Charity Awards 2024

How to build innovation from failure

Sometimes new ideas fail, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be innovative. Charities Aid Foundation's James Moon looks at how we can learn from failure.

 The social sector is awash with innovation. It implies progress and excitement and is something that funders embrace, as it implies eureka moments and leaps in impact. At the same time, innovation requires risk. It is about embracing new ideas or ways of working. These new ways of working may be a fantastic success but they also may lead to failure. Does that mean we should shun innovation? In my opinion, no. If we do not innovate as a sector, we stagnate and the world leaves us behind. If the world leaves us behind we are not able to effectively support the causes that we exist to support. Failure through innovation can be ok as long as when it occurs we learn and innovative further from it.

Failure is a difficult word to swallow, particularly considering the low levels of trust in the sector at the moment and accountability to funders. However it is crucial that the learning from failure is captured, analysed and used to adjust and adapt going forward. There is also a slow but growing trend of funders that understand and accept failure under the right conditions.

Learning from failure, not only helps your own charity to innovate, but the sector as a whole. Being open and sharing your learning (good or bad) with the sector helps to strengthen it, and ultimately the lives or causes that we exist to support. Some charities are already embracing the learning and sharing from failure, Engineers without Borders Canada, for example, produce failure reports and closer to home, Street League, dedicate a section of their annual report to what they ‘didn’t do well’. There is also the site admitting failure, where organisations and individuals share their learning stories.

Be bold and share your learning from failure whether through open relationships with funders, or standing up at a conference and having a frank discussion about how you failed and what you learnt.  Failure leads to learning which leads to innovation and ultimately progress. 

James Moon is advisory manager at Charities Aid Foundation.

Civil Society wishes to thank Charities Aid Foundation for its support with this article