Embracing the possibility of failure

By Kirk Roberts, Co-Owner of Free Range Nonprofit Solutions


In our society, we tend to prize innovation, imagination, and outside-the-box thinking. In our internal nonprofit structures, we tend to prize…dogged resistance to change.

In your work, how many times do you deal with outdated Board and committee structures, meeting agendas, nominating processes, etc.? How often does this rigidity bog down our organizations and keep them from reaching their vision? And yet, how willing are you or your Board members to blow up the old plan and try something new?

I believe much of our resistance to innovation in nonprofit structure is due to our reticence to risk failure. We want to keep our jobs, and our Board members don’t want to be known as the Board that sank the organization. Fair enough. But if we dare to embrace the possibility of failure, we open the door to success.

Embracing the possibility of failure is a shared quality. It must become part of the fabric of an organization, from the top of the Board to the ranks of the one-time volunteers.

What are the qualities of embracing the possibility of failure? The foundation is built upon the following cornerstones:

Define what is required, and what is desired

Required: I am amazed how many Boards I work with who think that the state or the Feds or the IRS rigidly regulates nonprofit Board and committee structures. Beyond having a President and a Secretary, minding your Ps and Qs in reporting, and having a couple of Board meetings, the rest is up to the nonprofit. Work with your Board to clearly recognize what the law requires, and what you have the right to do differently.

Desired: Visioning is the most important work a Board can do. Notice I say “visioning,” not “writing a vision statement.” Visioning is active, present-tense work for a Board. How do our mission and our programs intersect? How can we be prepared to accomplish our mission in changing circumstances? Do we have a true picture of the landscape and how it is shifting? Addressing these questions is an on-going task.

Does your Board have a meeting structure that invites visioning into each and every meeting? Are your Board conversations about committee or staff activities focused on bringing the mission to life, or are they drab reports intended mainly as CYAs?

Build failure into the planning process

When we design programs, we design them to work. But do we also design a clear idea of the impact if they don’t work?

I have a friend who is a venture capitalist. He said the key to success in his business was not focusing on the vast fortunes to be made. Anybody can dream of riches. Success was built on understanding the price of abject failure in any venture. Only by framing the price of failure could he accurately determine the resources to expend, the impact of success, and answering the question: is it worth the risk?

Does your Board spend time to accurately assess the impact of failure, or does it avoid the subject? Is the only “failure” conversation meant to kill an idea, or is it used as a planning tool?

Never judge a decision by the results

Say it with me: “Never judge a decision by the results!” When I say this to Boards, I often get derisive laughter as a response. Too bad. I think it is one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned.

When something turns out badly, we tend to think we have made a bad decision. When it goes well, we tend to think we have made a good decision. But doesn’t our experience contradict that conclusion? It is more helpful to judge a decision by evaluating the factors which led to the decision. Was the decision made in haste? Did we collect the information we thought was appropriate beforehand? Was the decision to please a particular person? If it was an emotional decision (they can be good decisions as well!), was the emotional driver appropriate for that situation? In other words…

Evaluate beyond objectives

In the nonprofit world, when we say “evaluate,” we tend to evaluate a program based on our program objectives. Helpful, but limited. Global evaluation can be very helpful. Do you and your Board evaluate the organizational structure? Does the Board evaluate its performance, in particular its decision-making?

Doing these global evaluative processes accomplishes two goals: 1) identifying areas which need improvement or revamping; and 2) helping the Board understand the vision and mission in terms of the structure of the organization.

Make failure a shared experience

Saving the best for last, this is often the reason why staff and Board leaders avoid embracing failure. Fault and blame are two of the most damaging factors in our work. It’s my fault. It’s your fault. It’s Joe’s fault. Who cares? What progress is actually made by assessing blame? Failure should be referred to by “we,” just as success should be credited to “us.”

We talk about teamwork, about trust, and about our inter-dependency. The greatest test of teamwork, trust, and inter-dependency is in bearing the weight of failure.

Can you and your Board take blame out of the equation? As a leader, have you led your Board in a conversation about failure as a shared experience?

I can hear you saying, “But if my Board President blames me for failure, all of this is just wasted talk.” Obviously, we can’t change other people. But we can take control of our lives. Are we blaming others? Are we blaming ourselves?

Whether in our personal or professional life, letting go of blame and fault is a key to turning failure from a bogeyman into a friend. Embracing that new friend is a way to improve our lives and our work.