I see patterns. Fear not, this isn’t the introduction to a new M. Night Shyamalan movie but I do enjoy opportunities where I can connect the dots. Maybe it is the linear, logical, left –brain, former programmer in me but I relish when I find patterns that emerge across different disciplines, groups, organizations, etc. Five years ago I was part of a public policy group that mixed professionals from different worlds – for-profit, nonprofit, government, education, etc. The goal of the program was to advance public policy awareness and build public policy leadership. What I quickly recognized was that many of the same issues that were challenging me in the “for-profit innovation arena” were also plaguing these other groups. The challenges of funding, personal & organizational risk, managing expectations, and the fear or failure were consistent. There were some nuances but there was far more similarity that difference.
The truth is that nonprofits experience failure just like every for-profit business: new initiatives fall short of expectations, the synergy of partnerships fails to materialize, or expansion plans overburden an organization’s cash flow. But because nonprofits are so reliant on donations and grants to fund their operations even mentioning the word failure can be lethal. The perception, and perhaps reality, is that no donor wants to think that their contribution is being wasted and no foundation wants to report back to their board on “failed” investments. The result is that “safer is better” and failures are frequently covered up.
A friend and former colleague who knows of my interest and passion for better understanding failure had forwarded a link to me a few months back for www.admittingfailure.com. The site is hosted by Ashley Good from the group Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWBC). Ashley launched the site in January 2011 as part of a growing movement in bringing transparency to failures in the international development sphere. The people working in the non-profit sector are not much different to those working in for-profit businesses when it comes to failure. A statement from the site notes that “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.”
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