KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Failure without borders

with 20 comments

We all make mistakes.

Some of the most valuable life lessons come from the significant mistakes and hard knocks we take. In the business world it’s often said that the successful entrepreneur is someone who has persevered through a lot of failures.

The aid world not so much.

There are many reasons it’s hard to admit failure if you are in the aid world. We believe that our donors will not fund us if we admit fallibility. We believe we can’t afford to fail if we are using public money. Our reporting structures and tools encourage us to upsell our achievements and downplay our failures. Receiving funding is often seen as a big sign of success (and on this scale I must admit to failing big), and perhaps understandably your pilot project will only attract scaled-up funding if it is a success.

Yet, if we don’t admit our failures, then how can we learn from them, and stop repeating or worse avoid continuing them while telling the world they are successful when they are, in reality, flawed. And how can you try to innovate and tackle emerging problems if you are afraid to fail.

There are a few hopeful signs of change:

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) just launched this excellent website at their recent annual conference.  This is a site where organizations  can share their aid related stories of failure. EWB, GlobalGiving and the Peace Dividend Trust have all committed to entering examples and I hope more organizations will choose to do so to.

EWB have already set a good example through their annual failure report where they list some of their notable failures over the past year. This practice was also recently adopted by the Dividend Peace Trust who issued their first failure report this year.

Early last year Mobile Active created a concept known as Fail Faire , and event where ICT for Development practitioners shared their failed projects and what they had learned from them. Here’s a blog I wrote about the event for MobileActive (before I had my own blog). This concept has now been replicated several times with another one on ICT for Development hosted by the World Bank, and other fairs run by Ashoka and the SOCAP (An annual conference on Social Capital markets). MobileActive have also created a handy set of tips on how to organize your own Failfaire.

Let’s hope that more aid agencies will pick up this trend (including my own), and that more donors will support them to do so. And best of luck to all you brave failers – you are the ones that are really creating new knowledge for development.


Written by Ian Thorpe

January 16, 2011 at 10:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

20 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ian Thorpe, ferdinand swart, Laura Brahm and others. Laura Brahm said: Failure without borders: #failure RT @ithorpe via @chrisalbon […]

  2. […] can better learn from fails and share them openly. Ian Thorpe explains this well in his post Failure without Borders and links to some other recent “fail” celebrations such as Mobile Active’s […]

  3. so agree with you. coming from the private sector, I never fully understood why there was this eagerness to hide flaws and failure. I think in the end it makes donors mistrust us. A much welcomed development


    January 16, 2011 at 5:24 pm

  4. Readers may be interested in my October 2010 post on the same subject, titled “Do we need a Minimum Level of Failure (MLF)?”

    rick davies

    January 17, 2011 at 1:11 am

    • Rick – many thanks for the link. I remember sharing this with my evaluation colleagues back when you published it. I’m intrigued by the idea of a minimum level of failure in terms of how it can might help change the psychology and organizational culture around admitting failure.

      Ian Thorpe

      January 17, 2011 at 6:23 am

      • It’s an interesting idea, minimum level of failure. If a group of people is innovating and trying new things, inevitably some projects will fail. Having a MLF may allow a group explore new ideas, making room for possible failure. I believe bankers lend with a target rate of default. A particular banker with a low default rate maybe too stringent, and avoiding risk, but also misses potential opportunities.


        March 23, 2012 at 10:31 pm

  5. Nice post, Ian. Reminds me of a Dutch initiative to have people share their failures and celebrate them.

    Samuel Driessen

    January 18, 2011 at 8:33 am

  6. Great post, Ian. I have cringed sometimes, when someone tried to whitewash a less than successful project undertaking. More honesty, please!
    And thanks for the interesting EWB website link – Meena


    January 18, 2011 at 11:10 am

  7. Thanks, Ian. The usual response of the aid community to something being unpopular is to rename it so perhaps we could have a website ?

    More seriously, I would judge that there is an expectation on the part of (at least) individual donors to charity that they are putting money into something “tried and tested” and more or less guaranteed to produce results. That may be our fault, at least as a kind of pandering to what makes people feel good. It feels better to give money to give a child access to clean water than it does to give money to an idea that may-or-may-not work in helping communities make their own water supply.

    In UNICEF we have “Regular Resources” (core funds) mainly from larger donors, and perhaps that is a small enough group with whom we can sell the idea of our resources being “venture capital” designed to learn rather than (only) to deliver. Then we could admit failure because it wouldn’t be failure, it would be learning (and therefore a positive thing)!

    Although don’t get me started on lessons-learned which are almost always lessons-unreadable. But that’s another blog

    Mark Hereward

    January 19, 2011 at 4:45 am

    • Thanks Mark.

      thanks, Mark. You make a good point about the story aid organizations tell when raising funds. It might be easier to sell things as being tried and tested and fail-safe, but although we know of successful, replicable approaches, even they are not guaranteed to always work as intended, and for some of the more longer term sustainable changes we are seeking then we might have good approaches, but we don’t have tried and tested methods. But if we are to make lasting change we need to find a way to sell these better to donors, including a better tolerance to risk and failure.

      As you suggest, maybe one way around it is to have a stream of funding that is like “venture capital” for more innovative and learning approaches.

      Interestingly in the private sector companies are now being called upon by contractors and regulators to demonstrate that they have learned from past failures, and if they don’t they might lose business or be liable to legal action (see this blog post from Nick Milton of KNOCO). I wonder if something similar is imaginable for the public or development aid sectors.

      Ian Thorpe

      January 19, 2011 at 5:06 am

  8. Dambisa Moyo saying “aid has failed for 50 years, at least now you admit it, now just stop” in 3… 2… 1…


    January 20, 2011 at 7:43 am

  9. […] and learned about social justice, homelessness, mental illness, failure at the personal & organizational level, the connection between domestic and international social change, and cultural relativism in […]

  10. […] I shared my recent blog post “failure without borders” internally one interesting comment was that donors generally feel more comfortable funding […]

  11. can’t wait to hear donors admit to failure. the failure to ask find out what works and what isn’t working, and to grow their ‘investments’ organically rather than spilling it all over a period of just 3 years.

    Mark Hemsworth

    February 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm

  12. […] 3. We have a reluctance to admit and thus learn from failure – in part because of the need to compete for funds (see failure without borders) […]

  13. Ian,

    Thank you for this! Its about time non-profits start seeing failure as a stepping stone to success. We are actually using this as a discussion starter on success in our project committee meeting today.


    Maimuna Sayyeda
    Development Intern


    May 24, 2011 at 3:10 pm

  14. […] [This post is a contribution to "The 2nd Aid Blog Forum: Admitting Aid Failure?" being curated by J of Tales from the Hood – although as it happens I was already planning to write this anyway. It's more personal than my previous post on failure which is here.] […]

  15. […] 6. Risk aversion – since we are spending public money, and rightly don’t want to be seen to waste it on “bad ideas” we are often unwilling to take calculated risks in order to innovate and try new approaches or incrementally improve our work.  We stick with the tried and tested, even if we know that potentially better solutions are out there because we prefer a predictable to an unpredictable outcome. We’re also often unwilling to admit when something isn’t working, but if we don’t acknowledge failures (or less than optimal outcomes) then how can we change what we are doing, learn from our experience and alert others so they can avoid making the same mistakes? (more in failure here) […]

  16. […] There was also an interesting discussion a while back triggered by a blog post  by Ian Thorpe […]

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