I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. — Thomas Edison

There are often vast difference in the mindset of leadership in the commercial business sector and the mindset of leaders in the nonprofit sector in regards to failure.

One group knows faster progress can be made by taking bigger risks, trying new concepts, rapid prototyping and accepting the inevitable failures that will arise along the way.

The other group prefers a false sense of security, which comes from doing what was done before, avoiding change, rejecting radical new ideas and pretty much staying with the status quo.

Can you guess which mindset is most often associated with our beloved nonprofit sector?

It is not the former!

What if the nonprofit world embraced a “Fail Fest?”

A Fail Fest a day-long event (which sells out every year by the way) in which hundreds of people pay top dollar to hear about the early failures of truly successful people they respect.


I learned about it after being invited to speak and doing quite a bit of research on what has been said and will be said. Think of it as a special brand of TED talks where each speaker has a maximum of 15 minutes to explain the following:

  • How they failed
  • What they learned from it
  • How the failure impacted future success

Those items seem pretty simple, but they represent a tremendous learning experience for the attendees. Those who I have spoken to from last year could not say enough about the impact the talks had on them and others around them.

Would a nonprofit fail fest help change board member mindsets?

Any of us who have been board members at more than one nonprofit, no matter what size, have seen this scenario take place:

  1. A truly out of the box idea is presented
  2. It’s potential impact on funding or mission is huge
  3. As it is discussed, comfort zones are exposed
  4. Even though potential impact is big, concerns arise
  5. Many more concerns come out than reasons for
  6. It is tabled to a committee
  7. The committee lacks any of the “power brokers”
  8. By the time the concept returns, crucial timing is gone
  9. Out of the box idea dies

I am betting, if you are a current or former board member, you have a fresh memory of some scenario similar to the nine steps above.

So how can we make any failure be a learning experience and a badge of honor rather than potential banishment from leadership in the nonprofit sector? Perhaps we need a little prodding from Thomas Edison.

My New Year’s resolution and wish for others in leadership roles at nonprofit organizations is to open up our opinion and mindset regarding outside the current box ideas/projects. If enough of us join in with this resolution maybe we can have regional nonprofit Fail Fests in future years.

Imagine the possibilities!

Does your organization encourage failure? Let me know in the comments below!

Jay Love

Jay Love

Co-Founder & Chief Relationship Officer at Bloomerang
A 30+ veteran of the nonprofit software industry, Jay Love co-founded Bloomerang in 2012. Prior to Bloomerang, he was the CEO and Co-Founder of eTapestry for 11 years, which at the time was the leading SaaS technology company serving the charity sector. Jay and his team grew the company to more than 10,000 nonprofit clients, charting a decade of record growth. Prior to starting eTapestry, Jay served 14 years as President and CEO of Master Software Corporation. MSC provided a widely used family of database products for the non-profit sector called Fund-Master. He currently serves on the board of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and is the past AFP Ethics Committee Chairman. Jay is also the author of Stay Together: How to Encourage a Lifetime of Donor Loyalty.