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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Why you want your nonprofit to fail

In a society fundamentally rooted in capitalism, how can nonprofits argue their worth when their work cannot be translated into a monetary sum?

Increasingly, nonprofit organizations are looking for new ways to measure (and thereby validate) the importance of their work. Our organizations have been measuring outputs in one way or another for as long as there has been philanthropy. This is not without good reason. We measure to ensure that our practices are effective, and to demonstrate that to any number of stakeholders, from the donors who fund us to the constituencies we serve.

Manyhave focusedon uncovering new ways of gathering this data and new metrics for analyzing it. Now the discussion is shifting to moving beyond outputs (e.g. number of people served) to impacts (e.g. what difference it made in those people’s lives and the community as a whole). Social impact models seek to move beyond basic performance measures to better understand and illustrate what has been accomplished and, more importantly, what it meant. When faced with shorter attention spans and more critical oversight in today’s fundraising landscape, having numbers that speak to the value of your organization can give you an important edge.

But what happens to all this meticulously compiled data after the marketing materials have hit the printer and the results have been uploaded to the website? While more robust marketing and fundraising plans may seem like the most beneficial uses for social impact data, we should be using this information to inform ourselves as much as others. These studies have great potential for identifying areas for growth within our work, but inviting such feedback does not come easily. However, without allowing the space for reflection and critique we run the risk of stifling innovation. Creativity requires risk, and can often end in failure. So there is that dirty word, failure. We cringe when we hear it. Despite this, some cutting edge organizations and nonprofit professionals are responding with creative ways to accept and even embrace failure.

These ideas are not new. Anyone with a Pinterest account can point to dozens of misquoted notables singing the praises of falling with style. Moreover, this is part of a larger ongoing conversation within our society.

Social impact measurements are quickly becoming the gold standard in calculating nonprofit effectiveness.  This opens up the opportunity to use this information to transform how we approach our work. Social impact studies should not exist solely for marketing and fundraising purposes. While measuring social impact be a positive tool for showing just how much your work matters, in some ways it only really shows us an image of the past- what we have done well. However, when these metrics are designed with a grander purpose in mind, they serve as sneak peeks into our future, showing us new challenges and opportunities.

In order for this information to really impact our practice, our organizations must be spaces where a failure is not just tolerated but celebrated. This could (and does) look a lot of different ways, but is fundamentally about shifting away from a “blame and shame” method that forces us to hide failures. We must instead allow ourselves to fully acknowledge and process unsuccessful ideas and give ourselves the space to brainstorm how we might do things differently.

What would happen if we took a hard look at our shortfalls and used social impact measurements to identify our gaps? We cannot do this in a vacuum- we must begin with a broader culture of evaluation and creativity within each organization. We must ensure that our organizations are innovative and responsive spaces if we want to make the kind of transformational changes that our communities need and deserve. 

Chloe Silva is a graduate of the Social Justice and Human Rights Master of Arts program at Arizona State University (ASU), where she studied critical theory and Indigenous self-determination. Prior to attending ASU, she worked for Teach For America * Memphis. Currently, she serves as the Program Coordinator for the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation and spends the weekends exploring the desert with her dog.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog