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Mistakes and Failures Are Our Greatest Teachers: Do We Make the Most of Them?

Mistakes and Failures Are Our Greatest Teachers: Do We Make the Most of Them?

"Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity and resilience."

"A progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution."

We don't know about you, but these quotes from Matthew Syed grabbed our attention. They certainly piqued Rob's interest when he heard their sentiments echoed in a keynote presentation given at a conference he attended last fall. The speaker was illustrating how those of us working in the nonprofit world have to be much more open to, and willing to learn from, failure.

That particular part of the speech was drawn from Matthew Syed's book, Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes--But Some Do. The author highlights how society needs a more robust culture of learning from failure. He contrasts the medical profession with the aviation industry. He argues that doctors avoid admitting failure, sometime with terrible consequences for patients. Yet airline pilots strive to learn from failure at every opportunity, knowing that this makes them more effective and helps them fly safer. The title of the book reflects this fact: 

For organisations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them. Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be. Failure is thus a signpost. It reveals a feature of our world we hadn’t grasped fully and offers vital clues about how to update our models, strategies and behaviours.

Volunteer engagement certainly encounters its fair share of mistakes and failures, which is part of life. No one likes to admit – or recall – such uncomfortable experiences, but we should learn from them and be willing to share the experiences with others. Think about it: when was the last time you went to a conference workshop all about how someone failed? Don’t we most often focus instead on successes we've had?

From 2009 to 2011, Rob led the secretariat to the UK's Volunteer Rights Inquiry, an important national project which explored why relationships broke down in significant and often high profile ways between volunteer-involving organizations and volunteers. (He contributed two articles to e-Volunteerism on this:  “On the Front Lines of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry” and “Exploring the Issue of Volunteer Rights.”) Although the project received wide attention at the time, there is little evidence that the Inquiry’s findings have resulted in any change or “lessons learned” to prevent repeated problems.

Rob remembers a training course he attended years ago in which the speaker observed that anytime we need to fire/terminate a volunteer we have to acknowledge that we have failed at some stage of the process of managing/engaging that volunteer. This doesn’t mean we should never fire anyone, but that each time such a problem arises we can assess and analyze why it happened – and from that introspection, develop possible new ways to avoid the problem in the future.

We ask: Do volunteer resource management professionals actively seek to identify and learn from failure? Do we ever seek to share our mistakes so other can learn from them?

And here is yet another perspective: Do we encourage mistakes in the desire to do something good or worthwhile, because innovation requires trial and error?

What Do We Mean by “Mistakes” and “Failures”?

Everyone makes mistakes. Happily, most are easily corrected, although others can have serious consequences. Mistakes are unintended, but often due to lack of knowledge, too little preparation, or misleading information. This is true in daily life and also in volunteer management. When something goes wrong we can adjust our procedures or correct course.

Here’s a real-life mistake Susan made years ago in the volunteer program she ran for the Philadelphia Family Court. She wanted the volunteer application form to be welcoming to a wide range of people, especially those who had vocational skills but not necessarily a college degree. So, instead of a question about “education” that asked for schools, degrees granted, and graduation dates, she asked the following: “Please describe your educational experiences.” To which – at least once a month – applicants would respond with “lousy!” She revised the question.

Similarly, when Rob was starting out as a trainee, he asked a group returning from their lunch break if they’d like to get started for the afternoon. The group joker said, “No.” Queue much hilarity and a mental note by Rob never to ask that question again.

Failures are bigger and usually result from a cascade of mistakes. Something that was needed and wanted did not succeed, even though the effort might have spent money and taken lots of time and effort. It is very hard to be part of a failure, especially after investing yourself in it, and the only way to salvage the situation is to do a serious post mortem and determine exactly what happened. But beware of only spending time on finding errors or casting blame.

The first question to ask in analysing a failure should be: Was this an effort worth having tried at all? In other words, was the project started because of a real need? Does that need still exist and should this failure end the attempt to address it or be replaced by another try in a different way?

Scientific research understands this and recognizes that finding answers is often a process of eliminating what doesn’t work. It may take years of experimenting and failing before the right course is found.

Most people try to avoid failures, but understanding and learning from what doesn’t work is an essential part of making progress. It is by testing our ideas, subjecting them to failure, that we set the stage for growth. In fact, engaging volunteers may uniquely enable us to experiment with new approaches to problems. And if we experiment, we cannot expect success every time.

Volunteering as a Safe Haven for Failing

As is proven by history, volunteers are the pioneers and mavericks who recognize new needs before it’s anyone’s “job” to address them. That’s why they are the founders of almost every nonprofit organization. First they’re driven by passion for their chosen cause, which can be rooted in anger, frustration, or great desire. And very often they accept personal risk in challenging the status quo to be successful.

Volunteers roll up their sleeves and get to work without first fretting over where money might come from. Later, when a more formal organization begins, funding becomes a greater concern. And with it, the inclinations to limit or even avoid risk.

Most of our readers are working with volunteers in the context of a formal organization, recruiting volunteers to do pre-defined work. However, one of the amazing benefits of engaging volunteers is that we can experiment with all sorts of ideas without immediately being concerned for how to pay for the creativity. As long as we can interest volunteers in trying something new, we can start. If the experiment works, it may lead to expansion and eventually funds to hire paid staff. But if the idea fails, the negative consequences are usually less because the main resources used are personal effort.

