Fail Fast, Fail Forward

Published by Paul de Gregorio on

IFC seriesI’ve just got back from the wonderful IFC conference in Holland.

Tuesday to Friday was a blur of chats, sessions, drinks, chats, more sessions and a lot of laughs.

The IFC is one of my favourite conferences because I always come back from it with a huge level of inspiration and enthusiasm to get back into the day job. Part of this is driven by the amazing sessions, but a lot of it is a result of spending time with people who are passionate about what they do. I love listening, chatting, challenging and absorbing the views of people doing what I do all over the world. It encourages me to evolve my own thinking and every time I go, I return with a long list of people to catch up with and ideas I want to test in my tiny bit of the fundraising world.

There is always a stand out session for me, this year it was Michael Hoffman’s ‘What social media can do for your fundraising – and what it can’t’. It was brilliant.


One of the things that can annoy me the most about our world is the speed at which ‘old’ media experts can dismiss ‘new’ media techniques. Almost as annoying is the rush by those in the ‘new’ world to pronounce the death of the old one.

Michael’s session wasn’t like that at all. It was a clear, well thought out exploration of the possibilities of social media; it was full of ideas, thoughts and examples of how things could be done.

There were some key phrases and ideas from the session that have stuck with me. They are phrases and ideas that are going to keep me thinking for months. So what follows are some initial thoughts, which I’m sure, will evolve over the next few months.

‘People who own direct mail businesses are most likely to say social media won’t work for fundraising’

A simplistic and controversial statement and one I’m sure Michael made in jest to make a point.

But there is something in it.

Social media isn’t like that. It’s new. It hasn’t been around for long. So it’s easy to say that it won’t work for fundraising. Because to be frank, to date it probably hasn’t.Direct mail has been around for years and years, it’s well established, practically everything that can be tested, has been tested.

But do we really think this will this be the case forever? Just because we haven’t completely nailed it yet, does that mean we never will?

Of course not! It’s ridiculous to suggest that social media won’t work for fundraising, just as ridiculous as it is to say that only social media will work for fundraising.

‘Share’ is greater than ‘Like’.

Obvious really. But if social media is to work for fundraising it needs to be social.

Which means we need to create things that our supporters will share. We need to give them the tools and resources that enable them to personalise our message and make it relevant to their network. Liking is OK, but it means nothing. Creating shareable content means that more people know what we’re doing. Which means more people have the opportunity to get involved with or amplify our work.

This is a challenge to the ‘old’ media mind set: where we create wonderful messages and campaigns to show the world how great we are, where we tell them what they need to do to help us help the beneficiary.

I don’t think that’s good enough anymore. I want to make campaigns and tell stories that enable the public to connect directly to the cause and move them to act on behalf of the beneficiary.


Not everyone wants to progress through the ladder of engagement.

I’m not sure if this was even said in the session, but it’s where my mind took me.

For years we are told that we need to take supporters are on a journey. A journey up the donor pyramid, the ladder of engagement. Or what ever else it’s being called this week.

But do donors want that?

Does everything lead to greater engagement and larger and larger gifts? I know that’s what we want. But maybe our donors don’t. Maybe they’d like to give when we move them to give. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t (or won’t) make the effort to deepen relationships with donors. But as the world changes, as relationships with technology and brands change, maybe just maybe we need to realign our expectations. Maybe we should be focussing on creating the environment for some donors to repeatedly take the small action, give the small donation and have a lighter sense of relationship.

Don’t assume, test.

This one hit home. Social media is new. But fundraising isn’t. We need to make sure that we take all of the things we know drives the most effective fundraising and apply it to social media. What we know makes awesome fundraising should be our starting point for testing. Then we need to follow the test, learn, refine, and test again cycle like we do in direct mail.

Our approach to and expertise in all other forms of direct response fundraising, makes us exactly the right people to improve and perfect the role of social media in fundraising.

Fail fast, fail forward.

Failing is good. If we’re failing and we care we will learn. Failing fast is even better as we can take corrective action quickly which means we’ll get closer to success.

This resonates massively in my current day job. I’m focussed on mobile fundraising in the UK right now. It’s a type of fundraising that has exploded in the last few years. There is lots of success, and a fair share of failure. But we’re not letting the failures detract from the focus on learning, improving and perfecting what it is we’re trying to do. And we’re using them to keep moving forward at speed and to try and make our work better.

It was Michael’s assurance that ‘Fail fast, Fail forward’ was the right way to go, that has reminded me of what we need to do to change and innovate in our sector. And for that he has my huge thanks.

So as usual my time at IFC has moved me to approach things in a different way and to challenge my existing thinking. I’m not sure everything I’ve written today will be my final interpretation of what I heard in Holland. But I’m really grateful to the IFC for lighting the fire in my brain that’s got me thinking in a different way.

Paul De Gregorio

Paul de Gregorio

Paul is the founder of Rally and leading digital engagement & mobilisation strategist. Paul has worked with charities and membership organisations all over the world, including (but not limited to), Cancer Research UK, American Civil Liberties Union, Humane Society of the United States, Amnesty International, Terrence Higgins Trust, Oxfam, Greenpeace, The Labour Party, UNICEF UK, Save the Children, WWF and Friends of the Earth - to deliver fundraising and campaigning activity that engages the public and inspires them to take action. Follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldegregorio


Dave Strand · October 24, 2013 at 23:45

Hi Paul,
Nice article. I find that folks have been slow to embrace social media when they’re prospecting for supporters. But when one of my clients “gets it”, the results speak for themselves.
I’d like to know more about “mobile fundraising”. Have you written any articles on this?


Lola · October 29, 2013 at 18:29

Spot on. I think some for profit organisations could learn from these too!

Sandeep Ramje · October 31, 2013 at 08:18

Hey Paul,

Fail fast, fail forward really work, a good way to get closer success as you mentioned, thanks for bringing that conference in post. Could you let me know about the Michael, which you mention in this post?


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