Detecting and learning from failure

by John Hecklinger, Chief Program Officer, Global Giving

  • Project: SACRENA
  • Location: Kisumu, Kenya
  • Sector: Education and Youth
  • Professional Designation: Donor

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 us:globalgiving.org/ideas.”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.

Learning

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.

React

Select three phrases that describe this failure.

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5 Comments

Got something to say? Feel free, I want to hear from you! Leave a Comment

  1. Mark Petersen says:

    Thank you for posting this and other failures on this site. I am so glad to see this sort of transparency.

    I represent a funding organization. I just returned from Cambodia where I inadvertently drove through a community where I saw dozens of biosand filters sitting unused under houses on stilts in the town of Kratie. Problem is, we had funded this project several years ago. Unfortunately I didn’t hear this from the organization we funded, but discovered it myself.

  2. Mark Petersen says:

    I just posted about Admitting Failure on my blog, and included in the post a longer description of the biosand filter “failure”. See http://markpetersen.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/admitting-failure/

  3. Wycliffe Mboya says:

    We here in our community through what we went through as our organization was going through atest of time.Global Giving removed us from their link.Why shoul thy keep on using the name of our organization?It Heled us to be strong stronger and stronger.What The Global Giving is saying are statment that cannot be relied upon becouse they are not true,they are heresays,and as aboard which runs this organization we felt it is unnesessaery to comment to organization which you have no ties with.As organizatyion grow from a 10 men idea to over 10,000 boys and girls doing sports and education you expect challes.We had challnges just as any other organization and we have dealt with it and now we are stronger and stronger than before.

  4. Reem says:

    I’m glad to see the issue was resolved without the community losing the youth program. I think more rigorous reporting requirements and an insistence on including “failures” in periodic reporting may have brought the issue to light earlier, that is, assuming that failures were listed honestly. By including a duty to report failures, it helps in building a culture of admitting failures, and you, as the donor, have the power to enforce that.

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