#npfail Reflections and Call To Action from NTC Plenary on Failure | Beth's Blog

#npfail Reflections and Call To Action from NTC Plenary on Failure


I have been working in the nonprofit sector for 34 years, spending the last twenty of them focusing on the nonprofit technology sector to deliver training and capacity building.    I have been waiting a long time to have a sector-wide conversation about learning from failure and last week at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, we were able to just that!

The plenary session was called “Placing Little Bets: Failing Informatively for the Nonprofit Technology Sector,” and I was joined by smart folks – Brian Reich, Erin Shy, Megan Kashner, and Allie Burns who represent different points of view in our community – from funders, disrupters, software platform, and nonprofits.

We kicked it off with some framing about what exactly is a failure?


The above video from author Peter Sims explaining what a little bet is – failed to launch. But in this quick sound byte he summarizes the of taking small risks or “Little Bets” that lead to innovation. We need more of that in our sector and I plan to work with Peter to write the nonprofit version of Little Bets. More about that later.

We discussed what the reaction to failure does to us as individuals and how it can create a risk-adverse culture in our nonprofits.   We had the 1500 people in the room do the failure bow – captured by here on  video.  As Brian Reich said, we have to get rid of our fear.   We discussed what needs to happen inside of organizations and in the funder community to help nonprofits embrace failure and learning.    And yes, as promised there were a few f-words dropped (Brian started it).

We were lucky to have extraordinary documentation of the event – Rob Cottingham’s sketch notes,  Jeremy Bivin’s Storify,  Jenna Saubers notes, Ed Schipul’s photos – and more all curated and archived here.   I will summarize the top takeaways and the call to action:

  • Nonprofits and the people who work for them have to loose their fear of taking risks and that opens us up to fail and improve
  • Failure is a luxury – and we can’t fail the people so it has to be incremental by learning to learn from placing a lot of Little Bets
  • Nonprofits and funders need to change upfront expectations about projects and make space to allow for a fail or something not working out. It’s okay as long as we learn something from to improve.
  • New definition of success: Adaptability and Transformation
  • Nonprofits need to fail from the inside out — we have to make it okay to not be perfect inside of nonprofits and to honestly share lessons learned beyond our walls
  • Many of the 1500 people in the room at NTC agree with us, but the challenge is when they go back to the office – culture change is needed
  • Nonprofits need to embrace failure, not just accept it. This means front loading failure as well as doing “after action reviews.”


CALL TO ACTION:   Place a Little Bet at Your Nonprofit and Share It (You could win a Microsoft Surface or Other Schwag)

We ended with a call to action to nonprofits in the room and beyond to “Place a Little Bet” – try something small to experiment with, learn from it, and share it.

Share Your #npfail story by April 30th and you will have a chance to win a Microsoft Surface or other schwag from the Case Foundation that is sponsoring the contest. (They are also doing a sector wide survey on failure and innovation)

I agreed to lead a conversation on failure and learning from the nonprofits on this blog – and share those stories.       We invite you to write and openly share your failures using the #npfail hashtag.



21 Responses

  1. Elaine Fogel says:

    Beth, this all sounds great with the exception of this bullet point:

    “Nonprofits and funders need to change upfront expectations about projects and make space to allow for a fail or something not working out. It’s okay as long as we learn something from to improve.”

    If I were an investor in a business, stock, or venture, I’d certainly want to see an ROI for my money. I would ensure that the entity in which I invested had proven itself previously or, at the least, have strong leadership who can take the business plan and fly with it.

    I do agree that nonprofits need to strive for a culture of innovation, and with that comes risk – managed risk. Building a discretionary innovation fund can be of value in achieving this, and “placing a lot of Little Bets.” But, I don’t think grant funders are going to be all that enthusiastic if their grantees try testing big waters with their grant money.

    In my opinion, this topic ties into the need for a cultural shift that has been long overdue. When nonprofits behave with the head of a business and the heart of a charity, then we’ll see more innovation and growth.

  2. Beth says:

    Elaine: Thank for your thoughts. I agree with you -perhaps the bullet point wasn’t as clear as it should have been. There are many who are so risk adverse that won’t take small, managed risks. That’s what we’re trying to change. We’re not saying that people to “bet the farm” – that’s not a little bet. If you go listen to the video from Peter Sims, he defines exactly what a little bet is.

  3. Roger says:

    Hi Beth,

    Thank you for this important post and appreciated post…I have been lately exposed to the work of Engineer Without Boarders in Canada…and they are doing a great job when it comes to dealing with failure through their yearly failure report

    and other similar initiatives such as failforward.org and
    http://www.admittingfailure.com/ are also building for a new culture of embarrassing failure

  4. Kathy says:

    Hi to all out there
    I am not a registered non profit in fact I am not anything just a person, Learning as I go and failing in magnificent style.This means only that I am given a chance to grow. I started a project to help unemployed artists sell their work Stanford Whoswho gave me a platform to work from. Artists have been reluctant saying a jpeg file can be copied and their work will be taken.A few have shown interest and a few have sent me pictures there has been content problem with some of the work received it is not posted just archived.I will continue with this project it is on going, Then I decided to do my Kenyan childrens project to try and get their art to the site I am still waiting for art .I want to continue the process it is not to raise money for myself it is for the artists.I am looking for something to market to earn my income, without capital even a small project is hard to run.No funding is being asked for and no company has been regitered,thus far it is volentary and cost me only my time and a bit of data time.This is enjoyable and failure is only part of a winning process

  5. Becky says:

    Hi Beth, glad to hear you’re writing another book! I got Sims’ book at the Social Good Summit, guess I have to finish it now 🙂

  6. Beth says:

    Thanks Becky! Great to hear from you!

