Earlier this year, Johannes Haushofer, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at the prestigious Princeton University, did an odd thing when he posted his “CV of Failures” on Twitter.
While most of us view our CV or résumé as our chance to share our most prized accomplishments and accolades, things that are going to impress an audience or help us land our dream job, Haushofer wanted to “give people some perspective.”
The perspective he wanted to provide, was that for all of his visible accomplishments – awards, funding, research projects, there were quite a few failures that preceded them. By sharing his failures, he wanted to help “balance the record,” showing that failure and success often go hand and hand.
And while some of us will never feel comfortable making our failures public, I was inspired by his decision and decided to use it as the introduction to my presentation at the Colorado Nonprofit Association’s 2016 Fall Conference entitled “Shaping Tomorrow’s Leadership: Failures Are Sexy.”
Nonprofits and Failures
Prior to joining NetSuite Social Impact, I served as the Executive Director of Wiser Earth, a nonprofit with a mission to help the global movement of people and organizations working toward social justice, indigenous rights and environmental stewardship to connect, collaborate, share knowledge and build alliances. We had the largest free and community-driven global directory of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with over 112,000 in 243 countries and 80,000 members. We were very successful yet we failed to secure long term financial sustainability for the platform after 10 years of operations. In 2014, after running the organization for over six years, I, along with my board and our community, made the decision to close it down.
For many years, I considered this decision a reflection of my own failure. What I ended up learning from that experience is how you can turn an experience like this into a positive outcome. While I learned a ton through this perceived failure, there were four very powerful lessons that have stuck with me.
My Own Four Learnings From Failure
- Catalyst for collaboration: Failure can be used as a catalyst for stronger collaboration and more innovation. At WiserEarth, we were transparent about our concerns with our members, donors and board right away. For over a year, we collaborated to ensure our assets would continue to serve even more communities, above and beyond our own 501c3. We saw the opportunity to elevate what we had seeded. For example, the Biomimicry Institute was able to leverage our open API to accelerate the launch of their website, AskNature.org
- Be More Aware of the Clues: Openly discuss failures or potential failures with your board, members and staff. There should be no surprises!
- Let Go: Success is not always about scale. It can also be about paving the path for others to succeed and this is what we ended up doing for WiserEarth.
- Fail Faster: As recommended in “Fail Fast, Fail Often” by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz, each month you can set aside a “learning day” to focus on failure and what you can learn from it.
My failures help shape my values and how I function as a leader. Difficult times are a good remainder to remain open, transparent and lead with integrity.
Failing Forward Practices
In John Maxwell’s book about failing forward, he talks about how to use mistakes as stepping stones for success. A few of my favorite principles include:
- Identify your Fear: something you want to try but have been hesitating
- Reverse your thinking: Find a way to try it out in a safe environment so you can fail fast, where, how?
- Do it anyway: go out there and give it a try
- Fail Forward: Learn from the experience, test your assumptions (what came more naturally? Did you fail where you expected to)
The Future of Philanthropy and Failure
The nonprofit industry isn’t encouraged to take risks and are instead encouraged to play it safe. Funders like to fund new programs that have already track records of success and donors like reports filled with metrics about how their dollars were used successfully.
As shared by Beth Kanter, nonprofits and funders need to change upfront expectations about projects and make space to allow for failure or things not working out. It’s okay to fail as long as we learn something from it and improve.
So let’s be bold! If you have a failure you’d like to share, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.