Leadership lessons for charities often come from stories about failure

Sometimes you learn by losing.
Sometimes you learn by losing.
Image: Action Images via Reuters / Peter Cziborra Livepic
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As the Clinton Global Initiative prepares to convene its annual meeting for the very last time, many leaders in international development are coming to terms with the loss of one of the most innovative opportunities for maximizing our social impact. The final gathering of this community offers an opportunity for me to reflect on the invaluable lessons that I and my peers have learned along the way.

I was first introduced to CGI in 2006, when I watched one of our students, Zethu Ngeza, address the crowd with Bill Clinton at their annual meeting. She spoke about what it is like to be orphaned by HIV/AIDS and raise her younger siblings in a shack. That day, Ubuntu Education Fund formed a partnership that would alter the trajectory of our organization: we became a member of CGI.

We then committed to provide 2,000 orphaned and vulnerable children in the townships of Port Elizabeth, South Africa with what all children deserve—everything. Our goal was to take all of our students from cradle to career. Since then, we have listened, learned, and adjusted our programs based on the best practices garnered from a vast network of partners working in impoverished communities around the world.

CGI also listened intently to our stories, our needs, and our impact. Three years ago, Bill and Chelsea Clinton visited the Ubuntu Centre in South Africa and witnessed the impact of their partnership: Zethu, now a university graduate, was employed and supporting her family.

Being part of CGI has helped facilitate an open and honest dialogue about what it takes for my foundation to transform lives. The Ubuntu team has participated regularly in their annual meetings in New York, and we were honored to host them in South Africa. This type of hands on engagement allows the entire sector—from NGOs to for-profit social entrepreneurs to funders—to share the most important lessons learned from our commitments. What is unique is that they not only praise the great successes, but they embrace learning from failure.

Drawing lessons from failure is paramount—the experiences that form the backbone of every organization’s history are the obstacles, the challenges, and, most importantly, the mistakes. We need to continue build upon this legacy and expand the dialogue in the sector to include failure, as well as success. Real innovation comes from organizations having the opportunity to think big and fail, and from funders allowing them to do so.

My colleague of 15 years and Ubuntu’s Chief External Relations Officer, Jordan Levy, recently launched a new podcast series called Failures from the Field. This initiative is committed to opening a new narrative—to uncovering the unheard realities about what it truly takes to transform lives. Through interviews with some of the sector’s brightest leaders at the CGI annual meeting, this series is redefining the traditional success story.

Five lessons emerged that can make all leaders, but especially non-profit ones, more effective:

1. Make risk a priority

Instead of focusing on reducing risk, we should be promoting it. Risk speaks to the challenges at the heart of the development sector, which should be the research and development arm of society according to Jill Iscol, President of IF Hummingbird Foundation. She points out that the data garnered from failed risks can produce a valuable feedback pipeline to create better programming.

Maya Winkelstein, Executive Director of Open Road Alliance, suggests that funders need to be “deliberately solicitous of the good, bad, and ugly” while NGOs should have the “bravery to have those risky and difficult conversations.” These conversations will lead to an open dialogue about risk, and the potential to learn from both failure and success.

2. Commit to the highest-quality services

Why do we expect disadvantaged communities to thrive when provided with low-quality resources? Erinn McGurn, Co-Founder and Executive Director of SCALEAfrica, is focused on constructing high-quality schools for children around the world. When asked why she spends so much money on one classroom when she could build five for the same amount, she responds that “[the cheaper] option is going to fail.” We need to realize that in order for interventions to work in the long-term, they must not only be built to last but be desirable for everyone in the community.

Camille van Gestel is the Founder and CEO of WakaWaka, an organization that builds high-quality solar powered products. A few years ago they found a cosmetic issue in their inventory. Even though the panels worked fine, they decided to scrap every solar panel and start from scratch. Why? Because if people perceive a low-quality product, “they might think less of solar… we don’t want to be responsible for that,” Camille says. From architecture to solar panels, only high-quality interventions will have lasting impact.

3. Collaboration is the toughest work, but the most important

In order to produce real grassroots community development, projects need to be approached “in the spirit of collaboration… which takes a long time,” Shawn Askinosie, Founder and CEO of Askinosie Chocolate, says. According to Pierre Ferrari, President and CEO of Heifer International, although “there is a general belief in our sector that this community development work is necessary… very few people do it.” It can be easy for organizations to bypass necessary channels of collaboration, but we need to commit to this anyway. The people best fit to eradicate poverty are those who are most affected by it.

4. Solutions are complex, and should not be oversimplified

Christoph Gorder, Chief Water Officer of charity: water, addresses a pervasive trend: that problems relating to poverty require simple solutions. Fixing the water crisis around the world, which his organization is committing to doing, should be as simple as giving people clean water, right? Christoph says “that is the greatest misconception,” and that solutions are nearly always more complex than they appear. Nonprofits, whether they are juggling various sets of stakeholders or trying to produce behavior change at a community level, should admit to this complexity. Instead of disseminating easily digestible marketing about quick-fixes to poverty, the sector needs to be honest about what it truly takes to transform lives.

5. Trust people on the ground

From funders to nonprofit leaders, everyone in the sector needs to admit that data and best practice knowledge cannot override the understanding of those working close to the problem. Abby Falik, Founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, states “Unless I have walked in the shoes of a person who I’m asking to do a certain thing, I need to defer to them on what is appropriate.”

Deogratias Niyizonkiza, President and CEO of Village Health Works, says that we need to “trust people on the ground” rather than preconceived notions of what ought to work in a given situation. It is easy to join a popular cause, but it is even more important to place trust in the right people and organizations. Sticking with an initiative that may fail can result in the most impactful change in the long run.

To learn more about the failures that led these development leaders to produce transformative impact, subscribe to Failures from the Field on iTunes, GooglePlay, or Soundcloud.

If we encourage nonprofits to think big and risk failure, we will enable the sector to truly tackle the complex issues of poverty.