When success doesn’t breed success

By John Copps 5 August 2009

There is a popular show on British television where (often hapless) members of the public pitch ideas to five of the country’s business elite in the hope of securing an investment. Last night, a spin-off programme gave an account of the fortunes of several of the entrepreneurs after the original show. These ranged from the inventor of a hot chilli sauce (now a millionaire) to a manufacturer of a treadmill for dogs (not yet a millionaire).

That some of these investments succeed and some fail is so blindingly obvious – even to a reality TV show audience – that it hardly warranted comment.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of our mind-set when it comes to donations to charities. Most donors seem to be blind to the prospect that charities fail and that, like an investment in a treadmill for dogs, their donation may amount to not very much. Why is this?

We could point to laziness on the part of donors but I think that the non-profit sector itself must carry much of the blame. Charities and grant-makers are guilty of promulgating the myth that they always succeed. Failure is rarely mentioned and annual reports are relentless tales of achievement. (Although it is always refreshing when you come across examples that buck the trend, for example see here.)

Of course it is easy to tell ourselves that we are doing well, to pat ourselves on the back for the triumphs and gloss over the failures. But this flies in the face of our duty to donors and, even more crucially, to the people we exist to help. To solve deep-rooted social problems we need to be honest – so that our successors do not have to repeat the same mistakes, and we can learn how to improve.

As such, the message to charities and grant-makers is to come clean. It is no good existing in a state of denial. As well as highlighting successes we need to know what hasn’t worked. We can all learn from failure.