All posts in Failure

Why a small business that started so well, ended so quickly


Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a unique opportunity as we are in the rural villages that most NGOs, Government agencies, etc visit for a project and then leave. My favorite story is when some org built a water purification system on sacred ground. They would only talk to the ‘power players’ in the village who said just about anything to benefit from the ‘preferred status’ bestowed upon them by the organization. No one ever used it.

My personal story begins with a group of 4 women. They knew that I was there to realize projects so we would often talk about things we could accomplish together. As a PCV, I was very wary of anyone who wanted to work with me because they were often just looking for handouts and freebies. Then one day the women and I had a conversation about making bread. The only bread available in my village was brought in on a motocycle from a bigger city about 25k away. The bread was terrible and it tasted like gasoline fumes yet people always bought it because it was the only bread they could find. The women said, we know how to make bread. We could do it and sell it in our village.

I thought it was a genius idea with huge market potential. To gauge their desire and because I had little access to funding, I asked the women to raise their own money at a weekly mandatory meeting at my house. They agreed. At this same time I asked them to do some market research. I did the same and we all discovered that people really wanted bread, specifically a sweet bread over a salty one and they wanted the smallest size because it would be the cheapest.

After the market research, myself with two other PCVs taught them a system of accounting for illiterates. We wrote bylaws, established reporting practices, and even made a work schedule. These things we always decided upon by the women. I only posed questions such as, “I think (A) might be a good idea because __________. What do you think?” Once this was decided upon, we set about building the clay oven and covering. I was able to find about $100 from a fund open to PCVs in Benin and the women raised about $20. This was enough to get the basic stuff done but they depended upon and agreed to reinvest all profits for a period of time to buy more supplies.

We built the clay oven and started baking bread. I had been controlling the money box this whole time because I was asked to do so by the women. I kept a strict record that was always copied in another notebook held by the women. We also instituted rules ensuring that money was always counted publicly and two separate records were kept. The bread was a massive success! They started making money hand over fist (for a rural village) and everything was going great. Little by little, I ceded responsibilities to women in the group. I thought they were prepared to take on the lockbox of cash so I turned it over to them to oversee. A few weeks went by. I would help make sure the reporting was still being done and they would continue to meet at my house.

Then one day they didn’t make bread on the agreed upon schedule. I inquired and discovered that the night before the women got together and liquidated all of the cash and split it evenly among them. Now they were dead in the water with no money to buy the next round of supplies. The project was over; it had failed.


The biggest reason that this failed might shock some of you: I didn’t make them raise enough of the own capital. The second problem is that we didn’t have enough money to begin with.

Many people believe that because these people are so poor (less than $2/day if they were the rich ones in my village) that they could never contribute but there is truth in that old adage of ‘if there is a will, there is a way’. I should have been more patient and made the women raise upwards of 75% of the project’s costs and we should have raised at least $300 as opposed to $120. They could have, over time, kept saving and saving.

I didn’t understand my purpose until afterward. I was essentially their bank or their savings account in a culture where saving money is not done, let alone a priority. Yes, I could help with the planning and ideas but they had no where to safely store their money where their husbands and kids couldn’t ask for it. If we would have saved enough and purchased everything we needed, the majority of the businesses capital would be in non-liquid assets such as the bread pans, the flour, other tools, etc. This would have given them a greater sense of ownership and pride since they would have raised the majority of money leading to greater protection. More importantly, they would have purchased all necessary supplies so they could have started paying each other immediately, instead of seeing the money pile up for the purchase of supplies.

Thankfully, I learned this in my first 6-months of service and applied some of these lessons to the rest of my service.

I do have one piece of advice for International Aid workers: use Peace Corps Volunteers if you can for advice or projects. PCVs will generally know who are the best people to talk to or work with and they can provide you with a clear situation assessment from the ground. If you are deciding upon a project site, look to coordinate work with PCVs. Or just simply support their projects on the website. We often see what happens to your project after you leave and we could have given you good advice from the beginning.

