We have all read articles recently about “failure,” “intelligent failure,” or the “5 simple tools” to accepting and reporting failure, moving on, etc. The commonalities of these articles in the NGO space, in particular, highlight both the need for, and the complex difficulties of sharing failures publicly. Yet far less has been written about the definition of the word “failure” and who decides its meaning. We find that this conversation is long overdue. While it is clear that the international aid and development community should embrace sharing both successes and failures across the entire NGO stakeholder chain, we cannot afford to stop there. We must also embrace updated, inclusive definitions of success and failure that go far beyond traditional measures to more fully reflect the reality of both our programs and the communities with whom we work.

“What impact are you talking about? The impact is just spending money. Goods are delivered with no sense of social development. There is no interest to develop people; it’s all reduced to practicality. Just know how to write a report. The focus is on skills put in the framework of outputs with no reflection included.”

–Director of a local NGO, Lebanon, Anderson, M., & Brown, D. (2012). Time to listen: Hearing people on the receiving end of international aid.

It can be difficult to discuss failures in a world where international aid and development are both deeply analyzed and frequently criticized. We are all working during a time when some donors give based on interests and compassion – trusting that donation dollars will be well spent – while others are rightfully becoming more discerning and skeptical. This increased scrutiny of international aid and development doubles as an opportunity to rethink our operating models, i.e. whether we are truly working in the most meaningful and impactful ways possible.

Learning from our failures can be the strongest catalyst for change –for doing better. When we choose to ignore our failures, we weaken our effectiveness and undermine our work. And it happens all too often. Indeed — as was stated by Madeleine Bunting on The Guardian Poverty Matters Blog — hiding failure in the NGO world is, “an ugly dishonesty that runs through almost all aid work, a painful underbelly to the very obvious idealism and good intentions.” And, when human lives are at stake – as is ultimately always the case with aid and development – the costs are just too high.

However, many NGOs find themselves stuck between competing demands for time and resources as well as between measures of critical and constructive evaluation. Externally, NGOs are often rated on the percentages of their work spent on major expenditures categories such as Administration, Fundraising, and Programming. Internally, the definitions by which they frequently define success or failure have stayed static and unyielding to community-specific perspectives and changing landscapes. NGOs often both complain and yet often yield to, simply having to “check the boxes” in order to fulfill stakeholder needs.

Similarly, in evaluating programs and impact, distinctions between success and failure are only important if they can be accurate and utilized directly toward tangible improvement. Often, the way an organization defines success or failure is more a reflection of the NGO’s or donor’s priorities rather than the community’s. For example, in an effort to collect stories from program participants (to meet the never-ending, relentless demands to be a “storyteller”), NGOs tend to gear questions and, thus, listening to what they would like or need to hear instead of having the time or ability to dig deeper. Always asking questions from the premises that programs are great and working well, may result in never realizing that those same premises, intended as building blocks for a house, are in actuality, built on sand.

“Haiti was littered with the skeletons of ‘successful’ aid projects.”

Dr. Nigel Fisher, former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Haiti

Current research and our collective track record amongst NGOs demand a rejection of these premises and a paradigm shift in how we view and share our definitions of both success and failure throughout the entire NGO stakeholder network, putting communities first and foremost.

At the recent American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, emBOLDen Alliances had the excellent opportunity to lead a session titled “Redefining Successes and Failures,” for a group of NGO leaders, anthropologists, and ethnographers. The session sought to reflect on definitions of success and failure, and highlight how a paradigm shift is needed across the NGO spectrum to meaningfully increase the impact of service. During the presentation, we cited Dr. Nigel Fisher, former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Haiti, who said: “Haiti [for example] was littered with the skeletons of ‘successful’ aid projects.” We use this reference with peers, partners, and within emBOLDen Alliances, to prompt each of us to think deeply about this truth and ask the following:

1. What have our past lessons taught us?
2. How do we define “success”? Who is defining it?
3. What are our barriers to fundamental change?

