Analysis and Learning: When “Failure” is Success

Stop & smell the rosesThe first-ever, last-minute, Creating the Future year-end appeal is now officially over. Yes, if you still want to give, your funds will be hugely appreciated.

But we have stopped the fireworks, the tweeting, the videos, the letters.

We have declared victory, with just $1,000 in the bank from this campaign. No, that is nowhere close to our financial needs. But as we have said all along, our goal was not just the funds, but what we learned along the way.

And the overwhelming balance of what we have learned is telling us it is time to stop proactively pursuing this campaign.

We have learned much. Most of what we have learned might be called “failure” or “mistakes” to those who don’t call just about everything “experimenting and learning.”

It is still all very fresh for us, and I am sure we will have much else to share as we take more time to reflect, but here are the top things we have learned, that we hope are helpful for your work, too.

1) We were not ready to do a full-blown campaign. And your organization might not be either.
Creating the Future is at the very beginning of building itself as an organization. One of the many pieces we do not yet have in place is fundraising infrastructure, including what is known in fundraising as the “case for support” – the compelling message that will get someone to give.

The reason for that is simple. We believe we first need to build and implement our programs – build the “doing” before we figure out how to talk about the doing. We know from experience that finding how to talk about the work and its results is easy once you’re in the trenches doing it every day.

Some of those programs are already in place, and the results they are getting is overwhelming. Our consultant graduates are creating change faster and more dramatically than even they imagined possible. The conversation across the sector is already seeing a shift – one of our major goals and efforts.  But the bulk of our programs are still in the development stage, and getting that actual work done has been and continues to be our primary focus.

That said, though,  the pressure is strong to get a message and “brand” immediately. The pressure is strong that “you have nothing to lose by giving it your best shot and asking people to support that.”

Our gut told us that was not the case. Our gut told us we needed to wait – that we weren’t ready to brand until we had a far better handle on what it was we were branding. But we succumbed to the popular wisdom (no, we are not immune to that!).

And the truth? We weren’t ready. And if your campaign is flagging, the truth might just be that you aren’t ready either.

2) Listen for what people are NOT saying
When Dimitri and I did the initial sleuthing to build the Diaper Bank long ago, we did what we are doing now with Creating the Future, only on a smaller scale – we asked a lot of really smart people for their ideas.

And while everyone loved the diaper drives we had done as our own philanthropic effort, when we talked about building a permanent organization, people asked, “Can’t the Food Bank do it? The Salvation Army? The Crisis Nursery? Do we really need another organization? Can’t you join forces with someone else?”

Each time, we would argue our case – why the mission of the Diaper Bank didn’t fit with any of those groups, why we needed to be a separate organization. Each time we would win that argument, with the other person nodding in agreement that yes, clearly we were right.

But we weren’t right, at least not entirely.

Eventually we uttered the words that have become a watchword for our work: “If we’ve asked all these smart people for their thoughts, do we really think we are smarter than every last one of them? If so, why ask them?”

The result was the collaborative infrastructure the Diaper Bank has become known for – the infrastructure I describe in detail in The Pollyanna Principles and in every workshop I’ve taught since we devised that model.

The way we found our way to that model was not to argue, and was not to answer the question that was being asked. The way we found the path was to listen to the question that was NOT being asked – to hear what people were NOT saying, but what was at the core of their questions.

In that particular case, the core of their questions was this: “Yes, there are places where you will not duplicate, but there are also places where you will. Can’t you find a way to do this effectively AND efficiently?”

And the answer was not only a resounding yes, but a model that built all sorts of unexpected benefits into the very core of the Diaper Bank’s infrastructure.

This is a long way of saying that we have asked everyone we know for their wisdom and ideas as we headed into this campaign. Many many many people have responded. And while each of those responses was slightly different from the others, we found ourselves in the same place as we were with the Diaper Bank – feeling like every comment was a challenge to what we thought we needed to do.

As we did with the Diaper Bank, we finally sat down and listened hard to what people were NOT saying. And the answer? That we weren’t ready. Sigh…

I share this for two reasons. First, we are smiling that 10 years ago when we built the Diaper Bank, it took us 6 months to get to that point; this time it took us 1 week. Clearly we are learning!

