will be reduced. Young organisations like us, for instance, will be inspired to be resilient because we will have seen that failure is normal.
- Lastly, by sharing and scrutinising non-successes, it is likely to spark creative solutions as people try to look at the issue from diverse perspectives.
At Thellesi Trust, one of our values is being real. We commit openly sharing the things we are doing, those we are not and those that we are thinking about, as a means to promote this culture.