Using the F Word: Talking about our failures

Published by Mary Lynn Lalonde on

It was 1993 and our most important holiday mail pack of the year. I opened the seed pack to discover the return address on the business reply envelope was wrong. Really wrong. Every generous donor receiving that mail pack would post their donation to an incorrect address.

FWordIf you have an ounce of empathy, you’re right there with me – cue the shallow breathing and sweaty palms.

Substitute a mail pack for botched special event, integrated campaign or web site launch and you can probably regale me with your own story of what happened when something (or many things) went horribly, horribly wrong.

Danish Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr says, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes he can make in a narrow field.”

While the holiday address debacle wasn’t strictly my fault, it quickly became my problem. So I’d add, “An expert is also someone who stays around after the pity party to pick up and examine the pieces.”

Today, Ideas Conferences like Failure: Lab, that bills itself as a kind of anti-TED, and FailCon are on the rise and helping take the stigma out of failing by providing a forum to embrace our own and other people’s stories of failure. It’s taking failure out of the closet and parading it on stage for all to see and learn.

I’d like to see one of these conferences strictly for fundraisers. FundFail has a nice ring to it. Surely there are countless campaigns out there that have failed to live up to their fundraising potential. We can learn a great deal more by sharing an honest flagellation of our failed projects, perhaps even more than when we celebrate the shiny veneer of our successes.

Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, in his new book Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, would argue that it’s through this sharing that we become better leaders:

“If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others. You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. That is why I make a point of being open about our meltdowns inside Pixar, because I believe they teach us something important: Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them. We must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.”

Jonah Leher, author of Imagine and How We Decide, shares this view:

“I’m convinced that unless I talk openly about what I’ve learned so far – unless I hold myself accountable in public – then the lessons will not last. I will lose the only consolation of my failure, which is that I will not fail like this again. That I might, one day, find a way to fail better.”

So how do we fail better? Well, we can start by:

  • Fostering an environment of trust – where failure is an acknowledged part of succeeding. The freedom to fail.
  • Sharing challenges and experiences in an open and non-judgemental way.
  • Finding a process to document what you’ve learned during AND after each failure – so important when staff turnover means that our lessons learned can be lessons lost, if we’re not careful.
  • And talking about it – with our colleagues, our peers, even our donors. Failure, like fear of the dark, is harder to deal with when we think we’re alone.

The haunting mail pack of 1993 didn’t have a Hollywood ending. Despite the best efforts to reroute the incoming mail to the correct address, the campaign raised less than 75% of what was forecasted, we fired the supplier and  had to make cuts in other places to make up for the loss of income. But we certainly never made that mistake again. Arming ourselves and our suppliers with a pre-production checklist became standard practice for every direct mail campaign. Now that’s using the f-word to our advantage.

Mary Lynn Lalonde

Mary Lynn Lalonde loves it when the good guys win. That’s why she’s dedicated a lot of her life to raising money and profile for worthy causes, including UNICEF, where she’s now the Global Pledge Fundraising Stewardship Specialist in Geneva. She’s done a lot of stuff but she’s distinctly uncomfortable with self-promotion because she’s Canadian.


Joe Matassino · June 5, 2014 at 16:00

Well put. I often feel I learn more from my failures, than from my successes. If you ever want to coordinate a FundFail, let me know! There’s lots I could share!

    Mary Lynn Lalonde · June 5, 2014 at 16:26

    Thanks, Joe. One of the things I’ve always valued about our profession is the openness and willingness to share with one another. It sets us apart from the private sector. FundFail would be a valuable way to continue this tradition — so we can learn from our misteaks. :) If others are interested, I’d happily help organize one.

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