Barriers to talking about nonprofit failures and how to overcome them

Tanaya Jagtiani and Rachita Vora

In the commercial world, it’s trendy to talk about failing fast and often – and recovering faster. Young companies are constantly pivoting and iterating their products, services, and business models. The business world recognises that there can be no innovation without risk-taking and that taking risks comes with its fair share of failure. Why doesn’t the nonprofit world work like this?

In many developed countries, there has been a process of normalisation of failure in the course of business. In the nonprofit world, however – and particularly in India – things are different. Even though most leaders recognise the inevitability of failure and the valuable lessons it can teach us, they are not ready to admit it. This holds true across nonprofit organisations, corporate foundations, and philanthropies.

In 2020, our organisation India Development Review launched an initiative called Failure Files. Our ambition was to create a space where conversations around failure in the pursuit of social impact are more open and commonplace; where other players can learn from the experiences of their peers, so as to not repeat the same mistakes. Two years in, we have learned a lot about the perception of failure among nonprofits and philanthropies in India, the barriers to openly discussing setbacks, and what needs to happen in order to build a conducive environment for sharing vulnerabilities and challenges.

What are the barriers when it comes to speaking openly about failing?

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