Last month, during the Nonprofit Technology Conference plenary session on placing little bets and learning from failure, we issued a challenge to 1,000 nonprofits in the audience. Let’s do more than just give failure lip service, let’s put it into practice and share learning from a failure or placing a “Little Bet.” A ‘Little Bet” as defined by Peter Sims, author of the book – Little Bets, is a small action that you can take to discover something new. It’s an affordable loss that leads to innovation.
— Case Foundation (@CaseFoundation) April 13, 2013
The Case Foundation offered to give away a Microsoft Surface and so we issued a call to nonprofits to submit their “Little Bets” stories. We received 18 fabulous stories about small fails in fundraising, project management, communications, social media, and internal planning. But the winner was a story about stepping out an organization’s comfort zone to try to avoid repeating past mistakes. The winner is Heartland Pride and here’s their story:
Little Bet: After years of having a local organization that planned pride in the Midwest fail numerous times, our organization was formed. We started out with a task force that began to analyze what was working and not working in regard to the prior organization. After many months and the realization that things were beyond repairable with the old organization we formed a new one. We took all the necessary steps to become an official 501c3 and we made little changes to the event in the first year we hosted it. The second year we made changes and moved our event to a large park in Omaha and in doing so we were able to save the organization more than 25K in expenses and make it possible for us to retain more of our profits allowing us to provide larger grants and scholarships to help the local LGBT community! When we started we literally had a 5 member board that planned everything and over the past few years we have grown a volunteer base that is allowing us to continue to grow!
Learning: We learned that by not changing what was happening over the years we were doomed to repeat the mistakes of the previous organization. By stepping out of the comfort zone we were able to seek out new partnerships and the organization was able to increase it’s financial gains! I for one am extremely proud of the work we have done and look forward to continued success!
It was hard to select a winner because all of the stories were terrific. Here is a summary of the stories and what people learned from the experience:
Youth Business Initiative: Planning and implementing a big idea for an event on a small budget and for the first time, will no doubt include some mistakes and problems will arise that are beyond your control. However, don’t be afraid to try something new, look at both the positive outcomes and reflect on how to do it better the next time around. Don’t try to do something like this along, build a support system to help.
The Gifted Learning Project: Whenever you plan a fundraising event, double check the calendar and dates in all your external communications.
Dr. Mani Children Heart Foundation: To raise money using social media as part of your strategy, you need a group of champions with tight connections to your mission and voluntary opt-in email works well for this. Loose ties or people you are connected with on social networks are good for spreading awareness and you need them as part of your campaign, but to raise dollars strong ties are essential.
Jewish Federations: When developing a strategy for an engagement campaign, don’t be off the cuff. Use the planning process to get internal buy in from staff.
Energy Employees Claimant Assistance Project: If asking your community to generate content, make sure they know how to use the platform and tools.
K02 Adventures Community Interest Company: Patience is needed when you partner with an organization or government entity that has a different way of working than your nonprofit.
Helping Our Peers: Asked two local government entities to apply for a grant for a program but they said no. Got permission to apply and after the two government entities did not receive the grant, rose above the personal politics and offered to share the funding. Taking the high road in partnerships always works.
Working With Consultants
Dominican Sisters of Springfield, IL: When hiring a consultant, always do your due diligence. Check references before you hire. Make sure the deliverable is reasonable and tie payments to deliverable items in the contract.
Internal Planning and Project Implementation
Domuskids: Facilitating a staff meeting where participants are asked to brainstorm, something not typically done at staff meetings requires more preparation for staff to make the shift into a different mindset. Introducing the idea and smaller ways to practice the new way of thinking can help make this exercise more productive.
JCamp 180: If you are rolling out a big project, break it down is small chunks for easier monitoring. If the project includes an assessment and learning process, design it so people can easily learn from one another.
Drop in the Bucket: When developing a project for a remote area in a developing country, the less obvious things can get in the way. Test your assumptions.
Children’s Hunger Fund: If you are collecting feedback from participants in a program using an online platform, make sure you test the system with participants before rolling out widely.
Smile At Your Baby: If you are doing a fundraising event, make sure the venue is appropriate and acceptable to your audience. “Free” use of a space should not be the only criteria.
The Piedmont Environmental Council: Proof your fundraising emails before you send them out.
Disability Network: When you plan a fundraising project, make sure you have a solid team of volunteers to help you implement – and train and equipment them to support the effort.
Motley Zoo: Don’t set an unrealistically large fundraising goal because it is too daunting. Break it down into smaller, bit sized campaigns.
These are terrific examples of how to learn from mistakes and little bets.