It seemed like a smart idea when four nonprofits with a shared focus on climate change came together to build an online platform for grassroots organizing. They had financial resources, passion, technical expertise, and time to devote to the project. Yet despite those advantages, the Climate Network sputtered. Within a year, the project was jettisoned.
End of story? Not exactly. This false start lives on as one of several “good failures” being showcased and analyzed on a new website called Admitting Failure. Launched in January by Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada, Admitting Failure is intended “to catalyze a shift in the development sector to be more open to talking about and learning from failure,” explains Ashley Good of EWB. “Failure’s only bad when it’s repeated.”
It’s no coincidence that an engineering organization is behind the site. “Engineers work from a problem-solving approach,” Good says. “It’s iterative—figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and then trying it again.”
On top of that, EWB approaches development work with a healthy dose of humility. “Our attitude is, you need to be open to trying others’ ideas and not think you have it all figured out,” says Good. “Admitting when you’ve done something wrong is part of that.” Since 2008, EWB has been publishing failure reports about its own development projects in Africa “as a tool for us to learn about mistakes on the ground.” The new site is an attempt to broaden that conversation across the development sector.
When development projects don’t go as planned, “admitting failure is only the first step,” says Good. “That doesn’t change anything. But if you learn from what happened and integrate those lessons into your organization, then you’re driving a culture shift.”
Admitting Failure has generated plenty of buzz since the launch. So far, though, others have been slow to contribute their own stories (no whistleblowing or finger-pointing is allowed). Fear of negative response from donors might be a factor. “It may feel like a risk to say, we kind of messed up [with your funding],” says Good. “We’ve found that being open and transparent actually builds better relationships with our donors.”
Scott Gilmore, founder of Peace Dividend Trust, was one of the first from outside the engineering field to share his organization’s shortcomings on Admitting Failure. Peace Dividend Trust works to make peace and humanitarian operations more effective, efficient, and equitable. Failure in the aid sector, he says, “is the elephant in the room. The aid industry as a whole has not achieved a fraction of what we hoped it would, especially when you consider the resources. We can’t continue to be secretive about what’s not working.”
Gilmore says his organization tries to learn from missteps, “much like a Silicon Valley startup. We’re constantly trying to improve what we do, adapt, adjust. When a project fails, that’s not necessarily a bad thing—it allows us to cross something off the whiteboard.”
Airing those lessons on a public site feels riskier, Gilmore admits, especially for nonprofits that rely on funders. He was reassured when, right after posting a report critiquing his own management decisions, two donors signaled their approval of his public mea culpa.
A few weeks after Admitting Failure launched, Gilmore heard another prominent voice endorsing the wisdom of failure. Investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, speaking to the press in Bangalore, India, had this to say about his grown children’s philanthropic efforts: “If everything they do is successful, they’re a failure. It means they’re taking on things that are too easy. They should be taking on things that are tougher.”