Short on Funding


For the year 2010, Grand River Chapter of Engineers Without Borders Canada committed to sponsoring a Junior Fellow (JF) for a four-month placement, as the chapter often has in the past.  At the time the commitment was made, the chapter had about half the necessary funds available; however, based on previous experience, we were confident that we could easily raise the remaining funds, along with the additional funds needed to maintain a smoothly functioning chapter.  However, as a chapter we failed to recognize a difference between this year and previous years: six chapter members, including some who had been highly active executive members for several years, were leaving to go overseas for EWB placements or for school.  This decrease in available members resulted in an unanticipated loss of fundraising power from which we are still trying to recover. We still have not met our JF funding commitment.

In June, our chapter met for a one-day retreat where we developed a short- and medium- term fundraising plan.  We decided on three activities to be run early in the summer and a longer-term campaign to begin in the summer and continue throughout the year.  The longer-term campaign was a fundraising challenge involving local companies.  The groundwork for that campaign had been laid out over the previous year.  Chapter members volunteered to run each of the activities set out during the retreat.  We left the retreat confident we could meet our fundraising target.  However, we failed to recognize some impediments to implementing the fundraising plan.

We did not fully recognize the time constraints of the members going overseas, some of whom volunteered to run some of the short-term events.  During the summer, only one of the short-term activities was run.  The activity run, a fundraising concert, was quite successful; however, it raised only half of what we anticipated, due to lower than expected ticket sales.

The company fundraising challenge was a major component of the plan; however, it did not generate income as quickly as expected.  We failed to recognize the amount of knowledge about the fundraising challenge that would be lost as members went overseas.  Additionally, we did not recognize the amount of work still needed before the campaign would produce donations. We encountered difficultly developing the website and preparing presentations to be given at participating companies.  While work continues on the campaign, and we remain optimistic that it will provide long-term, stable income, it has yet to generate any income.

On a positive note, two other activities outside the original plan, the run to end poverty and a wine and cheese, brought in substantial funds.


We have learned that before committing to supporting an overseas placement, it is ideal to have all or most of the money available.  If we do not have the money immediately available, we need to have a concrete, specific fundraising plan that recognizes personal time constraints.  We need firm commitments from those who volunteer to run fundraising activities.  We should work on increasing committed membership, allowing a wider distribution of responsibility, making activity organization easier and increasing our fundraising capacity.  Finally, we need better processes for handing over of portfolios and information as members leave the chapter or go overseas.

Change Management: Failing to Assess Organisational Readiness



The ERA team decided to partner with a federation due to its initial openness to change and its widespread network of affiliated unions throughout the country. African Program Staff (APS) were to be partnered with provincial unions in order to assist in the implantation and scale up of the “Conseil à l’exploitation Familiale” (CEF) approach for which the federation had received funding from a donor.

The process to select partner unions started with a pre-selection by federation officials of seven unions touted as being the most dynamic within the federation. The ERA team leader conducted its own evaluation of the unions via a questionnaire and an onsite visit. Insights and recommendations where then discussed. Although the final selection of unions was left entirely to the federation’s board of directors, they were in line with recommendations made by the ERA team leader.

What Transpired

An APS was placed in a very small, village based union. It was well known that this union was weak, however it did have a president known to be quite dynamic and who also served as the vice president of the federation. The hope was that with the APS’s assistance, the president would be able to drastically improve the union’s performance. Early into the placement, the union’s weaknesses were painfully apparent. There was very little engagement by the executive board, low motivation of field staff and a high dependence on the president who was often away. In the process of trying to dynamize certain union members, the APS made the mistake of taking initiative without respecting hierarchy within the union. Frustrated by the lack of progress, the APS expressed doubts regarding the success of the partnership.

At this point, APS and team lead re-evaluated the strategic approach to behavioral change of the president and organizational change within the union. Specific actions were defined to address the difficulties encountered. Difficulties were also brought to the attention of federation officials who provided some insights and recommendations.

Despite the adapted strategy, there was little advancement of the union. Resistance from the president was met when APS tried promoting increased initiative and dynamism of union members. She viewed these activities as a threat to her control and power over the union.

These difficulties were again brought to the attention of federation officials. An internal discussion took place with the president regarding her leadership style and the management of her union but failed to inspire any change in her behavior. As a result, it was unanimously agreed upon to reduce the APS’ involvement with the union to a part time partnership.

