Prompted by a “Fail Fest” session at the 2022 International Conference on Family Planning, Youth Leader Joy Munthali offers her recommendations on how donors can create safe spaces for young people or youth-led organizations to openly share their experiences of learning from failure without hurting their reputation.
During the 2022 International Conference on Family Planning, the Knowledge SUCCESS project hosted a “fail fest” moderated by Ellen Starbird, Director of USAID’s Office of Population and Reproductive Health. She was joined by representatives from USAID, WHO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Population Services International. The different representatives shared their stories of improving through failure. They gave insights into how we can collectively improve programs and services by normalizing sharing failures, exploring how being vulnerable and openly admitting that you “messed up” can improve family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) work. While different partners can learn more about what does not work in FP/RH programs to avoid repeating past mistakes, there are limited opportunities to hold these valuable discussions on such a scale.
While listening to others’ failures and insights, I started thinking about the disappointments that I have experienced with my organization, Green Girls Platform in Malawi, and how sharing these struggles could really improve the work of other youth-led organizations (YLOs) around the world. Then I looked at the donors and international non-governmental organizations in the room and thought about what repercussions we would face if we openly said, “Oops! We messed up and our programs did not go as planned.”
Fortunately, one of the participants asked my question out loud: “How can funders ensure that youth-led organizations have the same comfort in sharing their failures as big institutions do without losing their credibility?” This question prompted my thoughts on sharing how different funders/donors can provide safe spaces where young people or youth-led organizations can openly and honestly share their failures without damaging their reputation.
Before I get to the recommendations, let me share a few thoughts on why sharing failures is particularly difficult for YLOs. These are based on my experience at Green Girls Platform and the work I have done with the We Trust You(th) initiative.
1. It shows you are not perfect
When a youth-led organization shares its failures, it is essentially admitting to not having all the answers and being open to learning from its mistakes. This can be a powerful message to both its members and external stakeholders, as it shows that the YLO is willing to grow and improve. However, it can also make the organization appear vulnerable, as it is acknowledging that it is not perfect.
Imagine a scenario where a YLO makes a mistake in planning a rally and not enough people show up. Sharing this publicly may damage its reputation and make it more difficult to mobilize support for future campaigns.
2. It questions your credibility
The vulnerability of sharing failures can be particularly problematic for YLOs, as they may not have the same level of credibility or experience as more established organizations. Sharing failures can make them appear less competent in the eyes of their peers, partners, and funders. This can make it more difficult for them to secure funding, partnerships, and other resources that are necessary for their growth and sustainability.
For example, say a youth-led organization fails to secure enough funding to carry out a planned clean-up project. Instead of quitting, it goes ahead with the event, which is not as successful as hoped. If the YLO chooses to share this failure publicly, it may damage its reputation with potential funders and make it more difficult to obtain funding for future projects.
3. Lack of capacity to manage failure sharing
Most youth-led organizations do not have the same level of infrastructure or support systems in place to handle the consequences of sharing failures. They do not have strong public relations teams with the capacity to handle negative feedback or criticism, and they may not have the resources to make the necessary changes to prevent similar failures from happening in the future.
A simple example would be a YLO failing to secure a meeting with a government official it was trying to influence. Sharing this publicly may damage its reputation with the official and other government representatives, making it more difficult to arrange meetings and exert influence in the future.
Does this give you a clear picture of how sharing failures can damage a YLO’s credibility?
If you are a young person or have run a YLO before, I bet you can relate. If you are a funder, you might be wondering why your YLO partners have never shared their failures with you. It is important to note that while sharing failures can be risky, not sharing them can also be disastrous to the YLO and to others working in the FP/RH sector. This is why normalizing failure sharing is important, especially for YLOs. With the right support and encouragement, YLOs can use their failures as learning opportunities to improve their strategies and make a greater impact in their communities.
You are probably wondering what the “right support” might look or feel like for a YLO. Here are some of my recommendations on how funders can create safe spaces for YLOs to openly share their failures. These are based on my experiences as a young leader at Green Girls Platform, my work as an advisor at We Are Purposeful, and as a co-lead for the We Trust You(th) Initiative.
1. Cultivate a culture of trust with young people
Funders can create a culture of trust by providing constructive feedback and support to youth-led organizations, rather than criticizing or penalizing them. This allows YLOs to feel comfortable sharing their failures without fear of repercussions. Providing non-judgmental feedback and support improves the trust between YLOs and their funders.
2. Encourage open and transparent communication
Having regular check-ins and progress reports that do not have predefined milestones can encourage youth-led organizations to be open and transparent about their failures. This allows them to share their struggles early on—before they become bigger problems—and avoid failing on a larger scale.
3. Create a learning culture
Create an informal culture of learning by encouraging YLOs to reflect on their failures and share what they have learned with their peers. These may be other grantees or youth partners that are doing similar work or facing similar challenges. This helps organizations turn their failures into opportunities for growth and improvement.
4. Be open and flexible
By being open to the idea that failure is a natural part of the learning process, YLOs can feel comfortable making mistakes, learning from them, and growing. Being flexible with funding and support, rather than cutting it off when an organization fails to meet expectations, can create room for growth and improvement.
5. Offer capacity building and resources for failure sharing
Funders can provide youth-led organizations with the resources and capacity building they need to normalize failure sharing. This includes providing funding for training, mentorship, and technical assistance. However, any capacity building needs to be defined by the YLOs, not predetermined by the funders. This will help the YLOs feel heard and supported.
In conclusion, sharing failures is an important aspect of transparency and accountability for youth-led organizations. However, YLOs do not have the same comfort in sharing their failures as other big institutions and well-established organizations. YLOs always need to consider the potential vulnerability that can come with being open about mistakes and shortcomings and strike a balance between being transparent and accountable while protecting their reputation and credibility.
By creating safe spaces and providing support, funders can help youth-led organizations feel more comfortable sharing their failures. This can lead to greater transparency, accountability, and learning, which can ultimately help organizations become more effective and sustainable in the long run.
These are my thoughts on how funders can normalize failure sharing among YLOs in the FP/RH sector. What do you think? Let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.