June 13, 2013

Leading Through Failure

Of course, “Leading Through Failure” actually has multiple meanings: How leaders of organizations can successfully guide their teams through times of failure; and how sometimes failing yourself is a great way to be a leader.

The complexity in this one phrase echoes the layers uncovered during the 13NTC session I organized, “nptechFAIL: How to Crash and Burn and Turn It into a Win.” Below, the panelists share lessons learned during our session, which was supposed to focus on our organizations’ and others’ nonprofit technology failures.

In the end, however, we all found that the failures were not of technology, but of leadership – and so were the lessons.

Emma Pfister, Manager, Social Media & Partnerships, Water for People

Water for People went through a slow, sneaky process of not paying attention to its website – until one day, the site was simply failing to serve the organization’s mission. Then came the hard part.

Sometimes, Emma pointed out, internally things need to change, and you have to break them in order to do so. This is bound to be uncomfortable, and indeed, Emma was clear that the process was heart-wrenching for her organization.

Water for People had to figuratively “break” its internal culture and rebuild it in order to get everyone on board with a website that worked for the organization. And this process is not over, Emma said – they are still “breaking things for the better.”

@waterforpeople broke it for the better – it might hurt, you may/will cry, and it leads to better outcomes #13ntcfail

— Jonathan Eisen (@JonEisen) April 13, 2013

Emma urges us all to stay focused on the big picture. In a nonprofit organization, ultimately we work for the mission. Constantly, as individuals, teams and as leaders we must ask ourselves how we are doing towards this mission, if we are having an impact, and change our course accordingly from there.

Peter Panepento, Assistant Managing Editor, Chronicle of Philanthropy

Peter spoke candidly about failures in the Chronicle’s online offerings. What stood out from his talk, however, was how each failure was eventually morphed into an even better program – or served to teach their staff an important lesson.

“Causes” section launched in redesign is least-trafficked section of @philanthropy site b/c of lack of resource investment #13ntcfail #13ntc

— Case Foundation (@CaseFoundation) April 13, 2013

There are no “sure things” in our world, Peter pointed out. So it’s critical to establish a culture that not only accepts and learns from failure, but embraces it. The challenge Peter presented with his stories about the Chronicle’s Causes sections, their Philanthropy 50 and their webinar program, is to evolve past the typical nonprofit’s risk-averse culture. As leaders, the potential that failure holds for us requires a certain amount of confidence – in yourself and your staff, in your organization, in your community and in your cause.

Jenna Sauber, [former] Digital Marketing & Communications Manager, Case Foundation

With its “Be Fearless” campaign, Case Foundation has been urging us all to step outside our comfort zones and accept the possibility of failure. In order to develop and grow, Jenna shared during our session, organizations should strive to be fearless without being reckless.

#BeFearless, not reckless. @casefoundation @cajunjen #13ntcfail #13ntc

— AFAM_NFP (@AFAM_NFP) April 13, 2013

For example, experiment often with new tools and tactics, but always evaluate along the way so you can pivot if necessary to achieve better results. It’s important to reach beyond your “bubble,” as Jenna called it, for new audiences, but be careful not to alienate your target demographics or forget about your existing dedicated community members.

Finally, we should all make failure matter – this means finding the teachable moments amid our failures and learning from them. This is especially important for nonprofit leaders – we should be the first to recognize and call out the lessons our failures can teach us.

Shari Ilsen, Senior Online Communications Manager, VolunteerMatch

As for myself, I found that what is often seen as failure might be better termed “growing pains” (which happens to be one of my favorite shows from my childhood). VolunteerMatch’s program to integrate skills into our online volunteer engagement site has been anything but smooth – yet already it’s emerging from the weeds a stronger and more well-developed project than we had envisioned. The initial failure was merely a step in an ongoing process of growth, as I’m sure the next failure along the will be.

“Don’t build the path before learning where people already walk.” @volunteermatch #13ntcfail #13NTC

— Ivan Boothe (@rootwork) April 13, 2013

My favorite part of the session was actually at the end, when everyone else besides the panelists spoke. The individuals who shared their own failure stories with us didn’t hold back, and we all learned together.

The community manager who feels completely alone and adrift in the world of social media. The entrepreneurial executive director who is searching for ways to engage new supporters after a brand shift. There were others who astounded me with their courage and honesty, as did the attendees who offered them advice and support without hesitation.

From this experience I learned that often being a good leader means being a good listener.

loving these failure admissions – so brave!way to set an example for the rest of us #13NTCfail #13NTCbets

— Erin Shy (@ErinShy) April 13, 2013

Whatever your past and future failure experiences may be, remember this: Failure can happen slowly, without you noticing. So be alert and vigilant. Instead of guarding against failure, recognize it when it happens, embrace it, learn from it and grow.

Check out the full session slide deck for “nptechFAIL: How to Crash and Burn and Turn It into a Win.”

Shari joined the Communications team at VolunteerMatch in August 2010, and is responsible for all things online including blogs, newsletters, and social networking. A writer who’s passionate about nonprofit capacity building, she’s hard at work reaching out to nonprofits and volunteers to enrich the VolunteerMatch community. Before joining VolunteerMatch Shari led marketing and outreach at GreatNonprofits, a nonprofit online startup. Bred in Boston, Shari graduated from Stanford University with a BA in Psychology and a BS in Biological Sciences, and got hooked on the Bay Area lifestyle. With good food, good wine, and good weather, the only thing that’s East coast about her now is her allegiance to Boston sports.

Shari Ilsen
Shari joined the Communications team at VolunteerMatch in August 2010, and is responsible for all things online including blogs, newsletters, and social networking. A writer who's passionate about nonprofit capacity building, she's hard at work reaching out to nonprofits and volunteers to enrich the VolunteerMatch community. Before joining VolunteerMatch Shari led marketing and outreach at GreatNonprofits, a nonprofit online startup. Bred in Boston, Shari graduated from Stanford University with a BA in Psychology and a BS in Biological Sciences, and got hooked on the Bay Area lifestyle. With good food, good wine, and good weather, the only thing that's East coast about her now is her allegiance to Boston sports.