But there is also a learning here that is bigger than just our effort at Creating the Future. And that is to trust the wisdom in the room.

Doing social change work, it is so easy to become wed to doing things a certain way, or pushing through an agenda or a program. The drumbeat of opinion is reaching a crescendo about something we are too ego-driven or too scared to hear. (My favorite story is the foundation board member who, in all seriousness, put forth this question: “Ask the community? What if we ask them and they’re wrong?”)

All of us have seen organizations that exist in a never-ending tailspin, failing to change course even as everyone is screaming from the sidelines that they are about to sail right off the edge of the earth. In the end, it is extremely rare that the whole world is wrong and we are right.

3) The thing about advice
This one is mostly for those who have been to our consultant workshops or immersion courses. And that is that as the recipients of a huge pile of advice this past week, we have learned even more than we knew before about what it feels like to receive advice.

In our classes, we all role play what it looks and feels like when someone is being given advice. Participants watch as the recipient of that advice becomes more and more defensive.

Try this: the next time someone asks for your advice, and you are giving it to them, see what their response is. It is very very VERY likely it will be some form of defensiveness – the million reasons they can’t do what you suggested.

And so here is our latest observation about giving advice, especially for consultants, but really for anyone: People who ask for advice deep down really want one of 2 things.

1) They want you to help them find the answer inside themselves, the answer they already have, deep down in their own brilliance, or

2) They want you to just do whatever it is for them.

What they DON’T want, or at least are probably not ready for, is the true definition of advice – someone else’s opinion or ideas about what they should do. None of us like receiving that, and this past week has reinforced for me (as a teacher of consultants) the strength of taking approaches that help clients find their own brilliance rather than sharing ours.

4) People need something concrete to respond to. And that may mean diving into the deep end with no floaties…
When we asked for feedback about whether or not we should do a year-end appeal, some folks said, “Yes, absolutely – go for it!” And while none of the feedback adamantly said, “No, don’t do it,” some folks were reticent.

The more we dove into the nuts and bolts of the campaign, though, the more those reticent responders found their voice. Their own thinking found form as they saw in concrete terms what had only before been a theoretical question.

And sometimes that’s just how it is. That is why those who gave their opinions and advice didn’t all have the same answer, even though they were all concerned about the same thing. They sensed something, but didn’t have something concrete to consider.

Once we had sent a mailing or two, and created the video, they began to have something to think about.

Which means sometimes you just have to go for it. It means making mistakes – and yes, the F word – failing. And then it means finding so much learning in “failing” that it’s not failure at all, but, as Edison said, finding what doesn’t work so we can figure out what does.

5) This kind of fundraising is not us.
This one may just be the biggest object lesson of all for us.

In our classes on building and sustaining strong programs, we teach an asset-based approach to building resources. When asked if that means tossing out traditional fundraising, our reply is always that it depends on the nature and culture of the organization.

This is an especially difficult issue for capacity building organizations. We haven’t yet found a capacity building organization that doesn’t struggle to find a business model that makes sustainable sense.

Most nonprofit resource centers are grant-dependent, which of course goes directly counter to what they teach in their fundraising classes, but so be it. Many are membership organizations, a model we want to steer clear of, for a variety of values-based reasons having to do with exclusivity vs. inclusivity.

But if there is one thing all capacity building organizations have in common it is that it is hard to make the case for those organizations to individual donors. Most individual donors want to directly help people in need, or directly support the arts, or etc. It is hard to make the case for support of an organization whose mission is to help other organizations do that on-the-ground work.

And as we noted above, that’s no different for us.

Yes, Creating the Future is a different kind of capacity building organization. Yes, our mission is to change how capacity building is done overall, so that dramatic community change is no longer the exception but the norm of what we all expect.

But still, that’s not an easy case to make to individual donors. Which yes, brings us back to Learning #1, but also reinforces why we had never thought this type of fundraising would be the best way for this organization to support itself.

What will the business model be? We are still in the process of determining that. For now, we are becoming more and more clear about what it will NOT be, though, and this effort has helped us do that.

6) Finally, thank you.

Thank you to all of you who are learning with us, and to all who have donated to our short-lived year-end campaign.(And yes, we are still taking donations if you are so inclined. We still have to find ways to support this organization’s initial work, and your dollars will absolutely help do that!)

