‘Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour’ Truman Capote

The Crowd celebrating failure

The Crowd celebrating failure

Last week I went to an event run by The Crowd, and hosted by Ed Gillespie co-founder of Futerra on celebrating failure.

Innovation and failure are close friends. Put simply – you cannot do something new and ground-breaking and have a guarantee that it will work. How to be brave, try your new idea, minimise risk and learn from failure are important skills for a fundraising innovator.

We listened to four speakers proudly sharing their failures. A panel of experts including Dax Lovegrove, Head of Business and Industry, WWF, Charmaine Coutinho, Business Development Manager, Good Energy Group and Robert Phillips co-founder Jericho Chambers gave their comments and commendations in celebration of the most audacious failures.

Trewin Restorick CEO from Global Action Plan shared the story of Ergo – his failed publication. Launched in 2000 it was the UK’s first sustainability lifestyle magazine. It was described at the time as being terribly communicated, dull and worthy. Shops didn’t know where to stack it with the other magazines and often ended up in the gay porn section.

Sue Riddlestone Chief Executive and Founder of Bioregional shared how they failed to reach the 0% carbon energy targets for the 2012 Olympics. But their failure still resulted in the One Planet Centre in the Olympic Village showcasing how the site was built using sustainable techniques, and ultimately the greenest Olympic Games ever.

Richard Turner Chief Fundraiser at SolarAid explained that without their failures SolarAid would have struggled to have achieved success. He shared the disaster solar lamp that fitted inside a hurricane lamp (which to their customers was a symbol of poverty – they wanted a light bulb) and how failing to sell to schools gave them the idea to sell (successfully) to head teachers.

Matt Sexton Director of Corporate Responsibility at B&Q reminisced about the launch of B&Q wind turbines in 2006. They were neat because they fitted onto your house. The problem was that they didn’t produce enough power. The wind test reports from up a pole in Scotland were very different from urban rooftops where they were actually being used. They managed to sell about 1,000 before being withdrawn in 2009.

The reason for sharing failures is to share what we learnt. So what did I learn from these brave admissions of failure?

  • Sometimes your idea is ahead of its time and you have work to do to help your audiences understand why they need your product.
  • Failing to reach an audacious goal is better than having an incremental goal and achieving it.
  • Keep focused on one thing – focus brings people and teams together.
  • Get closer to your customers to understand them – then you can develop your messages and products to meet their needs.
  • Test your product in real life situations (not up a pole in Scotland).
  • Never accept the status quo.
  • Some ideas won’t work – and its brave to be able to make the decision to pull out. But at least you tried.
  • Often it’s the failures that you learn from that provide you with your ultimate success. Or in the words of Truman Capote

‘Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour’

I’ll be writing more on failure next year. If you have any failures that you would like to share so others can learn then please send me an email.




7 myths of innovation

7 myths of innovationInnovation is not just about green bean bags and whacky idea sessions. Lets blow some myths about innovation out of the water and hear what some of the leaders in the charity sector have to say about them.


1 Innovation has to be brand new

Innovation does not have to be brand new. If it is new or different for you – then it counts.

‘Innovation does not have to be something that is new to everyone – it counts if it is new to your context.’  Paul Farthing, Director of Fundraising, NSPCC

2 Innovation is about whacky creative sessions

No it absolutely is not. Innovation is a business tool to help you achieve your mission as an organisation.

‘The word innovation brings an enormous amount of baggage. If you mention the word innovation – for some, it conjures up images of flowers, rainbows and stuff. Re-titled as business development it re-grows muscles and gravitas, that allows us to progress’ Iain McAndrew,  Director of Marketing, Cystic Fibrosis Trust

3 Innovation is about technology

Technology is an enabler. If your solution to a problem involves technology then it is the solution that is innovative; not the technology. Just because your organisation has a Facebook page or can Skype doesn’t make you innovative. Howard Lake of UK Fundraising sums it up here,

‘Technology is not innovation; it has been presented for years as the solution. Any good technology that meets a need is innovation, technology itself is not – innovation is not the worship of tech and gadgets’

4 Innovation is about a lone genius in a room

Innovation is not about working in isolation, it’s about making connections and sharing ideas and experience with other people.

‘Collaboration is the biggest catalyst for innovation going forward now – the biggest things will come from collaborations.’  Ben Welch, Head of Innovation, Macmillian

5 Innovation is just a process

A process alone will not enable innovation. To be successful at innovation an organisation requires a clear and ambitious goal, strong leadership, that provides a strategic direction and focus for innovation, a supportive culture where people are allowed the time and space to develop their thinking and test and learn from different ideas.

An innovation process will only enable innovation if a culture exists that also supports innovative thinking.

‘We talk about innovation process, but in a way it’s just naming and formalising something that should be happening naturally, by nature we are creative and inventive beings. Process brings focus, diligence and resource coalescence.’ Reuben Steains, Innovations Manager, Amnesty

6 Innovation is instant success

Any change takes time. A lot of organisations want to see ‘quick wins’ from innovation. Instant success isn’t realistic.

Corporate organisations approach innovation as a long-term business strategy. Dan Pallotta, founder of Pallotta TeamWorks, which invented the multi-day charity challenge walks and rides in the USA and author of Uncharitable and Charity Case, gives the example of how Amazon, when it was founded in 1994 focused on a long term strategy of building a market presence that spanned six years before paying a return to investors.  He questions if a nonprofit would be allowed to take the same approach, even with a robust strategy that focused on achieving a greater long-term goal.

7 You need a lot of money to be good at innovation

Some not for profits have directors of innovation and innovation teams. You don’t need an innovation team or lots of money to be good at innovation. An organisation needs solid direction and leadership, the right people, diverse skills and experience, time, space and tools to think creatively as well as a supportive environment to develop and test ideas. With the right support, being good at innovation is within all of our reach, it’s not about organisation size or how much money an organisation has to employ people with ‘innovation’ in their job title.

‘Innovation is the life blood of sector going forward, the marketplace is moving at the speed of light, budgets are no longer big enough to achieve that we want, technology is filling all the gaps; the future about brain power not budget power.’ Tony Elischer, Managing Director, THINK Consulting

This article is based on research for Innovation (Still) Rules – an innovation and creativity guide for not-for-profit organisations. You can download the full report for free here on the nfpSynergy website

(or if you are in London today Monday 2 December) I’m talking about the myths of innovation in my workshop at the Institute of Fundraising London and South East Conference. 

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