This month, Canadian international development professionals launched a website called Admitting Failure, a website for international aid and development organizations to display their worst moments for all to see. Admitting failure, the website promises, "is key to success."
A mistake is made somewhere in rural Tanzania. It is not publicized – a donor might be upset. Two years later, the same mistake is repeated in Ghana. 6 months later in Mali. And so the story continues...
...by admitting our failures – publicly sharing them not as shameful acts, but as important lessons – we contribute to a culture in development where failure is recognized as essential to success.
Donors – large and small – can better understand and support the work they fund. Institutions and individuals can learn more from each other, and test more innovative approaches – and either avoid what’s already been tried or enter into these experiments with eyes wide open.
My first reaction is that this is a marvelous idea, which will cultivate humility and reflective practice.
My second reaction is to wonder how many organizations will really be that introspective. Among the failure stories already submitted to the site, for example, there are a number of genuine failure stories of the type the site envisions, but there is also is a story of how Global Giving caught one of its featured partners failing. This is not a humble admission of failure at all, but rather a self-congratulation for catching someone else's failure. There is also this story of an individual being disgruntled with aid work s/he was doing, and calling the program a failure. Of course, these are only a few of the first handful of what may grow to be a large corpus of failure stories, and it is premature to judge whether or not the site will accomplish its goals. (Though if it doesn't, I have little doubt that this site's operators, of all people, will admit it and make changes!)
Leaving the merits of this particular website aside, and considering some implications for our field, does /should the Jewish communal field actively cultivate a forum for admitting, discussing and learning from failure? To be sure, individual organizations frequently treat their failures as opportunities to learn internally, and occasionally they even publicize their failures in order to share their school-of-hard-knocks knowledge with the rest of the field. (For example, see this 2009 article by Deena K. Fuchs in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service about two failed programs funded by the AVI CHAI Foundation.) But should we have some website, or conference, or newsletter equivalent to Admitting Failure in the Jewish community? (Shlemiel-Con 2011? Balagan Quarterly?)