  7. Mike says:

    Hi Beth

    This is our big technology bet to manage our contact sessions, deliver our message and get how’s in our area to work collectively and fundraiser together: http://www.2Enable.org. We are working in rural Africa where there is highly limited access to technology. Thought you would be interested.

  8. […] At the Nonprofit Technology Conference – held 11-13 April in Minneapolis (which I joined as a virtual participant) – Beth invited participants to take a failure bow. […]

  9. […] At the Nonprofit Technology Conference – held 11-13 April in Minneapolis (which I joined as a virtual participant) – Beth invited participants to take a failure bow. […]

  10. […] היה מעניין, מחכים, וקורא לפעילות ולשיחה. אפשר לקרוא סיכום והפניות לסיכומים נוספים בפוסטים של בת' קנטר ושל בריאן רייך. אפשר לעקוב אחרי השיחה בטוויטר עם האשטג […]

  11. Beth says:

    Hi Mike: Wow, please do share that story and example for the contest: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/npfail

  12. Terry Lubrick ESBIA says:

    As a brain injury survivor group, the stigma prevents those affected from learning how to overcome a lot of their difficulties. Memory loss prevents them from taking on any commitment in the organization, and the caregivers don’t seem to be able to deal with the horrendous job; thus not wanting to take on any more duties.

  13. Thank you so much, Beth, Brian, Allie, Erin, and Megan! Your panel was a critical piece in the overall conversation at the #13NTC and I know I speak for all NTEN staff when I say thank you for helping us all be better.

    Plus, I’m working with staff to set some best as part of the NPFail Story challenge!

  14. Beth says:

    Amy, thanks so much for your work on this!

  15. As a psychotic entrepreneur my tracks are spewed with “little bets” that, in
    the majority of cases have lead to, “bug bucks”. One such story….we are
    constantly grappling with ideas as to how we can assist graduates from our
    multiple personal and skills development programmes in setting up their own
    NPO’s or legal entities. Through the company I founded 16 years ago,
    Khulisa Social,Solutions, we work with tens of thousands of marginalized youth
    and community members every year – see http://www.khulisa.org.za 7 years ago I placed
    a ‘little bet’ in training a group of ex offenders and youth at risk in the
    art of Puppetry and Puppet Theatre. A chance for self expression, community
    education, income generation, personal,development,,education and
    recreation. The R15.000 ‘little bet” has now lead to this now being a
    national programme having being rolled out to schools throughout South
    Africa, by locally trained,,unemployed (and many semi literate) youth. The
    use of puppets is now being explored by multiple government departments and
    corporates, following substantial,evidence of,impact demonstrated in the
    rigorous evaluation reports prepared for,donors.

  16. Beth says:

    We are extending the deadline to this Friday, May 3rd. So if you haven’t submitted your failure story – do it now!!

  17. Little Bets
    In 2004, in partnership with a leading international corporate consulting agency, Khulisa took the ‘risk’ of taking nine ex-offenders to the UK on a fundraising mission.

    Significant investment was made in preparing this group of unexposed young men for the foreign UK audience, zoning in on developing their storytelling and cultural performance skills, general etiquette, as well public speaking. A well known South African script writer and actor developed a script, coached the team and accompanied us for the duration of our trip. The audiences we performed to ranged from the Home Office, representatives of Parliament, leading business figures, like-minded friends, common mandated NGOs and genuinely interested members of the British public. The messages conveyed were taken to heart and opportunities for support for Khulisa’s cause, to give ex-offenders a chance, were unprecedented.

    The effort invested by our young men was amazing and my husband (who funded the trip) and I were fascinated by the dynamics that evolved between our mixed group of people mostly because we were called in frequently to deal with some challenging experiences.

    Our Virgin Atlantic flight was scheduled for 20h00 – only five ‘heroes’ arrived at our departure point. 20 minutes before the flight was due to depart the opposition party turned up at the airport – blood was spewing from the puffy eyes of one of our most talented candidates who I had known for eight years dating back to his original encounter with Khulisa in prison. They had been in a fight, we were told and despite their state of total inebriation still managed to get to the airport. Due to the evidence physical wounds, three were denied access to the airplane. On our arrival back to SA we had to ‘confess’ to the British High Commissioner who had personally funded the visas for this special group, that they had gone missing. One returned at his own will and has subsequently passed away. The second married a woman from Ireland and was deported back to SA. He returned back on her passport and is now living happily with his children and family in Wales. The last is ‘missing in action’.

    It was only on our return that the hostel where they were staying, who had given us a 75% discount reported that a group of our ‘ambassadors’ had raided all the students bags, stolen the cell phones, CD players and other electronic equipment. The introspection to understand what had happened required considerable inputs from our colleagues and those who had ‘returned safely’.

    Lessons Learnt
    Never trade on anybody’s personal change
    Ensure that the leader of the pack has sufficient skills to manage disruptive circumstances
    Establish the boundaries and make sure that they are adhered to – if not there needs to be an immediate consequence
    A group of like-minded people together will capitalise on their collective knowledge!
    Embrace the learning, understand it and share it
    Learn from the learnings, articulate them, embed them in future policies and procedures, share them and make sure that policies and procedures are put in place to avoid such a circumstance which could have been the total destruction of the work and investment of so many people
    Go for the jugular, take responsibility and eliminate the risk of other people who potentially could be involved, i.e. our British partner

  18. […] Kanter dealt with this conundrum at NTEN’s annual conference in her session: Placing Little Bets: Failing Informatively for the Nonprofit Technology Sector. She said it isn’t enough to help attendees learn how to fail: “the challenge is when they go […]

  19. […] The Nonprofit Technology Conference a year ago, Beth Kanter led a panel discussion called “Placing Little Bets” (based on the book, Little Bets), where the discussion […]