The main challenge during this placement re-evaluation process was to minimize the negative impact it may have had on other placements within the federation. In the end, the team lost a lot of trust with the union president which impacted its relationship with the federation.

The Failure

The failure in this case was threefold.

Initial failure

The decision of co-team leaders to scale-up ERA’s partnership with the federation was made without having fully gauged how many unions within the federation were genuinely open and motivated to change.

Second failure

The president was considered the major factor for success. The president had a reputation of being a strong willed and dynamic woman. This coupled with her enthusiasms to be partnere­­­­d with EWB led to a false assessment of the potential for organizational change within her union.

Third Failure

The team leader took two months to react which was frustrating for the APS.


Recommendations and learning upon reflection:

  1. Partner diagnostics:
    1. Set eliminatory criteria for partnership selection. Communicate, clearly and explicitly the expectations of both the partner and APS and the consequences for not meeting these criteria.
    2. Shift perspectives and reflect on what motivations may be at play for a partnership. Take into account the internal and external political environment and hierarchal relationships.
    3. Diversify sources of information regarding a potential partner. Aim to find independent sources that interact with the partner to verify information from different perspectives.
  2. Placement design:
    1. Placement design should include built in flexibility with respect to objectives, partnership duration and time investment (full/part time). This flexibility would be based on performance criteria communicated to both the partner and APS at the start of a placement.
    2. Set an exploration phase aimed at evaluating explicit “Go/No go” criteria. Activities carried out during this period should asses the partner’s motivation and potential for change and evaluate their level of corporation and interaction with the APS.
    3. A placement of one year should not be assumed for a new partnership or for one where major challenges are anticipated. After a positive exploration phase, minimum objectives and expectations of both APS and partner should be outlined as “Go/No go” re-evaluation milestones for each subsequent period of 1-3 months.
    4. Except the reality that a placement can be terminated prematurely once supporting arguments are justified by concrete transparent information. Take into account the political environment and follow the necessary steps to try and ensure good relations with the partner.

Leadership Transitions in the Malawi Water Sector


Between 2008 and 2009, the EWB Malawi Water and Sanitation team went through a lengthy and winding strategic narrowing process. This process brought our organization from working with high breadth across the sector and little focus, partnering with nearly any organization in the sector who would work with us, to a focused change strategy with defined goals and fewer stakeholders. In late 2009, our team faced a leadership transition – the leader and manager of the program was finishing with EWB leaving space for other potential leaders in the organization’s pipeline to step up. The process of transition was happening at a time of massive ambiguity – we were aiming to narrow our strategy into something containable from something unwieldy while trying to consider many different perspectives, which meant all of our team’s conversations were characterized by uncertainly and complexity.

What we did and what went wrong

At this point of change, our team faced two challenges at once: defining a complex change strategy, which was ambiguous, and managing a leadership transition, for which we had no defined process. Our team faced a cyclic problem – we needed to invest in leadership transition, but because our strategy definition process was so ambiguous, we never felt comfortable investing in that process. How do you set up someone to transition into a job managing a strategy that you haven’t defined yet? As a result, the transition process was forced to be as ambiguous as the strategy, meaning that leaders stepping into the process were unclear of what was expected of them.

Western development workers who step into leadership roles in a place like Malawi must “unlearn” many leadership instincts they have. For example, it is important for team leaders to resist the temptation to “sell” our work to all sector stakeholders all the time as this is not seen as appropriate until you’ve built the right relationship in the Malawian water sector. Insights such as there are very difficult to characterize in a job description or in an orientation meeting. Rather, they have to be experientially learned and often “coached out” by others with more experience. The ability to lead in such an environment is as much about who you are being as it is about what you are doing, and the type of feedback one needs to receive to grow in such areas requires a long arc of mentoring of new leaders before they being playing the role.

We did not invest as a system of people in leadership succession early enough. The absence of an explicit and early leadership transition process meant that we did not adequately invest in the up-front skills, relationships, and team dynamics building that needed to take place before transitioning new leaders into the role. By waiting too long to recognize the gravity what was needed with an organization focused on highly complex change, we created more work for ourselves and failed to take full advantage of the opportunities our team already had.

