Ned Breslin: Scratching the Surface (Part III)
December 1, 2011
By Ned Breslin, CEO at Water For People
Sharing failures can be just as valuable as sharing successes. Yet, the development sector more often touts its successes as indicators to donors, who, in turn, are content to think short term and tend to not ask the tough questions.
’Tis the season for giving. During the holiday season, hundreds of millions of dollars are donated worlwide to non-profit organizations working in the development sector. “Give the gift of clean water” is a common slogan that you are sure to find in your inbox at least a dozen times over the course of the next month.
But what does it mean to give clean water? How do we know that change is occurring? What looks different now, as compared to five years ago? If we had known then what we know now, what would we have done differently from the beginning? Looking five years down the road, will water still be flowing?
Though there is value to sharing the successes, as well as the failures, of an organization as lessons learned by that organization and lessons that other organizations can learn from, this is information that the development sector struggles to feel comfortable offering. There is a stigma associated with more transparent insight into programmatic impact, largely — but not exclusively — because of concerns over fundraising. Two points of view dominate this problem:
1. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: There are those who believe that, if the truth were known about how difficult it is to transform lives with development assistance, this would actually undermine funding for a particular cause or organization. This is perhaps best exemplified by a recent blog by Jessica Keralis, the chair of the communications committee for the American Public Health Association’s (APHA’s) International Health Section. Keralis essentially argues that context matters when discussing development; yet context with value to an audience that is otherwise unacquainted with the relevant back-story is difficult to come by in an increasingly sound-bite-driven era.
“Is there value to sharing failures that could be lessons for your own organization or others? Absolutely,” writes Keralis. “But how much good does it do the average layperson to hear about a failed project? …Unless an individual has background knowledge on how aid and development works, it is difficult to put these stories into context.”
Therefore, Keralis points out, it is not prudent to be honest about what is happening in the field. She even states that, if she were running an NGO, she would consciously not divulge project difficulties to donors, who could lose faith “in a charity’s ability to learn from its mistakes.”
And, let’s be frank, many CEOs and fundraising directors would tell you the same thing after hours, over a beer.
Keralis goes on to say, however, that there is “true value to learning from failed projects.” Unsuccessful scientific experiments are still published alongside their breakthrough counterparts, but the difference is that they are published in professional journals — in other words, “failures are shared with an audience that can appreciate them and the lessons they bring.” In conclusion, Keralis suggests that the development sector use the research world as a model for how best to exchange lessons about failure, as if within a like-minded support group. And she implies quite strongly that the general public should not be told of these difficulties.
What do you think?