6 strategies for nonprofits to face failure head on

We often talk about the value of failure but what does it mean to create an organizational culture that embraces it? Rachel Jansen, Writer, and Ashley Good, CEO and Founder of Fail Forward, a project of Engineers Without Borders Canada, talk about how to move past the fear of failing.

Most of us have thought of changes we’d like to see to make the world a better place. But the first hurdle many of us face is the fear of failure.The Goat is to be Halal - Field-level Lessons on Scaling Community Led Total Sanitation

We’d like to suggest that getting over that fear starts with accepting that, no matter how smart, well-intentioned, and hard working we are, failure is going to happen because almost everything we do has elements of both success and failure.

Our organizations tend to be set up in a manner that discourages open communication about tough issues; open admission of failure comes with risk and poses a threat to our self-esteem and worth in the eyes of others.

How can we change this? How do we accept failure and allow ourselves to step outside of the box and try new things?

Embrace and share your failures

Engineers Without Borders Canada has been publishing an annual Failure Report since 2008. From the very beginning, they’ve strived to encourage a culture of learning through open communication and transparency. Employees and volunteers are expected to share their failures all year round.

With such a viewpoint in mind, there are many ways to encourage communication about failures, support collaborative learning, and break down much of the fear associated with taking action. Here are a few:

  • Start with managers. Management should role model the behaviour of speaking openly about their failures. Top-level buy-in is essential as it develops trust, and communicates that we all fail.
  • Gain permission from those involved in a failure before implicating them with your story. This prevents hard feelings and encourages communication between all parties involved in a failure where the various perspectives can lead to deeper insights.
  • Face failures head on. Try not to euphemize or avoid the big issues by tackling less important ones.
  • Recognize and emphasize that just because a person failed does not mean they are a failure. It’s important to separate ego from activity if we are to feel safe sharing our stories.
  • Never blame. The failures that teach us the most tend to be the result of multiple factors and are rarely caused by a single person or error.
  • Build the conversations about failures and learning into formal structures such as team meetings or project reviews to make sure everyone is encouraged to share. The idea is to turn the idea of failure on its head by implicitly saying “If you do not have a failure to share, you’re either not being honest or you’re not being innovative.”

These initial steps are only the first building blocks in creating an environment where it is okay to discuss failures, and more importantly, to learn from and adapt to them.

What barriers do you, your team, or organization face when talking about failure?  Have you used any of the strategies above to overcome them?


Learn more about building resilience to failure at Fail Forward or by emailing ashley@failforward.org



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Comments (3)

  1. Freedom to fail | Lisa Hacker writes:
    March 21, 2013 at 9:49 am

    […] has a great blog post this week about facing failure in order to move your organization forward. Nowhere is this advice more needed than in marketing, […]

  2. James Kumakech writes:
    March 25, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    Here in Uganda; people considers failures as shame and no body would think, if he or she accepts failures; he is considered to have been lured or dammed in making wrong decision. But I feel, accepting the truth is the foundation of honesty and that can moves us out in the right direction towards having effective, trust worthy institutions along

  3. […] was reading an interesting article today on Idealist (via Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, hat tip to Ellen!) about embracing failure. I learned […]

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