What this failure cost us

This failure did not cause damage as such, but led to a number of missed opportunities and a greater momentum loss than was necessary for our team. To this day, there are relationships in the sector that have laid fallow for the past year that our team has yet to revive due to the momentum that was lost at the end of 2009. For example, one of our team’s very difficult to achieve change goals is to enter a highly collaborative relationship with one of the National Ministries involving the secondment of one of our staff at that level.

In addition, internal challenges were caused that led to increase management complexity and slower decision making. The rocky leadership transition process was distracting for our team, which diverted much needed energy away from our very complex process of defining success for our strategy. Ironically, this undermined our team’s goal of increasing strategic clarity, which was the main outcome we wanted from our strategic definition process. The mandate and strategy for our CLTS program suffered as a result of that distraction, and as such we have failed to advance our positioning in that part of the sector much further than it was at the end of 2009.


So what?

Our African Programs teams should recognize that leading in a change environment as complex as ours is not something that can be easily explained via a job description or learned swiftly, and failure to create processes to replace team leadership capacity leads to unnecessary pain for the team and reduced impact. Intentional investment in processes is required that allow for people in the pipeline to be able to play the complex role at the time of transition. The key outcomes of this investment should be early clarity on role definition and expectations in a transition process, preservation of key external relationships, and strong investment in the abilities that new leaders must have to succeed, which usually cannot be explained – they must be experienced and “coached out.”

Follow up action – this is the follow up action from EWB African Program management in response to this lesson:

Management is a crucial component of a development organisation. This is a learning EWB has had with our partner organisations. This is why a lot of our work focuses on improving management.

Management as a lynchpin is no different with EWB.

In the past year we’ve undergone (or are undergoing) management transitions in four of our five teams.

EWB’s model for creating change in Africa is based around the concept that many high functioning companies such as McKinsey follow. We both hire young, highly talented people. We expect a high turn-over of these people to allow them to continue seeking out opportunities that will bring about substantial personal and professional growth. To retain knowledge and continue making progress we both hire management (team leaders) as permanent staff.

However, being a permanent staff while living in Africa is not easy. In fact, it’s not realistic. It’s difficult to live away from family for an extended amount of time, no matter the financial compensation. So for the past couple years we’ve asked for a 2 year minimum commitment as a team leader.

However, we’re starting to re-think this.

It’s incredibly difficult to pass off a half-finished change from one person to another. The knowledge and experience which is often tacit is lost despite attempts to document it. The founder’s energy, which can’t be bottled, is also lost sometimes causing the team to loose momentum.

At the same time, some people are great a bringing an idea from zero to twenty percent, others thirty to seventy percent, etc. And sometimes a change in leadership can catalyze needed changes in strategy and direction.

So what can be done?

These experiences have caused us to re-think our management pipeline. The current incoming and outgoing team leaders will gather January 18–28th to discuss this and other management issues facing EWB.

  • Should team leaders only be hired internally (from within the team)?
  • Should team leaders be expected to stay on for the life-time of their program?
  • Whose responsibility is the team leadership transition? The outgoing team leader who ‘owns’ the team or the Directors of African Programs and other team leaders who will be around to experience the effects of the transition?

Detecting and learning from failure


This is a story about detecting and learning from failure. In development, sometimes it’s hard to know if something is a failure or not.Many development initiatives do not have concrete outcomes that can be easily deemed failure or success.If you drill a well, and you did not find water, it was a failure, but you will not drill there again.If your idea is to keep youth in school and HIV-free through sport, it’s not as easy to recognize mistakes and to avoid making them over and over again.

GlobalGiving, over the course of several months in 2009, used direct community feedback to detect a failing organization. The organization, SACRENA, based in Kisumu, Kenya, worked with disadvantaged youth, specifically keeping youth out of trouble by operating a soccer league. The organization received $8,019 USD from 193 donors through the GlobalGiving platform and received support from other funders as well.

