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Celebrating Failure

We may not celebrate our successes particularly well in the voluntary and community sectors, but maybe that’s because we’ve stopped believing them? Perhaps if we spent more time actively admitting what’s gone wrong, as the ground-breaking new website, encourages, we would feel more inclined to celebrate when things really do go well?


There have been many recurring themes in my time in the voluntary and community sectors. One of these has been the repeated mantra of ‘we are terrible as celebrating our successes!’

On some level, I’ve always agreed with this – for those of us slugging away in often thankless jobs ‘doing good’ in the world, a party, a pat on the back, or some other affirmation of our value is important and shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

However, I’d also like to unpick this one a bit; maybe we fail to celebrate our successes because we declare that everything we do in this sector is ‘successful’? And maybe, when we do so, we stop believing it? And when we stop believing it, maybe we don’t want to make a big deal of each and every supposed success, because doing so would highlight the reality that we’ve been distorting our own narrative, supposedly for funders and donors for so long?

‘Doomed to succeed’

My colleague Titus Alexander once described our sector as ‘doomed to succeed’ – that as soon as our organisations are given money to do something, we are expected to not only achieve, but pass with flying colours, one hundred percent of the time.

And as our income usually hinges on doing so, invariably, we find ways of showing that we do; sometimes this means ‘double-counting’, sometimes cherry-picking ‘easy-win’ beneficiaries, sometimes highlighting one or two of those we’ve supported as being more representative than they really are… whatever it is, we’ve got our ways of making sure whatever we do ‘succeeds’ – at least on paper.

The dangers here are ones I’ve discussed in several blogs before, but primary among them is the impact this has on our ability to learn from our mistakes – namely because we often pretend they aren’t there, or we gloss over them with a selectively told story of what we did working – and working entirely.

The problem is, if we were to read a random selection of most of our organisations’ annual reports, evaluations or publicity documents, we would get the impression that nothing we’ve ever done had not gone perfectly to plan.

Which is basically impossible. But some combination of real and perceived funder/donor pressure tends to keep us from acknowledging this impossibility, allowing us to continue living a whole series of stretched, distorted or otherwise manipulated truths in our working lives.

The research on the importance of mistakes, trial-and-error and learning from things that don’t work is extensive and the conclusions are fairly clear: if you’re afraid of either making or acknowledging your mistakes, you will never do anything new or groundbreaking.

Admitting Failure?

With all of this in mind, my jaw dropped when I read Monday’s Guardian story on Canadian NGO, Engineers Without Borders’ decision to publish a ‘Failure Report’, and launch a website for the international development/aid sector more broadly called, It reads:

“By hiding our failures, we are condemning ourselves to repeat them and we are stifling innovation. In doing so, we are condemning ourselves to continue under-performance in the development sector.

Conversely, by admitting our failures – publicly sharing them not as shameful acts, but as important lessons – we contribute to a culture in development where failure is recognized as essential to success.” –

The site also invites other development/aid orgs around the world to submit their own failures, the idea being that an easily searchable and sharable ‘failure bank’ will emerge, providing a user-generated resource for those looking to, say, implement a change management project in Burkina Faso.

Admitting failure everywhere else in life

At this point I add the critical disclaimer that I’m not just picking on non-profit organisations; the inclination to deny our mistakes and failures is much more widespread than that. We teach it to our kids in schools, our governments do it almost pathologically and the pressures in the private sector to push profit margins all create a similar distorting effect.

Some recent online conversations have got me involved in creating – a site based on the same principles as, but applying to our personal lives (work, relationships, families, etc).

We’re also thinking about a similar forum and blog for non-profit/voluntary causes more widely, allowing an honest discussion of things that haven’t worked, to help all of us get closer to those that might.

Do let us know if you’re interested in contributing, are doing something similar, or know of something along these lines that already exists…

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Posted in learning and measurement and Uncategorized.


3 Replies

  1. This is an interesting, if a little over-excited initiative. It is a public and open way of sharing good practice. The public bit is new for many, the sharing good practice bit shouldn’t be that new for most.

    It is something to be treated with caution however, certainly in the development organisations I worked for privately failure could be admitted we were often prepared to admit that not all projects work.

    That isn’t really surprising in many situations for many organisations. People are often trying to deal with deep-rooted, systemic issues with people who in one way or another are living close to one edge or another, so failures are inevitable.

    That doesn’t mean though that widespread public proclamations of failure are always a great idea. There is a line to be walked in this respect and admitting failure must be balanced with an explanation of the reasons for those failures, as well as placing them in the context of other, similar projects success.

    If we learn from mistakes through admitting failure that is a very welcome development. However, if all we do is provide people with reasons not to engage then the concept will have failed.

  2. Liam Barrington-Bush Jan 21st 2011

    Thanks John. Interesting perspectives for sure… I suppose I’d make the case that this is a step beyond sharing good practice as it doesn’t try to be prescriptive about the ways things should be done in particular contexts, but does highlight some of the learning about *why* certain things that may on paper, or in other contexts work, haven’t.

    I think the important thing this website poses is the re-framing of ‘failure’ from being such a negative thing. It’s this perception, in my experience, that leads people and organisations to hide that which has gone wrong. And I think it’s not just at an institutional level; if you need to report to your manager on your objectives for this period and they haven’t worked out as planned (targets not hit, etc), there is often pressure at that individual level to distort the reality of the situation. If, in less-open organisations, you have this dynamic replicating itself across all or most of the management dynamics, the picture created by all these individual distortions of reality will be infinitely more skewed towards ‘success’ than any of the individual parts were.

    What I liked so much about EWB’s approach, is they made that shift towards ‘failure as a positive’ totally explicit, making a strong case for those reading the report, on why they chose to do it the way they did and why not doing it that way is invariably deceiving the reader/funder/donor/etc.

    To err is human. My opinion is that if we can be explicit about that, it won’t be something that prevents people from engaging at all. It may even increase the trust some have (or don’t have) of NGOs, if they are explicitly demonstrating a desire to learn from mistakes, rather than pretend they don’t exist…

  3. Try this for another perspective:

More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.