Celebrating failure

Have you ever seen a new fundraising volunteer crash and burn … aka FAIL?  I know I have seen this phenomenon too many times in my 15-year career, and I am never comfortable when it happens … until today!

While reading an assigned textbook (Co-Active Coaching) as I study for my business coaching certification, I came across a section that talks about celebrating failure. It talked at length about how failure is one of the fastest ways of learning and used the example of toddlers learning how to walk. This got me thinking and sent me scurrying off to Google to do a little research about celebrating failure, which is when I came across a YouTube link for FAILfaire.

FAILfaire is an annual conference where technology non-profit organizations come together to look objectively and with humor at failed projects with the goal of learning valuable lessons. This got me thinking. Why can’t non-profit fundraising professionals engage our fundraising volunteers in a similar way with our annual campaigns? Here is how it might look:

  • During your organization’s annual campaign period, host periodic “report meetings” (e.g. weekly, bi-weekly, monthly).
  • In addition to the traditional activities associated with an annual campaign report meeting, add one additional agenda item titled “Celebrating Failure”.
  • Set ground rules (e.g. no mocking, no mean-spirited criticism, a “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” policy, etc) and remind all participants that there is a HUGE difference between failing and being a failure.
  • Ask volunteer solicitors (could be some or it could be all) to please share something that happened during a recent solicitation visit that didn’t seem to work (or didn’t feel right).
  • Engage the group in a short, facilitated discussion around why it didn’t work and what else could be done next time to get a different result.
  • Get silly and celebrate failures. Consider giving out a “traveling trophy” for the best story or the best suggestion for change.

This type of activity can take the shame out of failure for our volunteer solicitors and help fundraising professionals better coach volunteers towards becoming better solicitors.

If you don’t like this suggestion, I am sure there are countless other ways for you to help fundraising volunteers celebrate failure because if you don’t do so then it is likely that your volunteers will 1) stop taking risks, 2) continue repeating the same mistakes over-and-over again, and/or 3) possibly even quit.

I know this approach is not something to which  many of us currently subscribe; however, I think this actual “tweet” on FAILfaire’s Twitter page sums it up nicely: “RT @rgkirkpatrick RT @TonyYLyu However much room you give people to fail, is exactly how much they can potentially succeed #singularityu“.

Does anyone out there do a good job of celebrating failure with their volunteers? How do you do it? Please use the comment box of this blog to share your best practices!

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC

About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on July 6, 2011, in Board development, resource development and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Very informative and helpful post. You have nice command on the topic and have explained in a very great way. Thanks for helping .Good work,hope your blog be better!I just want to make a blog like this!

  2. Erik –

    THANK YOU for this post. My grandmother (who was a trailblazing advocate and non-profit executive for years) taught me that acting on big dreams requires accepting failure as part of the process. A lesson I have lived by both professionally and in my personal life.

    I have always been an optimist – always finding positive in challenging situations (and failure). When volunteers I work with start getting bogged down in what isn’t working or getting frustrated with a lack of progress, I spin it to look at the positive. And there ALWAYS is positive.

    From a Resource Development professional perspective, I think this also hits on the need to be a “cheer leader” from time to time. If we go into a meeting with a defeated attitude or buy-in to a “this is not going to work” mind set, that failure probably is going to be the outcome.

    Great post! Thank you!


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