In early 2009, GlobalGiving visited Kisumu and handed out bumper stickers with the following question:“What does your community need?Tell”We did a series of community surveys, workshops, staff visits, and volunteer visits, all in an effort to listen actively to what the community was saying about organizations participating in GlobalGiving’s online marketplace.A variety of community members identified SACRENA as having problems.We followed up with more targeted volunteer visits and a formal audit.The picture was clear.This organization, while nominally running a soccer program, was not managing its affairs well and was alienating its own beneficiaries, who saw the organization’s leadership as ineffective and corrupt. One submission to GlobalGiving’s online feedback form read:

“formerly as i was one of the footballers and also official members we were being treated with a lot of respect and also we managed to travel to the neighbouring countries for other tournaments after this things over suddenly changed when the co-ordinator was given kshs. 1,000,000 to promote the club but with his greediness he managed to biologically swallow all the amount to himself and also sold all the balls that were given out”

With evidence of failure mounting, we asked the individuals who had expressed dissatisfaction with SACRENA whether GlobalGiving should remove SACRENA from GlobalGiving’s web site, cutting off a major source of income.Initially, these individuals did not recommend removal, because they valued the idea of the program, even if the leadership was ineffective.Instead, they asked GlobalGiving for more oversight over the organization.GlobalGiving connected SACRENA with two volunteers from the University of Oregon’s graduate program in conflict resolution, who initially worked to resolve the tension between SACRENA’s leadership and its beneficiaries, but who ultimately helped two community members launch a new organization to take the place of SACRENA.

With the new organization in place, the community overwhelmingly recommended removing SACRENA from GlobalGiving. So, by making this feedback process visible and open to all, we were able to identify a failing organization, to visibly remove it from our marketplace, and to send a signal to the community that inspired a new program to emerge.It remains to be seen whether this new organization will learn from the previous organization’s failure, but the possibility exists that this failure will help the new organization avoid making the same mistakes.


What did GlobalGiving learn?We learned that organizations, while visibly carrying out programs and providing evidence of doing it, are not necessarily serving their beneficiaries well.We confirmed our suspicion that community members can tell us the real story, and that we shouldn’t rely too much on self-reports from grantees.  We learned that failure can spark new initiatives.The community learned that they didn’t have to put up with a failing organization, just because it had a line on funding.

A small failure and some absolutely vital readings


My own failure involves trying to teach rural kids and Indian kids in Northern Canada. Step 0 (which I did not really understand at the time and the school boards had their heads in the sand about) is what we are educating the kids for — there are no factory jobs and very few office jobs, so most school skills are irrelevant to most of the people, and few of them even envision college — and thinking of envisioning college, not understanding and working with the expectations of the local people who need to know what is available out there. The net result of all this schooling and money spent seems to be a further dichotomy between the rural poor and the native people versus the urban middle class.



Some absolutely vital reading:
Anyone in this field MUST read¨The Ugly American, which is *not* what you may think from the title (He is the good guy) and which details exactly these same aid failures back in the 1950s.
Another very good and very funny book, again *nothing* like what you might think from the title, detailing the same failures in the 1990s, is The Sex Lives of Cannibals. Everyone should read these before even considering going out in the field.

Lessons Learned in Building a Custom Community Platform


Recently, four allied grassroots campaigns (1Sky, Clean Energy Works, the Energy Action Coalition and Focus the Nation) set out to build an unprecedented online community: multiple organizations engaging their supporters together toward common goals on a shared online platform. We called it “The Climate Network.”

Despite a significant financial investment and hours of planning, coding, reviewing, designing, outreach, and training to make the project a success, we were ultimately unable to achieve what we hoped. The ambition of the online organizing platform never matched the success of the offline organizing community and strategy. After 12 months, it folded.

What happened? A number of things didn’t go as planned, despite the best efforts of these four organizations, their staff, and several of our best and most active online community members. However, almost everyone involved with the project said if they could do it again, they would, with the right planning and preparation.

If your nonprofit, campaign, movement, or cause is considering developing an online grassroots organizing model or a custom online community tool to support your advocacy or organizing efforts, then we hope our story will help you avoid some pitfalls, and achieve ambitious online organizing goals.

