The presenters cheerfully (or making the effort to be) highlight projects which they have led and which have been total failures. The idea is to “bare it all.” So while the tone is irreverent and fun (I suppose to make the pain of sharing your darkest secrets more bearable), there are some serious players behind this effort, including the World Bank, which has been hosting it for 3 years. The DC FailFaire is organized by the always energetic and articulate Wayan Vota, from Development Gateway. Highly entertaining and very well-attended (more than 150 people showed up on a Friday night at the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) auditorium – let me repeat: on a Friday night!), this year’s event did not disappoint.
But the Fail Faire is not enough in my view. I worry, as I stated in this event, that the International NGO (INGO) community is not structurally fit for purpose, when it comes to failing, and to learning from those failures. Why?
- “Many ideas, but few effective sharing platforms.” As I have noted elsewhere, the international development industry is quite robust. Barriers to entry are low, making it relatively easy for anyone with passion and ideas to establish an NGO and begin to mobilize energy, volunteers, resources around specific issues and causes. This is terrific, in my view. It means more competition and more ideas. But it is worth very little if we have no/few effective mechanisms for collecting, processing, analyzing and feeding back information, and if we do not have the feedback loops required to make sure we are learning from all this innovation (and presumably failure).
By the way, what I have described as characterizing the international development industry also applies to federations like Plan (and Plan itself). Plan’s strength is that it is highly decentralized. This has led to a great deal of entrepreneurial and innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. But Plan has not, until now, been investing sufficiently in effective feedback and sharing mechanisms. We are getting much better at this, but we are not quite there. Why do we in Plan (and the INGO community) underinvest in knowledge sharing? Good segue into my second point….
- “It is all about the mission”…and “no one signed up for risk.” A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that since 1970 the number of nonprofits in the US that have crossed the $50 million a year budget threshold is only 144. The number of for-profits that have crossed that line during the same period is over 46,000. Why? This could be an entire dissertation. But let me focus on what I think are a couple of big reasons. One is that our own mission orientation may “get in the way.” We are (for good reason) so focused on getting as much of the money to the field (in Plan’s case, to the children) as possible that we put off investments in systems and structural modernization, technologies and staff. Eventually, this catches up with us. We become less efficient; the lack of investment becomes a real constraint to growth. This happened to our organization. We put off modernizing our IT infrastructure until the old system literally shackled us.
A second reason is that to grow, you need to take risks; you have to dare to experiment. And you have to be willing to live with failure. In the for-profit world, there is no huge stigma attached to going for broke and perhaps going belly-up. Your investors and partners, even your staff, signed up for a journey that they knew included risk. And if there was risk, there was reward. This is not really the case in the non-profit side. We are not promising our donors – or our staff - riches but rather impact. We mobilize resources because we tell our donors we know the way to improving lives. We are not built, or capitalized, to fail. So, when it comes to failure, we will talk the talk, but we are far less enthused about walking the talk.