I have been working in the nonprofit sector for 34 years, spending the last twenty of them focusing on the nonprofit technology sector to deliver training and capacity building. I have been waiting a long time to have a sector-wide conversation about learning from failure and last week at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, we were able to just that!
The plenary session was called “Placing Little Bets: Failing Informatively for the Nonprofit Technology Sector,” and I was joined by smart folks – Brian Reich, Erin Shy, Megan Kashner, and Allie Burns who represent different points of view in our community – from funders, disrupters, software platform, and nonprofits.
We kicked it off with some framing about what exactly is a failure?
The above video from author Peter Sims explaining what a little bet is – failed to launch. But in this quick sound byte he summarizes the of taking small risks or “Little Bets” that lead to innovation. We need more of that in our sector and I plan to work with Peter to write the nonprofit version of Little Bets. More about that later.
We discussed what the reaction to failure does to us as individuals and how it can create a risk-adverse culture in our nonprofits. We had the 1500 people in the room do the failure bow – captured by here on video. As Brian Reich said, we have to get rid of our fear. We discussed what needs to happen inside of organizations and in the funder community to help nonprofits embrace failure and learning. And yes, as promised there were a few f-words dropped (Brian started it).
We were lucky to have extraordinary documentation of the event – Rob Cottingham’s sketch notes, Jeremy Bivin’s Storify, Jenna Saubers notes, Ed Schipul’s photos – and more all curated and archived here. I will summarize the top takeaways and the call to action:
- Nonprofits and the people who work for them have to loose their fear of taking risks and that opens us up to fail and improve
- Failure is a luxury – and we can’t fail the people so it has to be incremental by learning to learn from placing a lot of Little Bets
- Nonprofits and funders need to change upfront expectations about projects and make space to allow for a fail or something not working out. It’s okay as long as we learn something from to improve.
- New definition of success: Adaptability and Transformation
- Nonprofits need to fail from the inside out — we have to make it okay to not be perfect inside of nonprofits and to honestly share lessons learned beyond our walls
- Many of the 1500 people in the room at NTC agree with us, but the challenge is when they go back to the office – culture change is needed
- Nonprofits need to embrace failure, not just accept it. This means front loading failure as well as doing “after action reviews.”
CALL TO ACTION: Place a Little Bet at Your Nonprofit and Share It (You could win a Microsoft Surface or Other Schwag)
We ended with a call to action to nonprofits in the room and beyond to “Place a Little Bet” – try something small to experiment with, learn from it, and share it.
Share Your #npfail story by April 30th and you will have a chance to win a Microsoft Surface or other schwag from the Case Foundation that is sponsoring the contest. (They are also doing a sector wide survey on failure and innovation)
I agreed to lead a conversation on failure and learning from the nonprofits on this blog – and share those stories. We invite you to write and openly share your failures using the #npfail hashtag.