6 Ways Nonprofits Learn from Affordable Losses or Little Bets To Improve Impact | Beth's Blog

6 Ways Nonprofits Learn from Affordable Losses or Little Bets To Improve Impact


Last Friday, Media Impact Funders brought together technologists, journalists, philanthropists and innovators for a day-long conversation on the future of media and tech innovation. I had the honor facilitating a session on  measuring impact with Greg Baldwin and Jay Backstrand from VolunteerMatch discussing how their approach to measuring impact over the past decade.  Later in the morning,  Laura Efurd of ZeroDivide, myself, and Greg Baldwin hosted an hour discussion on measuring impact with participants.   I have an in-depth blog post about that coming up, but I wanted to touch on a theme that came up:  “Fail early and often. Don’t be afraid of failure because it often helps uncover a better idea or approach.”

The Failure Bow (Click for Photo for More Information)

Today, I am at the COF Conference where I will have the honor of co-hosting a conversation on  with esteemed colleagues Peter Sims, author of Little Bets and founder of BLKSHP and Casey Haskins who is the head of BLKSHP innovation who an expert in Systems Thinking.   Peter writes about Casey’s work in Little Bets as a Colonel in the US Military and as head of instruction at West Point Academy.  Our session will focus on BLK SHP Thinking Applied – an introduction to the basic tenets of Little Bets approach (experiment, play, immerse, define, reorient, and iterate) and how to apply to the philanthropy sector.

Peter  shares a key insight that anyone, at any age, can become more creative if they’re willing to start trying things or what Peter calls ‘little bets,’ a loss that you determine you can afford to take before making a small bet.    Being creative can lead to better outcomes, but nonprofits and the people who work for them must get rid of fear.     “The antidote to these fears is simple. Make a small bet. Do things to learn what to do.”    Peter summarizes research by Carol Dweck that talks about how people can shift their mindsets from “perfectionism” and the “fear of failure” to a growth mindset by taking small, incremental steps.     The term “Black Sheep” comes from Brad Bird at Pixar – Black Sheep are people who are willing to challenge the status quo and think differently about problems – they are experts at placing Little Bets.

Talking about risk-taking and potential for failure is difficult in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, but having it part of an organization’s culture so it is free of stigma and that everyone learns is even harder.  As a sector, we aren’t necessarily “Failure Friendly.”  Some nonprofits are tempted to hide their failures,  because they are concerned about how their funders might react.   But many nonprofits understand that transparency about what works and what doesn’t is crucial to their eventual success.

I’m been curious about this in the nonprofit sector and researched it as part of writing, “Measuring the Networked Nonprofit” but I want to take a deeper dive to look at the practices.  Are there nonprofits that have a culture of placing Little Bets or affordable losses and learning from them?   Are there foundations funded initiatives or other efforts to encourage learning from failure in the nonprofit sector? What are some examples?  Here’s a few.

1.    The DoSomething Pink Boa FailFest

I’ve written a lot of DoSomething.Org’s culture of being data informed, but one thing they do is an internal “FailFest” about every six months.     The idea behind FailFest isn’t to make anyone feel bad; its to learn.  The message they want everyone in the organization to embrace:   Failure itself isn’t something to feared or be ashamed of.  Not trying something new, not admitting failure, not learning from a miss–that is the bad stuff.”

They have a specific method for this:

The Rules

1. Everyone is welcome to present something on x topic related to something that didn’t work.   Nobody is forced to present.

2. Attire. Presenters must wear the provided hot-pink feather boa.

3. Length. Presentations should be no longer than 10 minutes, followed by 2 minutes of Q&A from the group.

4. Presentations should cover 5 areas: (a) General overview: goal, history, timing of the failure; (b) What went right? (c) What went wrong? (d) Three things “I” learned about myself; (e) Three things DoSomething learned.

5. Twist. The “learnings” items must each have a metaphor. For example, you might show a photo of a celebrity or sing a song lyric or reference some other (funny) comp. This will help make the presentations less like speeches…and more silly.

It is an off-the-record session. Its open to all staff, interns, board members.

If want to learn more about how to roll your own failfest or failfaire, here’s some how-to advice.

2. Momsrising Joyful Funeral

Momsrising is a highly successful and creative organization that a network of people, united by the goal of building a more family-friendly America.   It comes as no surprise that they are masters at placing little bets and learning from things are not working.   One method they use is the “Joyful Funeral.”     They understand that many of the new technologies they use require experimentation and learning – so they have established a process to take away shame.    Simply, they say “It didn’t work, let’s give this technique a joyful funeral.”    They will ask is it time to order the flowers?    They will give the technique a formal burial and eulogy.  During this reflection, many new ideas on how to pivot and iterate rise up.

3. Global Giving’s Honest Loser Award

During my book tour last year,  I was lucky enough to host a discussion with staff at Global Giving in Washington, DC.    We had a terrific conversation about how they have created an organizational culture where failure is accepted so they can reap the learning from it.   Donna Callejon shared a story about their “Honest Loser Award” where a staff member gets to tell the story of something they tried in their program, something new, that didn’t work and what they learned from it..    They do this several times a year to encourage innovation and take the shame out of failure.

There are many, many methods for reflective practice in organizations that can be easily adapted by nonprofits to facilitate the discussion about failure or what hasn’t worked.      Many organization’s incorporate “After Action Reviews” for their programs and events, but that it often evolves into the blame game.     This might be a good opportunity to introduce the “Failure Bow” concept.    Or start more simply with asking powerful questions – less what and more what if.

