Failure – The Other F Word

Working in technology, I fail all the time.  An implementation that didn’t go as expected. A report doesn’t give me the results I wanted.  Our staff sees those failures and we learn, adapt, and move on – knowing that in the end we’ll get where we want to be.

Each time, I am reminded of the closing plenary I attended at this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference hosted by NTEN.  The plenary, Placing Little Bets: Failing Informatively for the Nonprofit Technology Sector, was about the other “F” word – FAILURE.  Beth Kanter moderated a panel discussion with Megan Kashner, Erin Shy, Allie Burns, and Brian Reich (pictured left to right).  Each panelist shared a failure story.  You might be thinking that it seems like a negative way to end a conference.  At first, I thought the same.

Obviously, failure is not a popular topic or one people (especially nonprofits) like to talk about.  Failure means you didn’t do what you set out to do.  But, it’s a normal part of the learning process and ultimately a step toward future growth and innovation.  In life, we anticipate some failures.  We know babies will stumble when they take their first steps.  A puppy will have to learn where it’s acceptable to go to the bathroom.  Teenagers will push limits and make mistakes.  We accept those failures knowing it is part of the learning process.  If that’s true, why do we tend to hide the failures related to our work?

How does your organization handle failure?  Do you talk about it?  What if a program is not successful?  Or, you don’t serve as many people as you had planned?  Who sees that failure? Are those failures admitted publicly so others can learn from them?  Do you fear funders will see failure as a sign of weakness?

Allie Burns of The Case Foundation said they are willing to take “little bets” with the idea that their grantees will learn from the failure and ultimately be able to innovate based on what they learned.  They created a forum for nonprofits to share their failure stories so we can learn from each other. You can share yours here:

Go.  Fail.  Learn.  Innovate.  Change the world.

Paula Jones is director of technology at the N.C. Center for Nonprofits. 


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