Room for Error

For many of us working in the non-profit sector, internationally and domestically, the power of learning is not just a slogan. It’s the value that undergirds the programs that we help deliver, programs designed to support people in discovering their own talents and skills to better their well-being, their environment, and their society. It’s a value that supports our own growth as professionals.

Internally, many organizations take learning seriously as well. Few dispute that learning from our failures even more than our successes helps us determine how we can be more effective. But often those valuable lessons stay sealed within the organization, rather than being shared with donors where they could make a much greater impact. No one wants to jeopardize their funding by giving donors the impression that their projects are not achieving the anticipated results.

We struggled with this on various occasions with Amazon Partnerships Foundation. Our local foundation in Ecuador developed a methodology  through which communities propose projects to us rather than us “bringing” projects to communities. In the project solicitation phase, we facilitate workshops for interested communities in how to craft a simple proposal for presentation to our board. For winning projects, we provide a small grant and a year of intensive project management training so community members learn to implement their ideas and take ownership of their efforts.

In one particular community that proposed installing household rainwater catchment systems, we saw warning signs from the beginning. During the solicitation phase, some families didn’t show up to the planning meeting to which they were invited, and then accused the rest of excluding them from the project. Later, the project was beset by low attendance at meetings that the community leaders scheduled to distribute materials, requests that we purchase the community t-shirts to “promote APF”, and lack of simple maintenance.

Having learned from previous failures, we’d developed tools to alleviate these problems, but they didn’t work this time. As we suspected when our board approved their proposal, the community wasn’t sufficiently organized or committed to the project.

So why did we accept their proposal? Under normal circumstances, we would have explained why we couldn’t accept it and invited the community to apply in the future. But we had received money from a funder who was primarily interested in us reporting that 57 rainwater catchment systems be installed within a twelve-month period. The proposals we received during that solicitation phase weren’t as strong as in previous or subsequent years, but unfortunately we didn’t have the luxury of time to extend our search for other communities.

While we did eventually hit the goal of 57 water systems installed, with this community we failed to achieve our real goal–that they learn enough about project design and implementation so they could prioritize and carry out other projects in the future.

Everyone missed an opportunity because of a false assumption that results only count if they meet or exceed our expectations. But what if we could change that paradigm? Imagine if we could have open conversations with donors–from college students that give $25 online through a campus challenge to the Gates Foundation–about failure and lessons learned. What could we do?

For starters we could make investments go further. Beyond providing immediate program support, donations would actually help organizations improve their approach and experiment with new ideas, which would create greater long-term and cumulative impact. Based on my experience, I’m convinced that the critical mass that donors look for, and a lot of organizations dream of achieving, is only going to happen with a strengthened, coordinated grassroots sector.

We could also create more honest relationships, which will foster more meaningful partnerships. The better the partnership, the more real information all parties have about what works and what doesn’t, and the greater possibility to improve results.

Most importantly, we could help donors learn to think outside their own box. They would discover and understand the nuanced challenges and opportunities that no Excel spreadsheet is ever going to reveal about human behavior and attitude changes.

These are golden opportunities that we have to embrace together, as NGOs, funders, government institutions, communities, and beneficiaries. Some intrepid souls, like those at Admitting Failure are already blazing the trail. As frightening as change can be, once we decide that we should make room to fail, we will create much more room to learn.


2 thoughts on “Room for Error

  1. I retired from community college teaching last May. Going through my files, I noticed the many different assignments and lesson plans that I’d created and learned from over the years. Why I was particularly successful in my last 5 years of teaching is because I’d learned from so many mistakes I’d made in the previous 13 years! Measuring success, with numbers like “57,” seems in many ways wrong-headed. Can you suggest some new ways to determine a project’s “success”?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Wendy. In this case, more useful indicators would have been workshop attendance, families’ maintenance of rainwater systems, and the community’s capacity to measure their own results, because all of these things point to a community’s sense of ownership over the project and their ability to do another project later. Some of these can be captured through quantitative data, but changes in people’s attitude and self-confidence are hard to measure numerically. They are even difficult to measure using baseline attitudinal surveys because people can’t report on their own awareness except in retrospect–you don’t know what you don’t know until you know otherwise.

    Of course, other types of projects need other types of indicators, but I think it’s important for both grant makers and grant recipients to work together from the proposal-crafting stage to figure out what each is really trying to learn about the work, and then devise indicators accordingly.

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