Reflecting on Failure

Philip Manzano • Nov 26, 2016

The story of how one nonprofit started talking about failure, and why maybe you should too. The post Reflecting on Failure appeared first on Keela.

There’s something interesting happening in the nonprofit sector. Back in 2011, Canadian nonprofit Engineers Without Borders (EWB) started reporting on failure.

Yes, you heard me right: failure.

A word that is not often tossed around in a nonprofit discussion or report. Why? Here’s what Ashley Good, the Admitting Failure and Fail Forward Venture leader has to say:

EWB launched the website   as a place that recognizes how hard it is to admit failure in the nonprofit world, and that it’s time for a paradigm shift. When a nonprofit fails they’ve essentially let down a community in need and its donors at the same time. It’s quite a burden for any person or organization to carry. However, without taking a hard look at the failures within our programs the likelihood of us repeating those failures increases insignificantly.

I’ve seen it too many times myself. You’re working in a community and things are not necessarily going that well, but as soon as a donor step enters the room, everyone’s happy faces immediately come on. There’s a certain deception that happens, and communities don’t need to be coached into smiling. Often they want the donor money to keep flowing in just as much as you do. This is based on a belief that as soon as a donor catches even a whiff of trouble they are going to bail. And sure, there’s merit to that. If a donor notices your organization is consistently failing, underachieving, and over-reporting, they have good reason to walk away. But if you fail, report, reflect, and come up with an action plan for improvement, you demonstrate adaptability, versatility, and compassion for the unique community you are working with.

Jayawickrama reflects all too appropriately on the Hauser Center blog on how we as nonprofit professionals attempt to simplify the act of poverty reduction. We try to make it look easy so people will keep giving us money. We invite people to “Sponsor a child! Give a loan! Buy a goat!” – and hundreds of people jump on board. We’ve simplified the problem to a tangible ask. But the process of poverty reduction, of women’s empowerment, of accessing education, of mobilizing an entire community to do good, is far more complicated than any nonprofit professional can ever dream. Why? We’re dealing with people in unique situations, with unique problems and different expectations on what progress looks like. Further, we most often come as outsiders to fix these problems. We are destined to fail, yet we cannot talk about it.


Nonprofits now place a lot of emphasis on “Lessons Learned”. Drawing up reports of lessons from different projects and sharing them within their organization and with donors. Lessons learned to take a positive spin on failures, on how you could have done something better. It identifies a problem, the impact it had, and recommendations for the future. This is a great initiative and works to create tangible steps forward for the future. 

EWB takes it a step further by sharing its failures publicly each year – the next level of transparency. There’s something empowering about publicly admitting failure and openly discussing how to improve in the future. Reflecting on failure works as a catalyst to inspire those at EWB to consistently do better. Their failure reports can be found easily on their website. Anyone who is curious to learn can take a look.


At you will find a “Read Room” of failures. Here you will be sure to find a story of failure in a topic that piques your interest. You can also take the next step by submitting your own story of failure.

Looking for some more inspiration before you start showing your shortcomings to the world? Why not start with this TED Talk by David Damberger, Engineer, and Social Entrepreneur? David discusses what happens when an NGO admits failure and reflects on his own failures in India.

We must not look at failure as shameful. We must reflect on failure as a way to learn, grow, and make the nonprofit sector as a whole better than it has ever been. After all, without admitting a problem, you cannot endeavor to solve it. 

The post Reflecting on Failure appeared first on Keela.