embrace failure

We’ve all heard the sentiment that making mistakes and failing is acceptable as long as we learn from what didn’t go right. If you ask them, most organization leaders, teachers, managers, and more would claim that they allow their employees, volunteers, and students room to fail without judgment.

Although we are aware that mistakes are necessary for learning and progression, we are still afraid of admitting our failures. According to Harvard Business Review, “The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible. Yet organizations that do it well are extraordinarily rare.” 

That same article goes on to state, “That is why so few organizations have shifted to a culture of psychological safety in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realized.” So, even though we can acknowledge the benefits of failure, we shy away from addressing it in a healthy way. 

Without trial and error, explorative iteration, and room for failure, nonprofit organizations often find themselves at a stagnant standstill. In short, they’re paralyzed by perfectionism. It’s no secret that the best leaders and most successful nonprofit organizations embrace failure as a learning opportunity.

I’ve done the research, so you don’t have to! Here are four ways to promote healthy risk-taking to uphold a more productive and effective nonprofit environment!

Four Ways to Promote Healthy Risk-Taking:

  • Open Communication: Nonprofit leaders can begin promoting healthy risk-taking by encouraging staff to embrace failure through safe discussions and reflection.
  • Failing Forward: Adopting the “failing forward” mindset involves viewing mistakes and failures as learning opportunities, and using this as a roadway to success. 
  • Learn From the Pros: You don’t have to make all the mistakes yourself in order to learn! Follow prominent leaders in your sector to learn from their past mistakes and how they learned from those occurrences.
  • Push Back: It is not only important for nonprofit leaders to acknowledge that failure should be embraced, but it’s also essential for them to educate key stakeholders that mistakes are inevitable and can be learned from.

1. Promote Open Communication About Failure

Organizations grow stagnant and often show very little growth when they’re not allowing their professionals to take calculated risks. While leaders know that they need to embrace mistakes, they aren’t always willing to put in the work to lead their team to learn from those failures. 

We’ve learned that admitting a failure means taking the blame. These intrusive beliefs were taught to us as children and reinforced throughout adulthood. As such, whether we realize it or not, many of us are ready to quickly point our fingers at anyone who may show signs of failing.

Promoting open communication about failure takes time. This is because individuals need to see that they can trust that they won’t be judged, blamed, or punished for admitting fault. Leaders can kickstart a healthy mindset about embracing failure by implementing regular meetings to discuss weekly blunders and mishaps.

For example, I conceptualized the idea of Failure Fridays after my nonprofit had to make the tough decision to remove both the founder and executive director of the organization. This left the staff feeling both lost and unsafe to share and learn from their own mistakes.

Every Friday, we met as a team to discuss our weekly failures. Over a few sessions, I saw that this was a great way to help staff overcome their fear of failure and the need to hide their mistakes. 

To make it a light-hearted gathering, I used a foghorn or some type of silly noise maker to sound off after each failure was discussed. We would laugh with each other about our blunders and dive into how we could learn from the situations. 

In most cases, leaders who use his sharing method find that their staff already know how they could have made the situation better. However, it doesn’t hurt to talk it out and brainstorm ways to learn from each mistake in a judgment-free manner. Implementing these exercises is bound to bring any team closer together while encouraging organization-level growth.

2. Adopt the Failing Forward Mindset

As reported by GlobeNewswire, it was discovered “that among 1,083 respondents surveyed, 1 in 3 were found to be scared of failure (31%), more than spiders (30%), being home alone (9%), or even the paranormal (15%).” That means that failure is often a forefront fear in peoples’ minds!

For a whole nonprofit organization to adopt a failing forward mindset, it is essential for the leaders of the organization to pave the way. Leaders can begin by celebrating mistakes and failures and encouraging staff to take calculated risks. This is referred to as “failing forward,’ which means using mistakes and failure to foster growth and propel you forward towards success.

Furthermore, leaders can make sure to diminish any finger-pointing behavior by reminding staff there’s no need to spread the blame. Sending the message that failure is inevitable and it’s okay when it happens is one of the most comforting and productive messages leaders can extend to staff.

3. Learn From Leaders Who Embrace Failure

As it turns out, you don’t have to make every mistake in the book before you can learn or grow. You can learn from other leaders who embrace failure and openly share the lessons they have learned. Of course, it is just as vital for you to embrace your own failures as it is for you to learn from those of others!

For instance, Kishshana Palmer is a prominent leader in the nonprofit sector, and she advocates for a realistic and healthy approach to running nonprofit organizations. Regarding failure, Kishshana takes the “fail fast” approach. This mindset teaches us to embrace failure early on so that we can get a head start by learning from our mistakes in the beginning.

4. Fight the Unfair Pressure to be Perfect

There seems to be a double standard between for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations often feel the pressure to operate flawlessly and without any mishaps or failures. Stakeholders don’t always see that failure is necessary for growth. After all, your nonprofit is raising money for a good cause, so you must be perfect, right? Wrong!

Nonprofit leaders can, and should, push back on this pressure to be perfect. Leaders can do this by keeping stakeholders in the loop when mistakes happen and by explaining the benefits of learning from those failures. Sending the message that safety risks are necessary for innovative growth is key to breaking the stigma that nonprofits have to always be perfect.

Like many beneficial movements, significant changes happen when leaders get on board. For more tips about “ditching perfectionism” and promoting a healthy nonprofit organization environment that drives results, check out our article Nonprofits, Stop Prospecting So You Can Actually Raise Money!

Nonprofit Sustainability

Mallory Erickson

Mallory Erickson

CEO and Founder of the Power Partners Method at Mallory Erickson Coaching
Mallory Erickson helps nonprofits raise more from the right funders so they can stop hounding people for money. Through her signature framework, the Power Partners Formula™️, Mallory provides unique tools to help nonprofits fundraise more from foundations, corporate partners, and individuals. She has coached over 1,000 fundraisers using her unique win-win framework, which combines best practices from executive coaching and fundraising strategy. If you want to feel differently about fundraising as well as clear and excited about your next steps, make sure to check out Mallory’s work at malloryerickson.com