Failing Forward: 10 Lessons Learned in 2014


Photo by Awamaki, the First Place $1000 winner in GlobalGiving’s Fail Forward contest

There were many incredible things that happened in 2014, but some of the stories we’re most proud of are your failures. You read that right: we’re glad to see how our nonprofit partners are talking about failure (we’re talking about it, too!) because we’re thrilled that we’re all learning and improving.

As you may recall, GlobalGiving held a Fail Forward contest at the end of 2014, offering prizes to nonprofits that submitted project reports telling a story of a failure and what learning came from the failure. We’re proud to announce the winners here! Click on any link to read the Fail Forward story, and follow our Facebook and Twitter feeds for the next several weeks to see how we’re featuring these stories.

  1. First Place $1000 winner: Awamaki – “It’s so important for the women we work with to fully understand their constitution and bylaws, and that they take strong leadership in their own cooperative business.”
  2. Second Place $600 winner: Mother’s Heart – “To our inexperienced minds, $300 was a small amount to pay if it meant Jana could have the life she wanted as a new mom. However, our haste was our downfall. Our eagerness brought failure. Our good intentions blinded us to the reality of Jana’s situation. We neglected to ask the right questions.”
  3. Third Place $400 winner: Center for Amazon Community Ecology –  “A system used by a similar organization seemed like a great way to empower our artisans to improve the consistency and quality of their crafts for the export market, but it didn’t work in this setting. Our jobs are to respect and support their organic process, culture and vision.”
  4. Honorable Mention: Zahana – “In participatory development requests from the community have priority, or it would not be participatory.”
  5. Honorable Mention: Global Emergency Care Collaborative – “A program that was dependent on one (foreign) individual was in no way  sustainable… so we had to rethink our mission and vision to design a program that is successful, replicable, scalable, and affordable.”
  6.  Honorable Mention: Aasraa Trust – “Battered and  abused children need persistent counseling alone and with the families. The family exerts enormous pressure on the child and cannot be ignored.”
  7. Honorable Mention: ColaLife – “Unless you are equally proud of your failures as your successes, no one will learn.”
  8. Honorable Mention: Days for Girls – “Only an informed design process focused on collaboration, and responsiveness to local feedback will get a result that is culturally, environmentally and physically relevant.”
  9. Honorable Mention: Expanding Opportunities – “State and restate what you can and cannot do clearly and often.”
  10. Honorable Mention: Aravind Eye Foundation — “Free can still be expensive: address all the barriers that people might face in accessing your services.”

The  Fail Forward celebration doesn’t just end just with our nonprofit partners’ learning, we also want to share a bit about what GlobalGiving learned from the contest:

Failure can feel good (eventually). Some of our nonprofit partners talked about how failure could feel good if you’re open and honest about it. Jane Berry from Cola Life said this: “…this change of direction could have been a huge embarrassment. But amazingly, by ‘coming clean’ straight away about the failure, we have won more praise, more friends, and more understanding. One of our award-givers even asked us back to the prestigious event we had won the year before, to hear more about our failure.”

Some of our partners even even attributed their current success to their initial failures. “Had we not learned from this failure, our organization would not have learned the importance of building local capacity through education, and the 25,000 patients that have been treated in the past several years would not have received the life-saving care they desperately needed,” said Tom Neill from Global Emergency Care Collaborative.

Many of us are failing at the same things no matter where we are on the map. Interestingly, we found that the majority of the Fail Forward submissions in our contest fell into one of three categories:

  1. Failing to make a contract. We all want to believe that partners will make good on their promises; but when they don’t, it can hurt everyone involved. Most stories emphasized good communication and formalizing agreements and contracts with partners.
  1. Failing while fundraising. Storytellers were eager to share how hard it is to motivate people to give. The stories on this topic emphasized starting with small endeavors and a trusted team to build early success before holding expensive events that could be major failures.
  1. Failing to meet the expressed needs of the community. This was perhaps the most important type of story that came out of the contest, because it gets to the heart of what it means to be effective. The stories on this topic emphasized the role of involving community members in planning and implementation at a very early stage.

How can you learn from these failures without having to experience them for yourself? Take advantage of some of the tools that GlobalGiving can provide. First, use the network available to you on the GlobalGiving Project Leaders Facebook Group to ask for ideas, contacts, sample agreements and contracts. Next, take a look at the tools available to help you gather feedback from the community you seek to help. You can find worksheets, websites, plans, and software to help you gather constituent feedback.

We look forward to another year of Listening, Acting, Learning and Repeating with you in 2015!


YOUR TURN: Listen, Act, Learn. Repeat.

LISTEN: You just read a post about failing forward, with several examples from how other nonprofits have learned from their failures this year.
ACT: We challenge you to share a Fail Forward experience with your stakeholders!
LEARN: Be sure to describe what your organization learned from the failure, and share what you’ll do differently in 2015.


Alison Carlman

As Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications, Alison has the privilege of telling GlobalGiving's story and the stories of our inspiring nonprofit partners. Follow her on twitter @acarlman.

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