Confronting failure

Rocky. Michael Jordan. Steve Jobs and Apple.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles.

People love Cinderella stories and tales of redemption. Why? Because they move us. Because there is something inspiring about people working through failures to grow and make lasting change for themselves, and for the people around them.

And yet, a fear of failure pervades international development. Many organizations are terrified of not meeting donor targets, because it might mean losing funding or falling from grace. Admitting failure is difficult. It can be painful. It means showing your flaws. At the same time, we know that we can actually learn and grow the most from failure.

And, let’s be honest. Covering up failure usually just leads to problems further down the road.

But maybe the issue has more to do with how we communicate failure. Perhaps it means using those moments as opportunities to reflect and improve, rather than letting fear take hold.

Last year, I was working with an organization that was struggling to get a project off the ground. Political challenges and protests were partly responsible for this. Another part had to do with insufficient planning and preparedness on multiple levels. But my regional director had established a strong relationship with our key contact at the donor organization. She kept an open dialogue. The donor staff member embraced those challenges with us, because he, too, wanted to see the project succeed. We discovered that honesty goes a long way. It did not mean making excuses. It meant working constructively to solve the challenges that had emerged.

In another project with the same organization, I had to write a final report for another donor. The project did not meet all the targets laid out in the monitoring and evaluation plan. Specifically, there was no visible impact on reducing conflict around natural resource extraction. But we chose not to see that as a failure.

Instead, we saw something that an excel table could not chart. We learned that the program we supported was working in conjunction with other efforts. These greater efforts were helping people recognize their rights and restore a sense of power. A greater shift in mindset was occurring. People were beginning to see dialogue and nonviolence as a viable option for change. My job was to frame it this way. My goal was to communicate the context and nuance to the donor, and also to point out what could have been done better (and how). And from the feedback we received, the donor appreciated that.

In an insightful article on How Matters, Mary Fifield addresses this results v. failure conundrum. She puts forth the idea that transparency and taking the opportunity to learn can increase the organization’s credibility. By doing this, she says that, “telling the story of failure successfully can be a catalyst for innovation, and sustained interest in the organization’s work.”

We must also recognize the difference between meeting targets and fostering meaningful change. We cannot assume that results only matter if they meet or exceed our expectations. My experience supports Fifield’s belief that more honest relationships lead to more meaningful partnerships. We can help donors think outside their box, so that they can “discover and understand the nuanced challenges and opportunities.”

Donors depend on us to share the realities of what is actually taking place on the ground. Part of our responsibility as development professionals is to discuss program results and how they challenge our assumptions about poverty and development. It’s not to paint a skewed picture of what we think the donor wants to hear. Unfortunately, it is easy to forget that a relationship with a donor goes two ways.

Communicating results is not about pretending that we are perfect. It means discussing failure in a constructive way. This kind of honesty or vulnerability should not be seen as a weakness. In fact, admitting failure takes great strength.

When we turn accounts of failure into opportunities for improvement, they can become powerful stories for change.


  1. Balance and transparency about what doesn’t always go so well is still a rarity in the aid, philanthropy, and social enterprise sectors.

    But the demonstration of learning and adaptation in development programs can lend credibility to the effectiveness of an organization’s work. The staff and leadership may not have all the answers, but they can build their reputation by asking the right questions, being transparent, and continuing to learn. In doing so, telling the story of failure successfully can be a catalyst for innovation and sustained interest in an organization’s work.

    As communicators, we’ll often need to convince the powers that be within organizations that this is true. But let’s just keep showing them how!

    Liked by 1 person

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