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.