Ellie Burke
Ellie Burke
Large work station with empty chairs.

How to Turn Failures Into Opportunities

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Henry Ford

We set lofty goals for a reason: to challenge ourselves to succeed. But what happens when your organization misses the mark? It’s natural to feel embarrassment, disbelief, and anger in the face of failure. There is often a desire to assign blame, or to avoid addressing the failure altogether. “Let’s just move on and try again.” Unfortunately, these knee-jerk reactions impede your organization’s ability to derive valuable insights from your failures and identify actionable opportunities.

Yes, you should move on. Yes, you should try again. However, there are valuable steps you can take first to inform your next moves. If you can build a culture that supports failure, and implement procedures that help you report and analyze what went wrong, you’ll be poised to identify opportunities and take action based on your findings.

Step 1: Foster a Culture of Failure

Each failure is an opportunity to reevaluate your strategy. When failures are swept under the rug, your organization loses the chance to discover valuable information about your fundraising campaigns. To create and foster a culture of failure is to communicate the value of failure to your staff and supporters, and empower them to take intelligent risks. By communicating failure as an inevitable and important part of serving your cause, you will create an environment where your team feels they can openly discuss and break down the results of each campaign.

It’s one thing to speak about the importance of discussing failure. Your team is more likely to enter meaningful dialogue if a system is in place to support this exercise.

Step 2: Create and Communicate a Procedure for Analyzing Failure

Your team will feel more comfortable discussing their failures if they can refer to an existing protocol. There are several ways for your organization to facilitate this analysis. Set up an open forum on a recurring basis to gather the team’s thoughts on any recent campaigns. Or, add a debrief at the end of each campaign where the lead reports on his findings first and then opens up the discussion afterwards. Whatever method you choose, ask your team to gather their thoughts beforehand.

Here are some questions you can raise to your team ahead of time to help fuel the dialogue.

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

When we fail we have an opportunity to ask “why” to learn what we could have done differently. In the 1950s, Taiichi Ohno, Former Executive Vice President of Toyota Motor Corporation and developer of the Toyota Production System, saw problems on his production floor as opportunities to improve their product. He urged workers to ask, “why” five times to get to the root cause of any problem. Today, this tradition is still upheld by Toyota, and it is a common topic in many business operations classes. Answer each why and then dig deeper with the next. For example,

  • “Why did our fundraising campaign fail?”
  • “Because we didn’t receive enough donations.”
  • “Why didn’t we receive enough donations?” And so on.

In addition to finding the root cause of the problem, it is also helpful to consider three “what”s. In order to understand which elements of your campaign are worth preserving and which can be improved upon ask these questions:

What worked well?

Many elements go into a successful fundraising campaign. Ask yourself if you included these essential components before digging deeper.

  • A soft launch to your biggest supporters to gain leverage and work out any kinks
  • A well branded donation page with a clear call to action
  • Helpful tools for your fundraisers such as a tip sheet to get them started
  • A matching period to promote your campaign and create a sense of urgency
  • A clear illustration of the impact your supporters’ donations will have
  • A well planned communications strategy with a mix of different media

Is there an area that could use more attention? Collect any necessary resources and commit to making it a priority in your next campaign.

What didn’t work well?

On the flip side, what elements of your campaign weren’t as strong? Nonprofit Information cites four common causes of failed campaigns:

  • Failure to present a clear message
  • Failure to keep things fun
  • Failure to ask for money
  • Failure to create a sense of urgency

Additionally, consider if any errors were made that negatively impacted your campaign’s success. Missteps such as faulty email headlines, system crashes, and untrained volunteers are all avoidable if you take the time to implement preventative practices for the future.

If you feel like these elements were in place, and you’re having difficulty assessing your campaign, reach out to your supporters for feedback to pinpoint potential issues.

What external factors are at play?

There’s always a possibility that external factors impacted your results. Examine the time frame and circumstances of your campaign. For example, maybe your campaign centered around a volleyball tournament and attendance suffered because of inclement weather. It’s a sound practice to look outside your campaign for any information that might shed light on your performance.

Step 3: Record and Present Your Findings

Document key insights from your analysis so that all team members have access to the lessons learned as you move forward. This documentation will come in handy if you chose to include any insights in your annual report, or annual failure report, like Engineers Without Borders, Canada, does every year. Identify weekly, quarterly, or annual opportunities to disclose this information to board members, your entire organization, and even to donors. Being honest and reporting your findings to your donors builds a sense of trust and transparency. By saying, “It recently came to our attention that this particular element of our campaign fell short,” it shows supporters that you aim to identify and solve inefficiencies. You can also convey how you plan to remedy the problem for next time.

Step 4: Identify Opportunities and Take Corrective Action

It will often be difficult to pinpoint a single item as the cause of a failure. You may identify several root causes that require attention. Depending on the size of your team, assign two to three action items at a time to avoid getting overwhelmed.

For example, if your campaign failed to meet its fundraising goal, one action item could be to extend the campaign timeframe and send out another appeal. DonorDrive found that 42 percent of donors visit a donation page more than once before making a donation. Use your failure as an opportunity to reach out again and call potential donors back to your donation page. Link to the failed campaign in your email communications so individuals who already donated understand why they are getting asked to contribute again. Explain what you think led to not meeting this goal. Whether unforeseen expenses or unclear messaging hindered your success, explain what action you’re taking to move forward and ask for their support again.

Not all failures are as obvious as missing a fundraising campaign goal. There is always room for improvement, even when a campaign exceeds your expectations. Use these steps to set up a regular “check up” for your organization in order to keep improving.

We would love to hear what systems your organization has in place for analyzing and communicating failures. Let us know in the comments below.


Run Your Best Campaign Ever

examples of successful nonprofit fundraising campaigns


Where social entrepreneurs go to learn and grow

Join over 20,000 leaders just like you who get their weekly dose of technology, innovation, fundraising ideas, and the latest industry trends.

Subscribe to the Classy Blog