Girl wrecks on bike jump

WHY should you talk about your nonprofit’s mistakes?

If you talk about your failures or mistakes, you can talk about HOW you’re getting better at solving the problem that your nonprofit was founded to solve.

If you talk about your mistakes, you will help donors trust you more. Who would you trust more? Someone who pretended to be perfect (liar!) or someone who was open about their flaws?

If you talk about your failures, you will help funders learn that they can trust you, even if you didn’t deliver everything you promised to in a grant proposal.

I would say the biggest mistake is NOT admitting that you made one.

Imagine for years going on with the wrong staff person, or the wrong program, chasing the money instead of fulfilling the mission, or the wrong board members who drag other members down?

Your donors and your funders deserve to know when you’ve screwed up. It’s part of being responsible for BOTH the success and failure of your nonprofit, as a nonprofit leader. They’ve given you money. They’ve expected results, and if you aren’t meeting them, you can tell them why. That’s what leadership looks like. 


HOW should you start talking about your nonprofit’s mistakes?

Engineers without borders US LogoCheck out what Engineers without Borders is doing. They make blog posts about lessons they have learned from failed projects.

Have you ever written a blog post like this for your nonprofit? Or a newsletter article? Or an annual report section? If not, WHY NOT?

Is it because some fragile person on the board said we could not possibly tell the world that we messed up! Donors would lose confidence in us!

Your rejoinder should be: “Are you really so sure? What’s the proof that is true?”

In short, it’s an excellent opportunity to show your donors that you don’t just fall on your face, you pick yourself up and take away the rollerskate that you slipped on.


Who’s doing this?

I’ve been watching Givewell for the past couple of years, because I think they’ve been trying to take on a serious issue with accountability and transparency for nonprofits. And right now Guidestar and CharityNavigator do their best, but it takes QUITE a bit of effort simply to catalogue 990 forms of nonprofits, and that never shows the whole picture.

So Givewell started smaller. It started simply by saying, Who will give you the most bang for your buck, charity-wise? And that’s an entirely different question than the old overhead red herring.

And then they got even more sophisticated, and they said that for each different type of nonprofit, you have to rate them in different ways. So a Missouri domestic violence nonprofit should be evaluated differently than an international malaria charity. That also seemed reasonable to me.

And they started a blog, where they talked about the various merits of international charities, or giving a goat for the holidays, like, should that family get that goat? Can they afford to feed and water it? That sort of thing. Which raises important points about the true efficacy of charity.

But now they’ve gone and really shocked me.

One of the things that Givewell does which shocks me is they detail their mistakes right at the top of their website. Go take a look! http://blog.givewell.org/

Of course, it just makes me trust them all the more. And I’m not the only one. You can see the donations flowing through them have risen significantly in the last several years.

Can you imagine what would happen if YOUR nonprofit could be this open about mistakes that you’ve made? Imagine it.


And now they have conference calls, where you can ask about their methods, and work. And they make these calls taped and available after the fact.

That takes transparency to a whole new level.

Thank you Givewell and Engineers without Borders. I really like the direction you’re going, and I wish more nonprofits would be as open as you are when engaging with stakeholders and admitting mistakes.

Do you share your mistakes with YOUR nonprofit? I’d love to feature you on my blog if so! Just write to me and tell me about where you’re sharing your mistakes on your website!

Here’s Dinosaur Jr shredding the skate park to prove they’re still raw, and also being unabashed old people, falling on the ground.

Here are 7 ways to set yourself apart when you fail.

I also talk about my own mistakes each year.

I don’t feel like I can stand here and tell you I’m a fundraising or business expert unless I show you how I failed. If you’re not failing, you’re not learning!

You can read this year’s mistakes, or any previous year, right here.