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Monday, November 25, 2019

How Failing Forward Illustrates Innovation


For nonprofits that aim to succeed, irrespective of their mission, failure is a friend. Unfortunately, the idea of funding failure doesn’t sit well with most donors.

If the organization you love and support is taking the same cookie-cutter or stale approach to solving age-old social problems and continue with limited success, then, despite your passionate commitment to the cause, you may actually be funding stagnation rather than investing in progress toward real solutions. 

Here’s why you should value “failing forward” in the nonprofits you support…


The fact that so many nonprofits have achieved limited success in their pursuit of viable and long-lasting solutions underscores the need to venture into uncharted territories. This exploration and innovation are almost always easier said than done. The process of designing and piloting new ideas is inherently risky, costly, and may result in failure, all of which can be unappealing to stakeholders. Consequently, the nonprofit community, pressed to cater to stakeholder demands for positive outcomes, is often discouraged from implementing fresh ideas, fearing the loss of financial support if the program fails to meet its goals. However, the fear of failure, as if it were a foe, only serves to fuel stagnation and extinguish creativity and innovation. 

Successful organizations are champions of failure. They know that the road to success is marked by twists, turns, and setbacks. Too many of us have embraced the idea that failures are dead ends. Some of the most successful leaders, inventors, and innovators, however, accepted failure as a friend rather than a foe, choosing to view it as a series of forks in the road rather than dead ends. 

The idea of embracing failure as an unavoidable part of the journey to success is characteristic of the for-profit sector. Companies thrive on creativity and innovation. That is why many espouse a culture of learning through trial and error, and view error as a requisite for success. Leading companies know that major gains are often the product of a series of setbacks and failures because, as James Quincy, President and CEO of Coca-Cola, put it, “If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough.”

What Quincy refers to as “mistakes” is often synonymous with “failures” in the nonprofit world. It’s a term that, for many, evokes the kind of shame, dejection, and terminal disappointment worth avoiding at all costs, even if it means settling for subpar results. The fear of failure, criticism, and risk of losing the support of funders dissuades nonprofits from taking the kind of programmatic risks necessary to learn, progress, and succeed in their missions. 

As donors, we have the ability to change how we view failure or mistakes. We can choose to reward the organizations we believe are tackling long-standing social issues with new and fresh approaches, even if they don’t work out as planned. A nonprofit that is willing to openly share what has worked and what has not worked understands the relevance of tracking and analyzing results, and values the importance of accountability and transparency. 

Often, organizations learn about the relative success of their efforts directly from beneficiaries by conducting surveys to gauge the efficacy of their programs. Recognizing and acknowledging that something isn’t working is an essential first step, but it’s important to note that, without the fortitude and commitment to modify the status quo when programs don’t produce their intended results, many nonprofits are unlikely to successfully achieve their mission.

At Charity Navigator, we appreciate that even the most successful nonprofits are not necessarily getting it right all of the time. On the contrary, successful nonprofits are experts at failing, learning from their failures (and those of others), and letting go of what hasn’t worked in favor of trying something that might or is likely to work. They are willing to take risks in order to succeed because they recognize that the only way to guarantee failure is to do nothing. They are agile, adaptive, innovative, and strategic about identifying and implementing modifications that may lead to better outcomes for their beneficiaries.

I hope this encourages you to consider the organizations you support through the lens of how they embrace and handle failure. Are they willing to fail forward in order to achieve a more effective result? Are you willing to support them in these endeavors? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

Written by Ofira Bondorowsky, Program Manager at Charity Navigator.

As a 501 (c) (3) organization itself, Charity Navigator depends on public support to help donors make informed choices. Please consider investing in the future of Charity Navigator by making a donation today.   Donate now >> 

4 comments:

Helper said...

What would failing forward look like practically, and how could a donor know that the charity is learning anything from that failure, or changing their method of operation? We see what they send us. No donor sees the decisions made in the hallways at the charity headquarters.

chaosmanor said...

This is a very cogent and timely commentary. Too often, in the area of Social Change and Improvement, we (activists, supporters, et al) get stuck in the "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" mentality. The flip side of this is well-expressed in the tech maxim, "One of the signs of stupidity is pushing a button over and over, hoping that it will work the next time it is pushed." New ideas, new methods, even new leadership, is often the way around the Roadblock of Stagnation. I have often found myself donating to the same organizations year after year because "they do good work." I need to re-evaluate of some of them, as there are likely charities which "do better work." Thank you for putting your thoughts down for us.

Unknown said...

Good general information however this article would have been more helpful if actual examples were provided.

Unknown said...

This article brought to attention another consideration for donors however it would have been more helpful had actual examples of mistakes or "failing forward," were provided.