Getting an A+ in failure


Victoria Dunning


The GEO Learning Conference took place 10-11 June in Boston, and failure was a headliner!  The Fail Fest reception was one of its more popular events.  The wine and cheese reception, decorated with bright helium balloons, brought a festive atmosphere to the early summer evening. Five senior philanthropy professionals brought the crowd to laughter, tears, and commiseration in sharing their stories of failure in the name of learning (full disclosure, I was one of the speakers).

It’s not easy to sharing your biggest mistake in front of a crowd of 400 or so people. But in this case failure was celebrated, and ultimately, stories of triumph and resilience, improvement and learning emerged.  The storytelling format was reminiscent of the age-old fables teaching valuable lessons for all. The fox and the grapes, anyone?  And while we were up on stage solo, exposing our frailties, it was clear we were not alone.

In fact, the storytellers shared themes that were familiar to all.  One storyteller showed how believing that one is an exception to the rule will pretty much prove the rule. Another demonstrated in epic-failure detail how untested assumptions in a theory of change can get the better of us.  A particularly entertaining failure story reminded us – once again – that change takes time.  I shared a story of how the decision to tighten our due diligence and controls came about the hard way.  A defining theme in several stories was the importance of humility among grantmakers. I can’t share the details here – you really had to be there – but, for sure, the stories reinforced important lessons for all.

It was not just the lessons themselves that were important. Failure itself is important for meaningful learning and improvement.  Many entrepreneurs commonly use the expression ‘fail fast.’ Others note that the failure itself is not as important as whether you ‘failed up’ or stayed down.  And finally, the sharing of colossal mistakes in a celebratory atmosphere allows failure to exist, not in a punitive frame, but in one in which empathy, sharing, and learning from failure can lead us to our greatest success.

Victoria Dunning is the executive vice president of the Global Fund for Children.

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