crying footballer

For every winner…

By Tracey Gyateng 14 July 2014

Yesterday, millions across the world watched Germany beat Argentina to be crowned the world’s greatest footballing nation.

Plenty of Germans fans will have woken up with headaches from last night’s revelling. But it’s worth considering what we mean when we say that ‘there can only be one winner’—Germany were the last side standing after 31 countries had fallen by the wayside.

How do you console the losers? We are often told it’s not about winning, but about taking part; but is that really true? Who wants to lose?

Neither are all losers equal. Compare the limp, anonymous return of England’s football team after their lacklustre performance with the gutsy Costa Ricans, greeted back home by their president and thousands of fans. Yes, we may be able to learn from our failure, but let’s not kid ourselves: failure is painful, and even more so when everyone sees it.

I’ll give you a personal story of failure. I can achieve a near nirvana experience sat in front of a PC examining spreadsheets. Yet due to my passion in helping others use data, I took on a role campaigning for better access to government datasets to support evaluations through our Data Labs programme. I can’t tell you how insecure I sometimes feel when speaking in public, nor of the relief I experience afterwards when someone reassures me about how clearly I have spoken.

But trust me, I don’t always get it right. At a recent roundtable, I couldn’t help but stutter at every sentence. The inward embarrassment of my nerves combined with the outward shame of not being able to articulate myself in front of my peers meant I longed to be swallowed up by the ground.

Yet the question of what works and what does not is increasingly important. Facing tight resources, shared measurement and greater collaboration can be more helpful than ever. Some funders now want to hear open and honest stories from their grantees, although I’ve also heard from charities who said that funders have not been open to hearing about what has gone wrong. The charities that have used the Justice Data Lab have seen the benefits of testing the effectiveness of their interventions on reducing reconviction rates, and have valued this transparency above the consequence of having their results made public. Nonetheless, I’m sure for some charities, publishing results in this way is just too much of a risk, especially given the large-scale commissioning changes taking place under Transforming Rehabilitation.

So how do we conclude? Well to be honest, I don’t think we can. Failure is messy and uncomfortable; yet if we are to improve as a sector then learning from others (also known as ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’) is a way to avoid making the same mistakes. Is it enough to work towards a goal where all organisations examine and implement lessons learnt, and perhaps share these lessons in safe communities? Or should the goal be for more transparency of results?

I don’t know, but I do think it’s time to explore this further. For now, I’ll go back to another human flaw—that of procrastinating. I’ll park this complicated question of what to do or not do about failure within the charity sector until someone decides to join me.

Who’s with me?