The Value of Sharing Your Failures

A new study reports that nonprofit leaders try to keep a tight lid on programs that don't work. But being open about missteps is an opportunity to think more strategically next time.

When I interview an association about a new program it’s launching, I usually ask the same question: What does success look like? The question serves two purposes. Overtly, I’m interested in what KPIs/metrics/what-have-you the association is concerned with as it gets its new idea off the ground. And on another level, I’m trying to learn something about the association’s general strategic approach to projects—often, I’ll hear about the process behind defining “success,” what stakeholders were involved in that, and how it divvies up ownership of a project.

Luckily, most associations have good answers when I ask. So, it’s a useful question—clever me, I’ve thought. But it may be that I’ve missed something important here, because there’s another question that’s just as valuable that fewer associations ask: What does failure look like?

Be skeptical of the idea that sharing failures can’t happen because it’s some kind of marcom Everest.

I come to this after reading a new report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy, “Understanding and Sharing What Works,” [PDF] which suggests that nonprofits have a habit of retreating into silence and deflection when it comes to the programs that don’t work out. A plurality of foundations surveyed (42 percent) say they share none or “very little” information publicly about what isn’t working in their programming. A third of CEOs surveyed say their organization “faces pressure from its board of directors to withhold information about failures,” and 40 percent of leaders say they have little or no knowledge about the failures of other organizations’ efforts.

The report cites a number of reasons for this state of affairs. Some claim it’s difficult to decide exactly what information is worth sharing. Some own up to the common fear of acknowledging failure. (“Everybody wants to show the things they did really well,” one CEO said. “It’s not as easy to say, ‘Here’s something we really missed completely or screwed up.’”) And some claim they simply don’t have the capacity to do that kind of sharing. “Why would I spend [a lot of money] to send out a big report across the county, when I could use that money to reinvest in the program and improve upon it based on what I learned?” one CEO said.

At a time when opportunities for free communication to stakeholders is in abundance—and when a leading complaint about nonprofitdom is along the lines of you send me too many gosh-darn emails—I’m a touch skeptical of the idea that sharing failures can’t happen because it’s some kind of marcom Everest. Nobody wants to share the mistakes they make, but stakeholders deserve transparency. And who, ultimately, are you serving?

Foundations, it should be said, are a different species from associations in many ways. They rely more on funding from outside individuals and groups in the public and private sector, and compete hard for dollars from people who want to see a positive impact from their giving. Talking about failure may have a tangible effect on the bottom line in cases where people can take their dollars elsewhere; associations serving an industry niche may be less vulnerable.

But the sense of fear cuts across all organizations, and I think many associations would echo this anonymous CEO in the CEP report: “Foundations don’t want to admit that because they see it as failure rather than as a learning opportunity. And despite a lot of rhetoric to the contrary, I think a lot of people get caught up in this stuff as a measure of accountability, as opposed to it being tied to a learning strategy.”

“Learning strategy” is an excellent term that ought to get more traction—it implies that the real problem in many organizations is that they can’t look at failure through a strategic lens. What incorrect assumptions were made about members or customers? What didn’t work right in terms of marketing, or timing, or general trends in the association’s industry? Is the problem inherent to the product’s concept, or can it be improved with some tweaks? Lacking conversations about those questions, people will default to blame.

Or if not blame, then that other bad habit common in associations: keeping a program around well past its sell-by date. Everybody wants the best from their shiny new idea, but associations might consider spending some time thinking about the flip-side of the equation before launch. When will you know that an idea isn’t taking off? And how will you address it in a way that doesn’t point fingers but helps you get it right next time?

(berkay/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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