Since building the Diaper Bank years ago, we have often said that there is nothing more humbling for a consultant than to step out of that role, and to be instead the one doing the work of running an organization. It is one thing to be the “expert on the outside,” and quite another to be the ones upon whom payroll and paying the rent depends.  Suddenly, even the smartest consultant finds him/herself in the middle of the chaos that is the day-to-day of starting an organization.  Theory becomes reality, and as every ED will tell you, sometimes it is simply not pretty.  This is our 3rd start-up, and while we’ve learned a lot, there are still some lessons that repeat themselves each time.

And so we feel doubly blessed to have a community of people around us who care so passionately that we are all collectively on the brink of making something powerful happen – that they are willing to share their wisdom and experience so freely.

A very happy new year to each and every one of you. We cannot wait to get moving on building amazing programs that will help you make your community the most healthy, vibrant amazing place to live.

9 Responses to Analysis and Learning: When “Failure” is Success

  1. Thank you, Mark – for the comment but mostly for being an amazing sounding board and source of wisdom. We owe much of our thinking to your poking and prodding. Could not be more grateful.

  2. Happy 2011 Hildy and Dimitri —
    I am going to read this another 9 or 10 times because it’s a very rich reflection that is as much about the words as the sequencing of the ideas.

    I am also not sure I agree with your conclusions…about so called failure. What are you measuring — besides the dollars?

    I will leave it at that — re-read on New Years Day — and then read again. Much love. Andrea

  3. Andrea:
    Thank you – and thank you for being such an important part of the work we are all doing together, this incredible journey of exploration to find what DOES work for creating the world we all want.

    It has been a few days since writing this post, and as I knew would happen, I am finding greater clarity about our learnings as the days go on. One thing about which I have indeed been clear all along, though, is that the duality of identifying “failure” is – well – just silly.

    You will note that I used the word “failure” with quotation marks throughout this post, because, as you note, there are indeed those who would measure such a campaign merely on the dollars raised (which, just as a matter of information, are currently significantly more than they were when we stopped moving forward with the campaign, and are, by most opinions, a good sum to have raised in such a short time).

    To us, though, while the dollars were certainly a motivator – I would be telling tales if I said otherwise – they were not our most important measuring stick. To us, “success or failure” continues to be measured by the extent to which we learn by getting inside a campaign like this, seeing it from the inside out.

    That is a big part of what it means to build this organization with no curtains on the windows. What good is it to our collective work if everyone “fails” on their own, without any collective learning from which to move forward together (or without any collective determination that “failure” is in the eye of the beholder??)

    I note in the post the importance of our living this NOT as consultants helping a client implement a plan, but actually being the organizational leaders who are simultaneously excited about what is possible and concerned about things like paying the office rent and paying our own personal home mortgages.

    It is there that the best learning is occurring – at the level of human behavior. Because if we want to change the world, it will be us humans doing it – not organizations, but real live people, with real live flaws along with their real live dreams.

    In the next few days, I will be blogging a long post about all of that. And all of it spells success in the biggest way possible.

    Long way of saying thank you, my friend… and stay tuned!

  4. What a beautiful post Hildy. Lessons to be learned throughout and I will read and re-read.

    In my book “failure” always equates to success when a lesson has been learned.

  5. Hi Hildy

    Stumbled upon this, as we consider our first-ever email fundraising campaign, and your insights have been wonderful! We often wonder with each appeal whether it truly reflects us as an organization–we’re (inspite of what our web site may reflect) a bit of a reticent organization. Will help us formulate a plan that’s more us. Thank you!

  6. Meera:
    So glad this was helpful! In the time since penning this post, Creating the Future’s efforts have grown considerably. Interestingly, we are just now, 3 years later, finally feeling ready to talk with people about funding. So that says something indeed!

    If you want to see the path we’ve taken, the blogs at Creating the Future chronicle all of it, including the resource development and program development meetings we held throughout 2013 (our big year for putting pieces into place). Those blogs are here

    Your comment here made me come back to this post, and I am smiling to see that precisely what we learned here has been the basis for all we’ve done in the past 3 years. You’ve given me quite a gift. I’m most grateful for that.