Fundraising Successfully Through Failure

I’ve always believed that the key to success is failure.  So I was particularly pleased to read in the New Yorker magazine a review of a biography of Albert O. Hirschman, an economist who believed that success grows out of failure. As an economist, Hirschman writes reviewer Malcolm Gladwell, was a planner who conceived “grand infrastructure projects and bold schemes.”  But his main interest was in the failures of those plans; the ways they “did not turn out the way they were supposed to—to unintended consequences and perverse outcomes and the puzzling fact that the shortest line between two points is often a dead end.”

Nonprofits can benefit hugely from Hirchman’s ideas.  Like him, our focus should be on what we do with the results of our plans, rather than on the results alone.  Too many nonprofit professionals and volunteers are so afraid of negative results that they simply refuse to do anything.

In fact, this is the wrong approach.  Success is not the opposite of failure.  It is, rather, the ability to see beyond what didn’t go right to that which will spark creativity and, often, a far better result than was originally expected.

Playing it safe generally means staying in place.  Too many nonprofits look at their fundraising programs as a way to do just that:  keep the doors open so we can continue to do what we do, in exactly the way we’ve always done it.

Innovative organizations—not necessarily the ones who say they are—are willing to challenge the status quo and look for better ways to accomplish their work.  Lately, there has been a lot of chatter about outputs and outcomes—and which matter more.

Outputs, of course, are the things that result from your efforts.  It is typically something you can see.  In fundraising that might be the direct mail appeal, the gala, the gift.  Outcomes, on the other hand, is what impact or benefit the output brings.  And more importantly, what will you do based on both of these? And here’s where failure can be a better teacher.

So lovely that your gala “raised” $50,000 and “everyone” had a wonderful time.  But of more importance would be the impact this gala will have on your fundraising program and how it could help improve the fundraising you do.  If what it does is to convince you that yes, the gala works; yes, you (again) need a good honoree, you will continue to use the gala as a fundraising effort.  This is not a bad thing, but it is pretty stagnating.

If, on the other hand, you brought in $50,000 but the event itself cost you $55,000, you might look at it though different colored glasses.   But not if you simply look at the output—and consider only how you could improve the fundraising output (even though you’ll probably call that the outcome).  You must move beyond the obvious. You must allow yourself to doubt—not just whether, for example, a gala is a good fundraising tool, but whether fundraising is the only purpose for this event.  If, for example, the fundraising that is generated by the event isn’t the sale of the tickets, or even the sponsorship opportunities, but rather what you do with the attendees (and even—let’s be brave—those who didn’t attend) before, at, and after, the event.  Gladwell writes about “The Principle of the Hiding Hand,” an essay written by Hirschman about the Karnaphuli Paper Mills.  Faced with an unexpected catastrophe, the mills operators looked for other approaches to meet their needs.  Bad planning, says Gladwell, forced the operators to become more creative, and that created a situation that was infinitely more beneficial.

So allow yourselves to fail.  Don’t hold back because you may not succeed.  And then—in both success and failure—consider what else could be done, and how else you might look to improve the outcomes and the situation.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them to increase fundraising capacity, build strong boards , and help staff improve their skills.  Learn more at htpp://  While there, sign up for the free newsletter.