5.     Sector-Wide Examples

For a “failure” or “mistake” to lead to learning for an organization,  those who have organized Failfests in the nonprofit sector say it is critical to talk about failure aloud — and the leader in the organization lead it.     In addition to nurturing a culture of creativity and reflection, unpacking failure without blame game helps build an understanding of what not to do in the future.     The examples above illustrate how this can be done inside of an organization, but it is even more powerful when as set of nonprofits comes together to share what doesn’t work.

Fail Faire DC 2012 is a celebration of failure as a mark of innovation and risk-taking hosted by the World Bank.  Think Ted-X style presentations of nonprofit professional failures.   This even focused on what has gone wrong in ICT and international development.   They encourage participants to not be ashamed and that “failure shows leadership, innovation, and risk-taking in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs.”

There are also several web sites that publish failure reports.   Engineers Without Borders Canada, which works on engineering solutions for international development problems, publishes a “failure report” every year alongside its annual report.   The examples that are illustrate how this development organization is placing little bets and taking affordable losses and has helped them be more creative and innovative.   There is also Admitting Failure, to encourage people working in international development to share their stories of failure.


6.    Irvine Foundation Arts Innovation Fund

California arts organizations conducted 28 experiments to achieve new relevance for audiences, communities and professional artists with support from The James Irvine Foundation. Here’s an overview of what they did and what they learned.   The report also looks at what didn’t work and why – free of stigma.   The report is presented as an interactive infographic.

Does your organization have an example of how it handles mistakes and creates learning?     What are some of the best examples of  sector wide approaches to failure and learning?   What are some of the best examples in philanthropy?    Please leave me a comment.



13 Responses

  1. Dear Beth,

    I´m thrilled about the great connection you did with Peter Sims “little bets” vision for the social sector! I´m excited to apply such examples on how to learn from failure since your participation at the Social Good Brasil!

    An additional inspiration to your thoughts and research in the “learning from failure” field is the “lean startup” methodology applied in the tech startup world (http://theleanstartup.com/). I read the book from Eric Ries and other entrepreneurs such as Steve Blank and adpated to the Social Good initiatives we´re supporting right now and designing a methodology for this year´s plan.

    What I liked a lot about it is to shift from the “just do it” school to using a kind of scientific process, by setting clear hypothesis of the best strategies to achieve a vision, definig a minimun viable product and test it.

    Have you heard about any initiative in the social sector that is taking it forward taking into considerations adaptations to the social sector?

    Thank you a lot! Best regards,
    Carolina – Social Good Brasil

  2. Love this! I’m nearly 6 months into my first time as an executive director at a nonprofit. I definitely want us to be a safe place in which to dare, try, and fail, but this takes it to a new level of celebration that will make that message even stronger.

    Although not directly on the same point this article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review about why we need strategy (not a strategic plan) fits with the general idea of learning, adapting, and going forward: http://www.ssireview.org/blog/entry/the_strategic_plan_is_dead._long_live_strategy

    Now to come up with a clever name for our celebration. Since we’re a bike advocacy organization we have an abundance of appropriate metaphors from which to choose–maybe it’s the Gear Jammer.

    Barb Chamberlain
    Executive Director
    Bicycle alliance of Washington

  3. Amanda Minuk says:

    I love this concept of celebrating failure- and how these companies DO it and not just SAY they do.

    People are afraid to try something different and bold (especially at nonprofits where budgets are low) because of the fear of failure. Without the explicit culture of celebrating and learning from failure, nonprofits will innovate slower. All organizations, not just nonprofits- should learn more from DoSomething …. bring on the pink boas!

  4. […] Best moment of #MIForum?Lifting my arms and voices to say "I FAILED, NOW LETS MOVE ON."Led by @kanter — Wendy Hanamura (@WHanamura) January 25, 2013 Last Friday, Media Impact Funders brought together technologists, journalists, philanthropists and…  […]

  5. Mitch Belkin says:

    Dear Beth,

    This is so true! “Some nonprofits are tempted to hide their failures, because they are concerned about how their funders might react. But many nonprofits understand that transparency about what works and what doesn’t is crucial to their eventual success.”

    At Orbeliani, we’re trying to change the way donors fund nonprofit activities to make it more transparent, accountable and, ultiamtely, easier for individuals without an organizational background to try new ideas! We will do this by creating a unique online interface so people receiving money don’t actually touch it. Instead they designate payments. Since they never touch the money, they don’t deal with financial reports. As for narrative reports, we substitute this for weekly online blog posts. This way, new people with new ideas can get out there and do good work!

    For more info, check out Orbeliani.org or email me at mitch at orbeliani.org.

    Warm wishes,
    Mitch Belkin
    Assistant Organizational Manager at Orbeliani

  6. Am in the process of planning the SAVE (Summit for Advanced Volunteer Engagement) in DC just after the Points of Light conference in June. We are building our theme around the CASE Foundation’s work “Be Fearless”. One of the 5 tenets of the framework is Make Failure Matter. Excellent work and materials on their website. Michael Smith, Sr. VP will be the opening keynote speaker of our SAVE event. Great stuff.
    Onward…Betty Stallings, President, Stallings and Associates

  7. […] were priceless.  The following week I met up with Beth Kanter, who confided that she was becoming obsessed with stories of failure as learning opportunities.  The conversation got me to reflect on how debriefing after failure […]

  8. […] Beth Kanter writes a great post about overcoming the risk-aversion of the nonprofit sector by taking “little bets.” […]

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  10. […] to track outcomes, acknowledge failures, and then do better.  If it takes a pink feather boa and an amusing ritual for nonprofits to get there, I’m all for it, though I’m not expecting surgeons to adopt the feather […]

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  12. […] expert Beth Kanter often endorses the idea of taking little bets to improve your organization, embracing the risk of minor failure. Think of when businesses prototype or build a minimally […]

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