Admitting Failure: Trendy, but (at least for NGOs) not Prudent

This blog post is in response to the Second Aid Blog Forum: Admitting Failure, a topic forum proposed by anonymous blogger J at Tales From the Hood.

Admitting failure is apparently trendy these days.  As nonprofits and NGOs spend countless hours polishing their annual reports and filling them with rosy success stories to placate donors and stakeholders, a growing chorus of bloggers and development pundits are calling on aid organizations to be up-front and honest about their failures so that others can learn from them.  The idea took off when Engineers Without Borders Canada built a website where development groups could share failures and exchange lessons.  A “Fail Faire” was even held in DC last week to “celebrate” failure. 

While all of this openness and honesty is heartwarming, would I, if I were running an NGO, admit to (that is, publicize) a failed project or program?  To me, that answer is simple: Hell no.

Is there value to sharing failures that could be lessons for your own organization or others?  Absolutely.  But how much good does it do the average layperson to hear about a failed project?  And, once they get a hold of the story, what are the chances that it will come back to bite your organization in the ass?

Take, for example, the field day that the AP had with the results of an audit of grants at the Global Fund.  The Fund, which maintains a policy of “full transparency and zero tolerance of corruption,” published the results of an ongoing audit last year that discovered that several million dollars of grants (representing a very small portion of total funds disbursed) had been lost to fraud and corruption in four countries.  It then began to pursue legal action to recover the funds and prosecute the individuals responsible.  Sounds great, right?  Did the press or anyone else respond with gratitude or acknowledge the up-front and open nature of the Fund in publishing its findings?  If only.  It became a runaway news “scandal,” with the AP painting the “celebrity-backed” Fund as being “plagued by fraud.”  The result: Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and the European Commission froze their disbursements

While it is true that the Global Fund is a uniquely high-profile organization that deals in numbers with many zeros, I think the general tendency of people to react poorly to failure holds true across the board.  Particularly in the current atmosphere of fiscal austerity, the last thing people want to see is their tax dollars or donations being “wasted” on failed projects that were not originally designed to help them in the first place.  While most Americans support foreign aid, I imagine that a lot of them would change their tune if they thought that it did not work.  People have (reasonable, IMHO) objections to their tax dollars being used for “trial and error” projects.

There is, however, true value to learning from failed projects – this is part of the reason that researchers publish (albeit reluctantly) the results of unsuccessful experiments in professional journals and share them at conferences.  But that is precisely the point – the failures are shared with an audience that can appreciate them and the lessons they bring.  The aid community would benefit from creating supportive forums through which they can exchange lessons about failure, whether that be conferences like “Fail Faires” or practice-based journals in which such stories can be published.

Many organizations could stand to make their annual reports, particularly the finance portion, more transparent in order to give donors a better idea of their operations.  Saundra Schimmelpfennig has a great summary of resources that describe good standards and best practices.  But NGOs shy away from laying bare individual project failures, and for good reason.  Unless an individual has background knowledge on how aid and development works, it is difficult to put these stories into context.  It is a whole lot easier to simply decide to hold your donation (or call your Congressman) than it is to have faith in a charity’s ability to learn from its mistakes, especially when stories of ill-conceived projects abound.

17 thoughts on “Admitting Failure: Trendy, but (at least for NGOs) not Prudent

  1. Bonsoir,

    Je ne parle pas assez l’anglais pour pouvoir vous dire ce que je pense, je le ferai en donc dans ma langue. Pardonnez-moi!

    Je pense tout comme vous qu’il ne faut pas tout dire. Ça ne veut pas dire que je sois d’accord avec le fait que l’on mente… Nous ne sommes pas toujours obligé de choisir le blanc ou le noir …puisqu’il existe le gris. Et que de plus, ce gris nous pouvons lui accorder plus ou moins de blanc ou plus ou moins de noir… pour équilibrer les choses…

    Bref, je pense qu’il faut parler des problèmes qui existent au sein des ONG, entre ONG + une instance indépendante (médiateur). La justice doit être très ferme envers les ONG qui détournent de l’argent. La punition devrait être d’autant plus lourde que l’horreur est grande!

    Qu’un projet n’aboutisse pas, n’est pas impossible. L’Humain n’est pas infaillible et lorsqu’un projet est soumis à des aléas qu’il ne contrôle pas, il ne peut pas faire mieux que tout son possible.
    Maintenant, nous apprenons de nos erreurs et c’est formidable. Nous pouvons ainsi avancer.

    Quand aux donateurs, je pense qu’ils ont déjà assez de soucis sans qu’on en rajoute encore. Ils doivent juste recevoir des réponses honnêtes aux questions qu’ils posent s’ils les posent…

    Avec Vous, Ema

    1. Ema,
      Merci pour votre commentaire! Heureusement, je comprends quelque chose de français, même si c’est un peu ‘rusty,’ comme on dit en anglais. Je devrais admitter que je vous ai ‘tagged’ par hasard : j’avais l’intention de tag Tom Paulson à @thehumanosphere, qui est journaliste de développement et santé globale. Pourtant, j’apprécie votre commentaire bien refléchi !

  2. Thanks for the perspective. You illustrate the risk involved in admitting failure very well.

    As I wrote in response to Ed Carr I believe the public can handle more complex messaging. International development work is not always successful but it also does serve a valuable role in helping to alleviate poverty.

