No, I don’t want you to have a bad year. But a safe year, with nothing learned? That’s a bad year. Failing can be good! And being afraid to fail? Not so good.
An example: I know I need to refresh my website. No, check that. I know it needs an overhaul. But I’m tied in knots about making the right choices – how it should look, how it should read, all of it. Meantime, here we are.
I’ve found many colleagues are perfectionists, too. Maybe in our business, where what we do can affect real lives, that’s understandable. We keep at it until it’s just right. We fear mistakes.
But here’s why that’s not always smart.
Failure is a great way to learn
I’ll bet you didn’t begin to walk without falling. Most of us don’t get straight As in school. If you’re like me, some of the best lessons have come when I’ve blown it. I still remember some of the words I missed on the SATs. The paper I nearly failed in college. The blown job interview. I learned from every one.
But I read something interesting in the Harvard Business Review. Research shows people who don’t take responsibility don’t learn. We’ve got to own it to grow from it.
You have to risk failing to do something great
I remember listening to Zelda Fichandler, the visionary founder of Arena Stage in Washington DC, talk about failure. She urged us as an organization to embrace it. Certainly as an artist, it’s critical. Safe theater is boring, meaningless, usually unimportant. She knew if she wanted to do something great, she’d need to take some big leaps into the unknown.
And as I’ve confessed, the fear of failing can keep you from getting things done. That’s not helpful, is it?
So here are some examples of good failures. The kind you shouldn’t fear as you fundraise.
Call it testing
If you never try something new, you’ll never know what really works. This isn’t about new for new’s sake. This is about planned failure. The kind you try, because failure is the way to learn.
So go ahead and use the appeal that always works. (See Mark Phillips’ great piece on that.) But set aside a segment of your list and give it a considered tweak. You’ll learn something.
If you don’t ask…
If you’re afraid of failure with your donors you’ll never ask them to help. They might say no. But rejection is also a chance to learn and even build the relationship. Plan your graceful response. Listen well. Then brush off the rejection and focus on the long-term relationship with the donor.
Maybe you hesitate to email your list often, for fear of losing subscribers. But if you don’t ask, then those names on a list will forever be just names on a list. You’re not giving them a chance to become more involved.
Innovation and honesty
When you report to funders, honesty about what worked and what didn’t may help you build stronger relationships. If your funders are serious about solving problems, they’ll want to learn from your experience.
On the other hand…
Failure isn’t always good. If you’re not failing for a reason, or you’re not learning something from your mistakes, then you’re wasting opportunities.
Here are some failures that aren’t so beneficial.
Not doing the work
“Thank you letters are so much trouble. I’ll just print off receipts and send those. Maybe we’ll send one letter at the end of the year.”
“I don’t have time to update the database. It’s close enough. Just use last year’s list for the mailing.”
“Segmenting the lists? Boring. Just ask everyone for the same amount.”
“I’ll just wing this meeting. Who needs research?”
Don’t fail because you’re lazy. Fail because you’re smart and want to get smarter.
And yes, hold me to it. I WILL get this website spiffed up this year. (And make mistakes doing it.)