Failing to Learn from Failure


In 1972, shortly after the liberation war, I was sent by CARE to Bangladesh, “a thumbprint of a country in a vast continent” as Tahmima Anam has so eloquently described it. I was to work on a self-help housing cooperative project. We provided plans, material and technical assistance to help people build their own low-cost, cyclone-resistant houses. We imported thousands of tons of cement and enough corrugated tin sheets to cover a dozen football fields. The project was massive, but it failed. The houses were constructed, but the cooperatives – which were arguably the most important component because they aimed to generate funds for longer-term agricultural development and employment – failed miserably. We had a large office in Dhaka – then known as Dacca – lots of jeeps and trucks and speedboats, and many international staff with energy and commitment to spare. Our only problem was that we had almost no idea what we were doing.

While I was in Dhaka ordering freighters full of cement from Thailand, a tiny organization was forming on the other side of town, and in the rural areas of faraway Sylhet to the north. I recall meeting Fazle Hasan Abed at least once in 1972 or 1973, and I remember people speaking about BRAC with a kind of awe. Their attitude did not flow from anything remarkable BRAC was doing at the time – everything was remarkable in those terrible postwar years. What caught people’s attention was the fact that BRAC was a Bangladeshi development organization – something that few outsiders had ever heard of, much less conceived.

Over the years I have been privileged to return to Bangladesh many times, often to work with BRAC on a project design or an evaluation or a report. I have never visited and found the same organization twice. On each visit there is always something new – ten thousand more schools; a dairy; a university; a functional cure for tuberculosis. In 2007 BRAC’s microfinance lending topped a billion dollars. A billion. The amazing thing about all of BRAC’s achievements is that they have been accomplished in one of the most hostile climates in the world – hostile in every sense of the word: meteorologically speaking, economically and politically. And now BRAC is taking its lessons to other Asian countries and Africa.


The CARE housing project failed because we were in a hurry, we were overconfident, we didn’t have adequate cultural or historical knowledge, and we didn’t do the homework that might have told us in advance what we were going to learn the hard way. BRAC too was forced to learn – sometimes from study, sometimes from experimentation, sometimes from failure. Unlike those of us who moved on from Bangladesh to other things, however, BRAC stayed. It remembered what it learned and it applied the lessons in ways that allowed it to expand and to become what is arguably one of the most effective development organizations in the world today.

The development business is largely uncharted territory. If we knew how to end poverty, we would have done it a long time ago. And yet the enterprise is notoriously risk-averse; donors demand results and punish failure. The development challenge is not to avoid the risk that comes with charting new paths. It is not to deny
failure. It is to learn, to remember, and to apply what is being remembered. That is the difference between information – of which we have so much today – and knowledge, of which we seem to have far too little.

Seeing Is Believing?


Okay – I’m willing to put something out here because this is an interesting blog. I believe in learning from mistakes but I’d also warn that not everyone can disclose the mistakes they’ve made!

In the mid-1990s I studied the gender dynamics of rural women’s groups in western Kenya. NGOs, donors and generally outsiders were certainly preoccupied with women’s groups.


I found that careful understanding of the role of men in women’s groups was warranted. Just as development made women invisible, it also erased men even when they were active in so-called “women’s groups”. See the story in Francis Cleaver (2000) Masculinity Matters. Zed Books. Or contact me for a copy.

Stop Being Clever


I was starting up a disaster risk reduction program in the rift valley in Ethiopia in 1988. The Derg military “Albanian Marxist” style government was still in place. The local government controlled women’s association asked us to help with buying a small grain mill for them, to cut down hand grinding, or paying extortionate prices to the local mill owner to grind their grain. At the time, when I ran the numbers, I thought this was a marginally useful investment. It would have a hard time making a profit and would not really save the women that much cash or labor.
Btu, when the military regime fell and looting was wide spread across the area, the women took it in turns to mount a 24 hour guard on their mill, forming a cordon around it and safeguarding it.


The true value of the mill was not financial but through the sense of empowerment and hope if bestowed.
The lesson: Start by dropping your own preconceptions and try to see things though the eyes of those you seek to assist. Taking the time to listen and understand rather than being enamored with one’s own cleverness is a good starting point.