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Mayes Wilson & Associates

Should I Tell My Funder My Program Failed?

Julie Whelan Capell |

Why are nonprofits so reluctant to tell funders when a program has failed?

Do we not trust the funders to understand our situation?

Do we think they will cut off our funding?

Are we afraid they will lose faith in our organization’s ability to serve the community?

In other sectors, such as engineering and medicine, it is understood that we can learn just as much from failure as we can from success, if not more. Failure is seen as essential to innovation and forward progress.

But in the social sector, we are extremely reluctant to talk about our program failures.

If we don’t speak candidly with funders about the challenges we are facing, how can we expect them to work with us as equal partners to help us meet those challenges?

Speaking with complete candor to a funder about a program failure, or a roadblock to implementing a program as envisioned, could be the start of a more open, committed and fruitful relationship between your nonprofit and the funder.

Nonprofit leaders are often quick to blame the funding community for not understanding the complexities of the work we do.  But if we don’t open up and speak honestly with funders, how will they ever learn?

So next time, instead of trying to sugar-coat a less than successful program, try sitting down with the funder and talking candidly about what really happened. What if—gasp—you told the funder you actually needed MORE funding to do the project right? Our entire sector could benefit from more conversations about the need for support not just for direct program services, but also for overhead expenses and other important tools like independent program evaluations.

Have you ever had an honest conversation with a funder about something that didn’t go exactly as planned at your agency?  What were the results of that conversation?  If you want to talk more about how to handle program failure drop us a line, we’d love to help.

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