    Admitting Failure as a movement recognizes this – reality lies between these extremes and re-frames the public image of development to one that accepts that the problem of global poverty is so complex there are bound to be elements of successes and failures in every action that is taken in the effort to solve it.

    Honestly, I think the general public is more than capable of understanding this reality.

    Furthermore, this understanding focuses public support on organizations that are learning from their failures and improving their effectiveness not the ones that claim they have this poverty thing figured out and never fail.

    We could learn a thing or two from the culture around business start-ups where the inherent risk is tolerated in the name of innovation and creating something new and beneficial that can go to scale.

    I’m not suggesting all development projects need to take risks and push the boundaries but certainly, we currently do not have the perfect workable solution for alleviating poverty so there is a need for trying some new approaches and constantly learning from what does not work and improving upon what does.

    The lessons from admitting failure can be put into use by audiences that can appreciate them (i.e. development practitioners) AND they are read by the public. Either way, my hypothesis is that most folks reading the ‘failures’ see the reality of development: Lots of smart people doing what they can to try to make positive change within a very complex and dynamic system.

    There will always be a place for celebrating and, more importantly, scaling successes. Admitting Failure is simply about allowing the innovators and entrepreneurs working in the sector the space to try new things, humbly and quickly recognize failures and always learn and improve. Stay humble because we can do better.

    1. Admitting Failure,
      Thank you for your comment. I do have to say that I am not sure I agree with the fact that the public can “handle” complex messaging. That is precisely the reason I cited the example of the Global Fund. The Fund had posted the results of the ongoing audit for months before the AP story broke, and no one even noticed. IMHO, the public at large pretty much ignores aid and development projects until someone gets a hold of something like an audit or an honest admission of a failure and blows it out of proportion, at which point it becomes a PR nightmare.

      That being said, I recognize that my opinion is a rather pessimistic one, and I think it is important to have perspective like that of Admitting Failure. Perhaps creating an environment of openness regarding shortcomings, to the point where organizations can feel safe in doing so, will change the tone of the public discourse. The central questions of how long that would take and how much funding would be lost in the meantime are pretty high stakes, but I suppose we will never know until we try, right?

  3. Your point on the perception of failure is well taken. Hence the ability of any of the Fail Faire DC presenters to be anonymous. In 2010, I presented at FFDC off-the-record as I was talking about my own projects and I was scared of being fired – a small version of the fear of publicizing failure you speak of here. Several other presenters were also off-the-record.

    Fast forward to 2011, and not a single presenter was off-the-record and my boss event joined me in presenting. So the mood is shifting. There is a firm undercurrent in the aid community that we are fatigued by the need to always put lipstick on pigs. That it is time to be honest that we are still experimenting in development and therefore some failure is good – it shows we’re trying new tings to seek real solutions. Hence the overwhelming demand (and joy) at Fail Faire DC.

    Yet, I do agree that the message of failure has to be managed closely. No one likes failure at the time it happens, only afterwards when job and lives are safe can we look back with anything approaching objectivity. Add to it, those that criticize will use it against us. But to that, I say those that criticize will use success against us as well (Limbaugh, US troops, and the LRA comes to mind).

    So the choice is to only whisper about failure in the dark of night, and all of us fail and fail again blind to the experience of others, or we be brave and admit our failures, critics be dammed.

    For me, damn the critics and full speed ahead. Life is too short to be afraid of failure.

  4. I think that there is something inherently good about donors understanding that failure is a part of innovation. If innovation is expected, failure must also be anticipated, and lauded. NGOs should not have to live in fear that the funding will dry up following a failed program. That’s a lesson learned. They damn well shouldn’t try the same approach again, but we should be able to learn from mistakes within the community.

    However, I think it’s expecting too much to assume that the public rit large is able to comprehend many of the nuances of development. Complex messaging fails with any industry.

    Just take the Occupy movement, for example. We all know that developing a thriving economy is a complex and complicated process that doesn’t happen overnight. We’re not economists. But that doesn’t make up less pissed about unemployment, etc.

    I don’t think that we can expect that from people.

  5. Wayan Vota,
    I have to agree with you. The tone is shifting and I agree that this is for the better. It’s time for the development community to openly talk about the fact that we don’t have “solutions” to complex problems and that we are continuing to learn and innovate in the face of this uncertainty. By nature, that involves having small and sometimes big set-backs. If we don’t admit that, we are forced into a false-dichotomy of what we do and what we say. But to admit that things don’t always go as planned, that success can come from unsuspecting sources and that we are open and humble in the face of our errors is ethical and human. It’s also just good practice.

    To me, it seems that the debate painted in this article is one of “say everything or say nothing at all.” I don’t believe that is what admitting failure is all about. It’s about having the courage and the humilty to stand up and say “I tried something, and I made a mistake. I’ve learned and I’ll do better next time.” That doesn’t mean opening up organizations to public scrutiny and micro-inspection. It does mean accepting the risks rightly highlighted here. Of course people want to see and hear about success stories and impact, but that won’t happen immediately (it hasn’t over the past 60 years of this profession) or easily. It’s time we admit and face that in order to have more honest and productive discussions that bring people into a better understanding of the complex issues and development.

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