Seven Insights on How to Thrive When Things Go Wrong


March 23, 2017
Scandinavia House, New York City
Sponsored by Freeman Philantropic Services

By Susan Fields, CFRE

“In many ways, our relationship with failure either unlocks our full potential, or keeps us from ever realizing it.”

Ashley Good, Founder and CEO, Fail Forward*

How often have you found yourself in a situation where a project you’ve been working on for months, or even years, does not meet expectations? Possibly your organization’s fiftieth anniversary gala attracted so little interest that it had to be cancelled, or the capital campaign projected to raise $10 million came in at only half that amount. Mishaps and fiascos come in many sizes and shapes: a marketing plan that receives abysmal response, inadvertently omitting your most generous donor’s name from the annual report, asking for a major gift to renovate the gym when the donor has no interest in sports, or forgetting the name of your board chair’s wife.  

So how do we survive these large and small debacles and move on to use our mistakes as learning experiences? During this interactive program Ashley Good—self-described “Failure Expert”—lead the group through a series of discussions and activities intended to challenge prevailing attitudes about risk and failure.

Seven Insights on Thriving through Failure:

1.     The changing nonprofit landscape has created a greater likelihood of failure.Data driven technology, keeping up with trends, and a shift towards individual major gifts has increased the likelihood of error. This phenomenon has transformed our work as nonprofit professionals into a “high stakes poker game” with seemingly minor decisions often resulting in weighty consequences.

2.     People are programmed to seek perfection, making major failures a deeply personal experience leading us to question our value as human beings. Unless we process these letdowns and their underlying causes, we lose confidence and withdraw from taking reasonable risks in the future.

3.     Everything we do has elements of success and failure.Awareness of this reality is the first step toward accepting disappointing outcomes as teachable moments that can be shared and processed with colleagues to obtain the success everyone desires.

4.     Separate ego from activity. You are not a failure, nor should you be ashamed, because you have failed at accomplishing a task. The worst thing any person or organization can do is attempt to bury its mistakes in an attempt to avoid stepping forward to determine what happened and make the necessary changes to achieve desired results in the future.

5.     Not all failures are equal!Those caused by moral lapses, recklessness, and violation of professional standards can be considered blameworthy. Acceptable failures include carefully planned initiatives where risks of failure are understood and mitigated, and the opportunity is significant within a limited downside risk.

6.     Processing failure requires sharing and exploration in an accepting and non-blaming environment.This includes telling the story of the failure and its consequences, examining with colleagues the steps that lead to disappointing results, and determining how a different outcome can be arrived at in the future. This activity requires deep honesty from all members of the team without casting blame or judgment.

7.     Additional questions to reflect upon:What did I learn? What will I do differently? How has my understanding of the situation changed? Is this failure a part of any trend that I have noticed? What did this situation cause me to question?    


* More about the presenter:Since launching Fail Forwardin 2011, Ashley Good’s program has assisted diverse businesses, governments, funders, and nonprofits harness their failures in order to learn, innovate, and build resilience. Her work has been recognized by the Harvard Business Review and McKinsey’s Innovating Innovation Award. Prior to launching this unique consultancy, Ashley Good worked in Cairo with the United Nations Environment Programme and as a management consultant in Vancouver, Canada. She is also a contributor to the Globe and Mail Leadership Lap, Public Sector Digest, and World Economic Forum Agenda. 


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