The ‘F’ word

By Alison McCants
On October 29, 2012 At 2:00 pm

Category : Best posts Q4 2012, IFC-2012, Latest posts, opinion, strategy

Responses : No Comments

Taking risks and failure go with the territory.
(Image © francesconegri)

Coming back to the office after IFC, I made an overarching discovery that touches on everything else I learned: I am terrified of failure.

And I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think I am the only fundraiser who, when faced with an innovative idea, will ask if a charity has already tried it. If so, ‘Did it work?’ would be on the tip of my tongue. And by the number of carbon-copy fundraising campaigns and events, I don’t think I’m the only one watching and waiting to see what works.

Let the big guys innovate and take those first risks, right? We smaller charities don’t have the budgets to afford risky new approaches. Not exactly.

I think the following is true for charities of all sizes: if you can’t afford to fail, you will struggle to succeed.

Why it’s important to learn to fail – whatever your cause

Okay, so why is learning to fail actually important?

First off, as Lucy Gower (@lucyinnovation) very rightly pointed out in her session ‘Where’s your R&D budget?’ doing what you’ve always done isn’t going to keep working as it used to. You may not change what you’re doing, but if the world is changing around you (and it is changing around you), then the results you get will potentially change as well – and possibly for the worse.

We all know the product cycle. A simple bell curve over time, a new product starts off slowly (market introduction phase), begins to catch on (growth stage), really hits its stride (maturity stage), before starting to drop off again (saturation and decline stage). So even a really good product will not hit peak performance and then stay that way forever.

We do not fundraise in a vacuum. We as fundraisers are far from being the only variable in the equation. So what we do impacts what donations come in, but as part of interplay with a variety of factors (such as technological developments or changes in the wider marketplace). Maintaining our variable (doing the same thing) and expecting the same results is like pretending those other variables don’t exist. From Aesop’s Fables to Tao Te Ching to Chaucer, we know the tree that doesn’t bend, breaks.

So we need to develop new things all the time. And to really do new things, we have to push ourselves and our fundraising programmes into untested territory. No one can do this and succeed every single time. Some new ventures will be really profitable. Others will prove to be less so and not worth further investment. But if we’re scared to fail, we won’t find out which is which.

And ironically, playing it safe to avoid failure will often guarantee poorer results over time. In our attempt to avoid our fear of failure, we ensure the fear is realised.

Why it’s hard to be okay with failure

But it’s easier said than done, being okay with failure. Even if we know we need to take risks, and that by their very nature, some risks won’t work out, there are a lot of other pressures telling us it’s wrong to fail.

Organisational culture

Organisational culture is a big factor. Some charities seem happy to push boundaries and their aversion to risk and controversy seem minimal. If anything, it’s part of their identity as an organisation. Who would Greenpeace be if they didn’t have these amazing, daring public demonstrations? If they didn’t take on Mattel over packaging or Shell over drilling in the Arctic?

But others have become averse to risk. If your senior management doesn’t like risk, it’s hard to take risks as a fundraiser because you know you’ll struggle for the support and, in very risk-averse organisations, there will be a line of managers waiting in the wings to wag a finger and say “I told you so” when things don’t pan out.

Challenging targets

Another common issue is if you have such ambitious targets set for you that everything you do must work out if you’re to make your budget. When you’re pushed to the brink just to keep your head above water, it’s really difficult to prioritise taking risks and trying things that have a chance of failing. Speaking to fundraisers from around the world last week, this seems to be a real obstacle for some all over the world.
Then there’s the even more daunting issue that if you don’t make your target for any reason, the charity’s work might be affected – dipping into much needed reserves, for instance, or even cancelling or downgrading programmes due to lack of funding. This may seem a stark conclusion to some of the bigger charities with plenty of reserves, but for smaller organisations this can be a very real outcome.

Lack of resources

We tend to talk about money, but time and energy shouldn’t be ignored. Even if you do manage to have some budgetary room to fail, you may find you don’t have the time to work on the risky stuff. If you’ve got ten things to work on and only time to do five of them adequately, you risk either (a) doing all ten things badly (almost a guaranteed failure) or (b) choosing which things to work on and which to ignore. How often do the riskier, innovative ideas end up on the back burner in favour of the things you know will likely succeed? While that may be acceptable in a short-term crisis, this can quickly become de rigueur.

Simple steps to learn to fail

So there are real reasons it’s difficult to make peace with failing. But here are some of the actionable take away points that can help make sure we have space to innovate – and room to fail.

1. Create the business case. Sometimes, it takes reminding yourself and those in your organisation that you have to take some risks to keep succeeding. Communicate with the wider organisation, start a conversation, and grab the bull by the horns. Show the danger of stagnation.

2. Allocate resources. Again, this means time and money. Add an expenditure-only line to your budget for research, development and testing. Make it one of your objectives in your appraisal with your manager (or, better yet, make sure it’s part of your job description and the JDs of your team).

3. Be transparent and lead by example. Don’t skirt around the fact that you have to take risks to keep up with a changing world, and that you can’t take risks without some of the ideas failing. We talk about sharing failures as well as successes with our donors, but I think some fundraising organisations can start by sharing failures as well as successes with our internal colleagues.

4. Research, research, research. Just because an idea is new doesn’t mean it has a basis in evidence and fact. This doesn’t mean not taking risks. It’s knowing what the risks are and deliberately forging ahead with a good risk management process in place. We still cannot avoid failure, but we can prepare for it. And we can make sure that when we do fail it isn’t because of carelessness or recklessness.

I think the last ‘a-ha’ moment I had on this topic is that no one has it perfect. From small, two-person fundraising operations to big leading charities with hundreds of fundraisers on staff, we are ALL incredibly busy and pushed for time. We all have reasons that it’s difficult, but that also means that none of us has any excuses. We just have to grit our teeth, do our homework, and make strides to fundraise as best we can for our relative causes – including the inevitable bumps on the road to success.


This year 101fundraising is the official blog partner of the International Fundraising Congress (IFC), the world’s leading conference on fundraising. This blog post is part of a special IFC Blog Series, where we gave IFC speakers a chance to share their wisdom before the conference. Attending crowdbloggers will now get a chance to share their views after the conference!

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Alison McCants (10 blogs on 101fundraising)

Fundraiser with a passion for charities. Currently Alison is Direct Marketing Manager at The Brooke, a leading UK charity dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules (all views are my own). I am a member of the Institute of Fundraising (IOF) in the UK and hold a Certificate in Fundraising Management MInstF(Cert) from the IOF.

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