A fail stamp. What happens when international organizations gather to talk about their failures? Photo by: Hans Gerwitz / CC BY-SA

Discomfort often begets laughter. But there was more than a nervous chuckle at Thursday night’s annual Fail Festival in Washington, D.C.

The global development community has a somewhat uneasy relationship with admitting failure, but professionals gathered at the event sponsored by FHI 360, Plan International and TechChange to hear stories of failure and poke fun at the challenges involved in being honest about mistakes — both large and small.

FHI 360 CEO Patrick Fine performed an original song about “breakthrough innovation” “technology” and “theories of change.”

“Because failure’s not an option, no matter what they say. If we don’t hit those targets the project goes away,” went the chorus.

Fine shared a story from earlier in his career when he was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development as an education officer in Swaziland where he first recognized the tension between being an agent of change and local ownership. That experience and feedback from his employees inspired his song.

Other presentations made fun of programs that build tools without doing any market research or asking local communities if they would be useful, how new organizations are launched without putting much thought into the business skills needed for success, and the security problems with technology-related programs that gather information on users in insecure places.

The event was both raucous, as members of the crowd would sometimes interject or shout in agreement, and often irreverent, with more than a few profanities bandied about or alluded to in presentations.

Sometimes veered into the personal, like when Marcie Cook, Population Services International’s regional director for Asia and Eastern Europe, talked about learning to take time to understand and reduce stress after a meltdown during budget negotiations in South Sudan.

On the organizational side, Plan USA chief executive Tessie San Martin discussed how Plan’s conversion to a new customer relationship management system last year which went terribly wrong. When the problem first arose, she said “we euphemistically referred to it as a delayed revenue recognition problem. … we thought the revenue should be there but we didn’t know where it was.” Rebuilding databases and getting the systems up and running took a lot of time and efforts, as well as individually contacting more than 8,000 donors. The organization certainly learned and continues to recover from the losses, but has learned a few lessons along the road. San Martin explained the experience could be summed up as “suck it up, face it, start talking” and avoid playing the blame game.

Siobhan Green, co-owner and CEO of tech firm Sonjara, took a jab at the development community’s use of hackathons and how ideas that seem great in those settings may prove unsustainable and unusable in the real world. The lesson she learned from the failure of her Food Frequency Method Online platform — which won USAID’s Hack for Hunger in 2012 — was “no business plan, no code,” she said, adding that “a hackathon is a bad place to write a business plan.”

Many lessons learned have emerged from the failures, and John Hecklinger, chief program officer at Global Giving, shared a few that his organization learned after starting a women’s university scholarship program with funding from an individual donor whose requests grew increasingly bizarre and resulted in the program shutting down and staff being at risk. Document everything and outline commitments up front, because as he said, “if it feels weird, it probably is weird” — and that while it’s important to be bold, it’s critical to also have a safety net and a backup plan.

The Fail Festival aims to bring some fun to failure and change the dialogue from talking about it as a terrible thing to looking at it as an opportunity to learn, according emcee Wayan Vota.

“We are going to experience failure often because we are working on the edge,” he said.

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.