In the book Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid, an international NGO project manager explains: “The phrase ‘paradigm shift’ is scary for many people. It calls into question everything they are doing and they think they have to start from scratch, relearn everything…[when], in fact, it is precisely the hard-won experience that prompts the shift.” The book — an excellent resource that is based on conversations in 20 countries with over 6,000 individuals, 125 organizations, and 150 donors — summarizes that: 1) international aid is a good thing that is appreciated; 2) assistance as it is now provided is not achieving its intent; 3) fundamental changes must be made in how aid is provided if it is to become an effective tool in support of positive economic, social, and political change; and 4) these fundamental changes are both possible and doable.


These findings offer us a wonderful opportunity to reflect and change our practice, and thus, the paradigm. For international aid to deliver on the promise of supporting “positive economic, social, and political change,” part of what we must do is reevaluate the very basic terms we use to define it and ask ourselves, from whose perspective are these terms currently being defined, from whose perspective should they be, and how can each of us lead that change?

Utilizing a combination of common sense, history, and experience working in depth with locally-based organizations, emBOLDen Alliances, for example, defines success and failure in collaboration with community partners. We know that a deep and continuing conversation, starting at the beginning stages of any intervention, is necessary to ensure that the definitions of success and failure are adequately aligned with local priorities. Not only do we employ deep and intentional listening with every partner organization in order to build for success or recognize failure, but we also advocate for the universal adoption of this critical process and Listening as an overall indicator of NGO evaluation.
Can a measure of listening and collaborative definitions of success and failure with communities drive the paradigm shift that international aid so clearly requires? We think so. Time to Listen offers four alternative steps to funding, including a robust first step that focuses on early listening (see below). We propose taking this even further, offering up the possibility: what if each of us rated the organization we choose to support and the projects in which we are involved on the Percentage of Time Spent Listening as a component of the criteria we use to guide our support and donations? What if NGOs included metrics on Listening as a part of their evaluation of success?
Compassion alone is not enough. We must strive to constructively and collaboratively define success and failure, including a deep and ongoing process of listening to the communities with whom we work. This is how we collectively drive a paradigm shift in international aid toward real impact. We must let go of stagnant and skewed premises that dictate our measures of success and failure. Through this, we can actually realize the true betterment of communities as they define for betterment for themselves and achieve more meaningful, durable impact.

Alternative Four Steps to Funding*

Step One: Early Listening Funding – All providers would engage with and listen to a variety of people in a prospective recipient country or community before developing a proposal for funding. Any aid provider could draw on a pool of funds made available by individual, or consortia of donor agencies for this purpose. Funds would cover costs of an exploratory field visit and conversations with many people in and around the area (with a lot of listening) to identify local priorities and options for pursuing them that would benefit from external assistance. Incentives would encourage providers to work together to avoid misusing the time and effort of people on the receiving side.

Step Two: Proposal Development – Providers and a recipient group (identified as trusted by people in the proposed area) would together construct a funding proposal. No templates would be required. A proposal would be expected to tell as much as needed to make the case that the plan is a good one from the points of view of the recipient groups (as well as other groups nearby who will not be included in the activity but who will be aware of it and judging it). This could be lengthy or brief. The rule of thumb would be that proposals make the case, provide alternative scenarios of how the process of the work could/would likely unfold, define the time-span, and attach potential cost figures to these alternatives. Budgets would be based on an “up to but no more than” figure.

Step Three: Disbursement of Funds – Funds should be easily accessible as needed. No drawdown schedule should be set. Funds could be set aside in some form of “bank account” on which programmers (which should include recipients as well as providers) could draw as needed (providing brief explanatory notes to the donor at the time of each withdrawal). Aid providers and recipients would together monitor the disbursement and use of these funds and provide transparent information to all involved to reduce opportunities for corruption or mismanagement.

Step Four: Reporting/Accounting – The rule should be simplicity, clarity, and honesty. Donors, aid providers, and aid recipients should decide together on appropriate timing of reports, ways to assess effectiveness, and mechanisms of accounting prior to any agreement on funding. Reports should be made available publically, and recipient communities should not only contribute to them, but also review them.

* Anderson, M., & Brown, D. (2012). Time to listen: Hearing people on the receiving end of international aid. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects.

Copyright emBOLDen Alliances 2016.