Acknowledging Failure: The Cape Town Fail Faire

It can be hard to talk about failure, particularly when charities are competing for resources and recognition.  None of us likes to admit that things go wrong.  However, in the social change sector, if we want to take risks and innovate with new approaches, failures at times are inevitable.   As long as we move forward quickly and learn from them, they can actually help us improve our ways of working and maximise our impact.

We brought our grantees in Cape Town together to share their biggest mistakes and failed projects.  It was an incredibly animated discussion and encouraged honest discussion that revealed several common mistakes that new civic tech initiatives often encounter.

A blog post would never be sufficient to capture the full discussions, but I wanted to share some common themes:

  • Losing Focus: New organisations are often tempted to take on everything they encounter that comes their way, especially when funding’s involved.  This can often result in them losing focus on their mission and taking on more than they can handle.
  • Scaling Fast: When an organisation suddenly becomes more successful, forging new partnerships and accessing new funds, it can be hard to increase their capacity fast enough, particularly when managing a whole range of grants, operating on different time frames.  New organisations often need support to restructure their teams, refine strategies, strengthen financial controls, monitoring and evaluation and communications functions.
  • Incorrect assumptions: Organisations can often make incorrect assumptions.  Often political factors and the local context is poorly understood.  As an example, in South Africa, factions within political parties result in conflicts between different government agencies that need to be understood.  There’s often insufficient research and analysis.  Crucially, end beneficiaries are rarely consulted enough throughout project cycles.  Projects which build tech solutions before understanding a problem often fail.

Many supported user-centred design approaches to combat this but funding structures often don’t allow for this as funders often ask for clear project proposals with specific outcomes, which stifles innovation.

Adi from Code4SA made a suggestion which I like.  Funders should stipulate that organisations assess a project mid-way and adjust the project and milestones accordingly.

  • The Complete Jigsaw: In order to really achieve social impact, it requires sustained engagement on a lot of levels.  Civic tech initiatives need to be combined with advocacy efforts and grassroots campaigning/mobilisation.  Organisations which provide research or access and analysis of data are needed to provide an evidence base.

This requires strong partnerships.   These can be challenging due to differing objectives.  It takes time to build relationships externally and really clear plans and commitments need to be put in place to keep collaborative projects on task and on time.

As Alison Tilley of Open Democracy Advice Centre said, ‘It takes a village to solve a problem’.  Universities, techies, activists and social organisations need to work together to effect change.

  • Impact Takes Time, Funding Cycles are Short: Because of the above, impact takes time, particularly when an organisation is aiming for systemic/process driven change.  And the way things happen often doesn’t fall into the neat little boxes that funders have created to assess a project’s success.  Funding cycles are often too short to enable organisations to really follow something through, which is frustrating for grantees who have made significant ground way.  There’s often a mismatch between funders’ expectations and the reality on the ground.  The grantees are keen for funders to support them with core funding, that supports their long-term vision and strategy.
  • Training and marketing: You’ve heard this from us before, but I’ll say it again.  Organisations often underestimate how much budget is required for training, marketing and communications.  Many realise that telling their stories effectively is key but lack the capacity to do so. Sufficient training (and not just once), marketing and ongoing support is needed to ensure a tech platform is widely used.

As Raymond Joseph, who ran Ground Source for us said, ‘marketing is seen as an add on and it shouldn’t be.’

  • Citizen Feedback: A few years ago many thought that citizens would be really eager to feedback on service delivery issues or participate in projects which help them better understand the services available to them.  However, citizens are often reluctant to share data.  It often costs them money to do so and many mistrust how this data may be used or don’t believe their reporting will have an impact.  They may also fail to understand the value of the project as much as you do.

Adi from Code4Sa rightly reminded us that ‘You care about your project way more than anyone else does.’

  • Appropriate Tech: Often people are running around trying to develop the next innovative platform but sometimes the simplest things work best.  The power of radio is often underestimated.

Social media and reporting platforms can enable people to share and create information and mobilise at a lower cost, greater speed and faster scale than was ever previously possible, but they require the building of a community (online and offline).  Organisations are still figuring out how to build communities and keep them actively engaged.

Some of this can only really be brought to life through examples.  In the coming months, we’ll attempt to share some with you.  Watch this space.