Charities must talk about their failures as well as their successes

May 13, 2013 9:53 am 0 comments Views: 84

Charities should be more willing to come forward when experiencing problems

charities failure learn

Fail, learn, and then leap to somewhere new.’ Photograph: Don Bartletti

“To err is human; to forgive divine” wrote Alexander Pope in the 18th century. Unfortunately, this pearl of wisdom is oft forgotten when it comes to the work of charities. These days donors want to see more bang for their buck and can be less than forgiving when things don’t go according to plan.

Take international development. In less than 1,000 days time, the deadline by which the millennium development goals are supposed to have been achieved will expire. Amid coverage of the international community’s failure to meet these very public goals, non-profit organisations will have their work cut out to prove to donors their efforts have not been wasted.

So how exactly should charities handle communications when things haven’t gone to plan?

For Andrew Barton, head of relationship marketing at Oxfam, first and foremost they should not ignore the impact that they have had. “The MDGs might not have been met in full but there are many real differences being made and we should be loud and proud about those,” he says.

Tod Norman, communications planner at TNP, agrees: “A donation helped build some toilets, giving girls somewhere to urinate without boys looking at them. It didn’t save the world but it did save those girls from being raped,” he says. However, he adds this doesn’t mean failures should be ignored. “Donors are asking questions and we should answer them.”

To respond effectively to questions about why goals haven’t been achieved in full – no matter which sector they work in – charities need to know the answers, meaning a full and thorough assessment process is required. This could be conducted internally, or independently using organisations such as Project Oracle, Charities Evaluation Services orMatrix Knowledge.

Khulisa is one organisation that has built rigorous and transparent evaluation processes into its work within the UK prison system. These have enabled it to develop a full and clear picture of what has and hasn’t worked and why – information it then communicates to funders.

“If you’re working with one local authority and you want to work with the borough next door there is no point trying to hide things,” says its chief executive, Simon Fulford. “So the first thing we do is make sure we understand as much as we can about why a project didn’t work without laying blame. We then work out what we will do differently … which is the key part of the conversations we then have with funders.”

Being open has helped the organisation to stay in control of the messaging, rather than having to respond “off the back foot”, and has, in the main, resulted in positive outcomes, particularly when the evidence has been used to improve service provision.

Indeed, there is a slow but steady trend for funders to be more open-minded about failure. Yes, they demand their donations make a difference, but many are also prepared to share their own knowledge to help improve a project’s delivery. As such, charities should be more willing to come forward when experiencing problems, says Clare Thomas, chief executive of the City Bridge Trust.

“I can understand why applicants don’t want to admit to failure because they think they’re not going to get refunded … Yet, the more we know the more we can help in the future,” she says.

Thomas admits this “big commitment to learning from what doesn’t work” hasn’t always been communicated as well as it could have been, but says there are many examples of charities that have gone on to receive further funding after having pro-actively provided details of failure. “If we felt confident an organisation had learnt from what had previously gone wrong and represented a fresh approach there is a good chance it would be refunded,” she says.

Another example of how good can come from failure is offered bySolarAid. After its project to sell solar hurricane lamps was rejected by the African communities it intended to serve, the charity went back to the drawing board.

“We had failed to recognise the hurricane lamp is a symbol of poverty,” says Richard Turner, the charity’s director of fundraising. They subsequently discovered that the barrier to increased use of solar lighting was not a lack of lights but getting them into people’s hands. As such, the charity began to sell lamps made by other manufacturers and is now one of the largest distributors in the region.

Not only has this change of strategy been hugely successful, both in terms of spreading the use of solar and generating income for the charity, but this story of “failure” has helped attract a major donor who isn’t just willing to accept that things can go wrong but is positively encouraging them to through the funding of an innovation unit.

“We tend to only talk about successes, yet it’s the struggle that makes the story engaging and gives it authenticity,” says Turner.

His view is that failure is the best way to improve. “Fail, learn, and then leap to somewhere new,” he says. But importantly, keep everything in perspective. “We’re dealing with the world’s most difficult social problems so of course not everything is going to work first time round.”

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