Failing to Grow

“The only bad failure is the one that is repeated.”

Non-profits are notorious for hiding their failures and massaging donor reports.  Have you ever heard of a United Nations, World Bank or USAID project that failed to meet its goals?  Has any IFC report contained a statement like “Top officials at National Bank of Cambodia now only demand $50,000 in ‘tea money’ for a bank operating license, which is a 8.9% decrease from 2009.  Things are moving in the right direction.”  Didn’t think so.

Earlier this year, I had to write an annual report for a program I was taking over on an interim basis while we recruited a new manager.  I wrote a (probably too) straight-forward and honest assessment of the project.  The donor certainly appreciated it and I think it caused our team to stand back and have a serious reflection about the project.  I am glad I wrote what I did, because it was the truth – we didn’t achieve our goals, but we found out new information and will be making major changes to the program to better achieve our desired outcome.   However, it also likely disqualified us from receiving any funding in the short-term.

Therein lies the crux.  Even the best-designed program won’t go according to plan, but for some reason donors expect it.  Philanthrocapitalists, the new breed of successful business men and women that dominate major new foundations (i.e. Gates Foundation), deride the lack of sustainability, transparency and accountability in aid work.

(On a side note, I wonder what would happen if we made these philanthrocapitalist leaders develop detailed log frames over 3 years for their businesses, allocating their time to dozens and dozens of specific activities and forcing them to tuck any capital investments away as generic activity costs just so we can say it was an activity.  Then, we could demand detailed reports on each activity and send our people in intrusively to their organizations to see if they were actually done.  To top it off,  then we can make recommendations from afar, send in a high-paid consultant with no field experience that will stay at the Raffles Hotel and tell them what they are doing wrong.)

I think a lot of criticism of aid is warranted (I’ll certainly write more about it in the future).  However, many projects can find themselves in a double bind, receiving two conflicting messages: achieve your outcome and stick to your plan.

Sometimes straying from the plan is precisely what is needed to achieve your outcome – as you implement and dig deeper, if you do things correctly, you are going to learn quite a bit.  Things might end up not aligning with the original plan or perhaps you start to move in a new direction and identify new, more immediate needs.

But if this is different than the donor expects, moves away from the donor’s specific interests, or simply represents a blemish on your organizations reputation, you could have a tough time receiving future funding.  Obviously, you don’t want to be donor driven, but the stigma of not adhering to the original plan or publicly acknowledging your inability to achieve your results is pretty severe.

And so we have a context where non-profits often shy away from openly admitting failures.  All too often, these failures are exposed by scholars and bloggers like William Easterly. Today, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find a new space for development professionals to publicly share, acknowledge, and discuss their failures.

I hope that people continue to share their experiences through Admitting Failure.  Though it is just one website and tool, it will help contribute to the valuable dialogue around various development issues. I have scratched my head sometimes at projects that I know are just repeating old mistakes that Hagar has already learned from (like running a social business with few transferable skills and limited growth opportunities) – I see it as my mission to share that with others and I am proud that Hagar doesn’t shy away from its failures.  We’ve taken some bumps, but we’re better for it, acknowledge it, and are richer because of it.

Addendum – The above relationship between non-profits and donors is not always true.  There are excellent foundations and individuals and groups of donors that stray from the normal somewhat confrontational relationship (“here is money, give me my outcomes”). I don’t mean to imply that there should be no accountability – rather, there should be some belief and trust in management to make the right decisions to get the work done on the ground.  This can only happen when there is transparent communication and clear expectations.  Ideally, the conversation and relationship would be something like “Here is the outcome, we’re going to work towards it on this tentative plan from XYZ surveys/PRAs/etc. and if things change we’ll let you know.  Our tools and path may veer slightly, but give me your flexibility and trust to accomplish my targets.  Our utmost interest is in serving our target beneficiaries – let’s not lose sight of that.”

~ by responsiblenomad on January 27, 2011.

One Response to “Failing to Grow”

  1. […] process, including the wider development community.  This stakeholder is often neglected, since NGOs rarely tend to publicly admit hardships and failures out of fear of losing donor funding or government approval/endorsement.  PEPY’s commitment […]

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