A Stop At Failure

Samuel Beckett says, in “Worstward Ho”: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”


OK, I got that from an interesting op ed in the NY Times by the always interesting Jennifer Finney Boylan.

But it sang to me.  A stop at failure is the best way to reach success.

Unless you are like too many of my clients who, to many recommendations I make, say-“Oh, we tried that.  It didn’t work.”  And then refuse to consider it further.

Failure, truly, is the best teacher.  It’s the way we can discover what we need to do differently.  Success, ironically, often stymies greater success.  It worked!  Yayy.  We don’t need to do anything differently, consider additions, make anything better.

But, really, you do.

I’d love to replace “success” and “failure” (and “win” and “lose”) with other, more appropriate words. Instead of saying (internally—marketing still requires a bit of oversell) “That was so successful,” try saying, “That worked.”  And then start wondering how it might work better in the future.  Likewise, with failure, which we all conflate with “flunking.” As in a test.  Have you ever noticed that we never really get out of elementary school?  Think of failure as an opportunity to learn; to improve; to get better at something.

Thinking about things as either success or failure often leads to inaction.  This is especially true in fundraising.  I know a number of professional fundraisers who won’t go on a call unless they are 100% sure of a “success.”  Like too many of our board members, they don’t want to hear no.  No, to them, is failure.  

But no, especially in fundraising, is often the prospect’s way of inviting you to engage them further. They are telling you they must learn more about you—and you, in turn, need to learn a lot more about them.  

When a donor says “no,” think about it as an opportunity.  If they don’t tell you why, ask them.  “Is there anything I can do that, perhaps over time, would make you consider a yes?”  Or, more simply, “Would you share with me why?”

Unless they tell you they hate your organization, despise your cause, there is reason to keep engaging with this prospect.  How much, how often, will depend on the conversation you have following the no.

Typically, the no is because:

1.    Your timing is bad.  The donor has something going on in her personal or work life or she just made a large gift to another organization.  If it’s the latter, find out how you can be next on her list. If it’s the former reasons, find out when would be a good time to re-engage.  But note that doesn’t mean radio silence from you until then!

2.    The amount you asked for is too much.  First find out if he could, would he consider a gift to your organization at that level.  If he says no, find out why.  If he says yes, then it’s time to start discussing the various options—yes, a smaller gift or, perhaps, a gift over years, or part cash, part legacy.  The opportunities are endless

3.    The project isn’t singing to her.  She’s a dog person and doesn’t care about cats—or vice versa.  Or whatever.  Great.  Start talking about what she does care.  And work with her to find that project that will be a symphony.

4.    They are not happy with something going on at your organization.  First find out what.  Sometimes it’s something that has already been dealt with and that makes for an easy, “I hear you.  And yes, we recognize that has been an issue.  Let me tell what we are doing to fix that/ensure it can never happen again/change things.  And then succinctly, tell them.  If it’s about anything else, reframe what you heard to ensure that you have the right issue, then say, “I need to research this.  May I look into it and get back to you in a few days.”  Do not try to resolve something on the fly that you may not have any clout to resolve—or which may not, in fact, be a problem

5.    The chemistry between you and the donor just isn’t happening.  Fine, say thanks and find a better fit.  

Take Beckett’s words to heart. Whatever you do, keep on doing, and keep on doing it better.

Janet Levine