Social Impact Academy: Learning from Failure

Social Impact Academy: Learning from Failure

Let’s be honest, we all fail. But it’s how we acknowledge and learn from failure that sets us apart. This week in the Social Impact Academy, we were joined by Kennedy Leavens, the Executive Director of Awamaki, and Marilyn Darling, a Partner at Fourth Quadrant Partners to discuss recognizing and responding to failure.

Session Recording:

Session Summary:

Kennedy Leavens, Executive Director, Awamaki

Awamaki provides training and market access to rural female artisans in Peru. Awamaki won GlobalGiving’s 2014 Fail Forward Contest, you can read its winning submission here.

Identifying Failure

  • Ask questions: Informal conversations among staff stimulate open, honest feedback without the pressure of formal meetings.
  • Strategic reviews: These involve formal staff meetings which discuss your organization’s past and future goals.
  • Match methods to your community: Women in Awamaki’s communities did not provide constructive criticism in formal settings. Awamaki worked within the culture of its rural communities and found that rumors and gossip are effective feedback methods (with proper discernment between truth and false gossip).
  • Mission-financial Axis Map: Awamaki uses this visual tool to have strategic discussions about how programs both contribute to the organization’s financial sustainability and relate to their mission.

Respond, Communicate, Learn

  • Ex. English Classes: Awamaki had an English teaching program which it relied on financially. However, students in Awamaki’s communities didn’t come to class even after repeatedly varying the target population.
    • Response: An internal analysis found negative financial consequences of ending the program, but the dissatisfaction of volunteer teachers with empty classrooms carried unquantifiable repercussions. English classes were cancelled and Awamaki decided to find the finances elsewhere.
    • Communication: Awamaki was open when communicating with the community and volunteers about the situation. Volunteers were grateful because they did not want to be part of an ineffective program.
    • Learned: Even if a program is generating income, if it does not achieve the mission it should be cut. There is always instant improvement despite financial constraints.
  • Ex. Puente Inca knitters: Knitters received funding from the UN for capacity building. The women viewed the program as charity, not a business opportunity, and as a result, the quality of their work suffered and the co-op became dysfunctional.
    • Response: Awamaki fired half of the knitters, created and upheld quality standards, introduced financial penalties, and delegated responsibilities to workers.
    • Communication: All changes in expectation were clearly communicated to the women. This helped them understand their accountability to the program.
    • Learned: Tough decisions must be made. The women expected Awamaki to hold their hands because that’s what it was doing. The women now act as reliable, independent business owners.
  • Ex. Weaving Center: The man who donated land for the center intimidated the weavers, they believed that he was in charge of the center with Awamaki’s consent. This came as a surprise to Awamaki, which considers women’s empowerment to be at the center of all of the organization’s programs. Read the complete story here.
    • Response: Awamaki learned that the women did not understand their rights. Many are illiterate and could not read the weavers’ association’s by-laws to understand that this man was not in charge. Awamaki brought in a Quechua-speaking lawyer to meet with them and explain their options. Eventually, the women purchased land and built a new center of their own.
    • Communication: As Awamaki started processing this failure, it shared its problems to donors. Because donors knew about the situation before it was resolved, they responded positively when asked for donations to create a new center.
    • Learned: All new centers are built and owned by the women. Women are now exemplary leaders within the centers.

Create a culture that is healthy and risk-taking

  • Ask staff and beneficiaries how you can improve your program (use a feedback loop).
  • Don’t be afraid to confront failure head on; it will lead to deeper and unexpected impact, stronger donor and beneficiary relationships, and more staff buy-in.
  • Communicate honestly. Give your happy stories to donors but also let them know your struggles. This will help you gain their trust and make them feel like part of your team.

Marilyn Darling, Partner, Fourth Quadrant Partners, LLC

Fourth Quadrant Partners helps its partners achieve their desired outcomes with tools to produce better results in the future. It demonstrates how to acknowledge and learn from failure.

When is a lesson truly learned?

  1. When a group changes its choices and actions based on the lesson;
  2. When the change produces better results.

Keep going through learning cycles

  • Hypothesis: Use if/then statements, “IF we do this, THEN that will happen.”
  • Method: What do you need to do to reach your goal?
  • Results: How are your programs evolving and affecting your results?
  • Repeat! Refine your hypotheses, methods, and results.

Before and After Action Reviews

  • Ask your team a series of questions before and after an action or program to see if you accomplished what you set out to achieve.
  • This process can help you identify possible challenges or pinpoint program failures.
  • It is a visual organizer which shows the iterative process of getting better results.
  • Use for anything considered an important piece of work.
  • Keep it simple.


Q: Do you think the word “failure” in project reporting is about the vocabulary or the sentiment?

Kennedy: I like the vocabulary of “failure” because it is eye catching for donors. “Setback” sounds sugar-coated. Wording may not make a big difference, but I like the drama of “failure.”

Marilyn: Some people don’t feel comfortable using the word “failure.” Vocabulary should be determined by your own environment—you and your board. You can also use “setbacks” to denote a smaller problem or an early indicator that something isn’t working. “Failure” can represent larger programmatic issues.

Q: How can you ensure that lessons are learned throughout a large organization?

Marilyn: It is not so important that you learn a specific lesson. It is more important to cultivate an environment that is able to recognize issues as they arise. At Fourth Quadrant Partners we use peer assists. This brings colleagues together to discuss potential issues as we start new projects.

Q: Do you have local women in your staff? Do you think that you approach the community differently as a result of your experiences?

Kennedy: Yes, about half of our staff is made up of local women and half are international. That has been really important to our organization.

Our experiences have definitely changed the way that we do things. For example, we treat all of our cooperatives as a business rather than charity. All weaving centers must now purchase land through the co-op.

Marilyn: You can learn from past experiences by comparing and contrasting lessons you have learned from similar situations. Kennedy showed this in her experiences with the knitters and the weavers.

This post was written by Kennan Howlett, Program Team Intern. 

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