Failure of an experiment tried willingly by volunteers is therefore not a bad thing, just an idea that didn’t pan out. In fact, it can save all sorts of time and money to pilot test it this way. For the volunteers involved, the purpose of their effort is still met: to learn whether something is worthwhile to continue for the organization and the people and causes served. This is especially true if we recruit the volunteers by openly explaining the experiment and the possibility of deciding “no, we won’t continue this” at the end.

Susan’s own mother, Ann, experienced this more than 20 years ago. A rehabilitation hospital wanted to test new ways of working with patients when they first entered the facility from a primary care site. So the rehab hospital asked Ann and several other volunteers to greet new arrivals in several specific ways. Part of the assignment was to be sensitive to the patients’ reactions and report on whether this seemed to be good or bad, and how. After a few months, Ann and the others recommended stopping the experiment because it was “failing.” They felt that patients were not at all ready to interact so personally immediately upon entering the facility. The volunteers were taken seriously and the hospital decided to do something different. The important point here is that Ann felt happy with what her work contributed to the hospital. The approach failed, but not the volunteers.

The Challenge of Our Risk Avoidance Culture

The problem with embracing failure is that most leaders of volunteers work in an institutional world that isn't just risk averse but seeks to avoid risk altogether. This is critical to understanding our reaction to mistakes and failure, and hinders us when it comes to identifying and learning from something that doesn’t work.

This came home to Rob during the UK's Volunteers' Week in 2016. He was one of a number of speakers at an event that encouraged people to think differently about engaging volunteers. At the closing plenary, the event organiser asked everyone what would stop them from applying any of the lessons learnt at the event. The overwhelming response was the risk involved in doing something different. To which we'd respond: What about the risk of not acting, changing, or improving?

Now we're not saying all volunteer resource managers are chronic risk avoiders. Quite often we find ourselves hamstrung by the prevailing organisational culture in which we work –

a culture which forgets the risk-taking, pioneering spirit of the organisation's volunteer founders and chooses instead to play it safe. Which, unfortunately can prevent even examining what might effect real change.

We recommend taking the advice of our colleague Fraser Dyer (who moved from volunteer management into the clergy): "Risk. Learn to love it."

Tips for Us All

  • Welcome opportunities to innovate as the chance to showcase the different perspectives volunteers bring to the organization. Openly define “experiments” as what they are, emphasizing that the outcome will have value whether it succeeds or fails.
  • Clearly articulate what you hope to accomplish or what need is being addressed by any new action you want to take. Plan carefully, as you should do with any action. Determine what indicators might show success or lack of it. Decide what needs to be monitored, how you will collect information, and how often you’ll do a reality check on progress.
  • Start small. Recruit perhaps only one but no more than a few volunteers to be the pioneers. Engage them in the planning process to define the experiment. Train them not only to do the necessary work, but to observe its effect and report back.
  • Susan is famous for saying, "It's easier to apologize than ask permission." Stop feeling as if you need to run to your supervisor with every new idea. The job of volunteer manager is to identify needs and mobilize community resources to meet them. It’s not simply to fill position descriptions someone else defined two decades ago. Rather than worry about possible consequences to trying something new that might “fail,” simply gird your professional loins and give it a try (remember: start small). This does not suggest that you should operate in secret, as all new initiatives should be reported along with regular activities, but why draw attention to the chance of failure when there is also a great chance of success?
  • Don’t do it alone! Form a planning and assessment team to share the blame (and the glory)! This is perfect for volunteer participation, as each member individually has less to lose – plus it can be fun to contribute by ruling something out. Make sure your team is comprised of people who are enthusiastic and others who are sceptical. That way the evaluation of results won’t be biased.
  • If possible, enlist a champion who’s higher up the food chain. This is different from asking permission; it means identifying who might be most open to your wish to experiment, and ask for her or his support. Perhaps the person might even be willing to serve on your planning team. Likely candidates include the middle manager most directly concerned with the need you’re trying to fill or someone in development who has been trying to fundraise for the special service you are going to test.


Activities without risk may seem safe, but are actually dormant. Worse, they may no longer be helpful to your mission, which means that you are asking volunteers to waste their time.

Be deliberate in assessing all the results of new projects, not just the positive ones – and, for that matter, keep evaluating the many activities you’ve been asking volunteers to do for years. Beware the dangers of inertia. Rather than dread uncovering problems, welcome the chance to gain new insights. Build the case for doing something in different ways or acknowledging that time can be better spent pursuing a different goal or method.

Finally, try to avoid the word “failure.” Be positive about expressing the benefits of trying to do something new for a worthwhile reason. Manage your fears of risk instead of avoiding something that may not work.

Susan has long wanted to devote an entire issue of e-Volunteerism to the theme of “brilliant failures that have improved our work.” To date, she hasn’t found many contributing authors, but maybe this Points of View will encourage some submissions!

"Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself."

– Eleanor Roosevelt

To add or view comments

Thu, 07/13/2017
Thank you Rob and Susan! I thoroughly enjoyed this article as I am passionate about continuous improvement being a key focus for volunteer programs. There is a great deal of value in trialing experiments or pilots and then reflecting on what has worked well and what can be improved. By including volunteers in these discussions and providing an opportunity for them to share their experience we not only increase their engagement but we also gain valuable insight.

Sun, 07/30/2017
So true that we tend to hide our mistakes, which often rules out learning from them. A few years ago I was setting up a pilot program for home visiting volunteers and, in the course of my research, found a conference abstract from several years earlier which described the start of a program very similar to what I was considering. However I could not find any subsequent information about the program. Luckily I knew the volunteer manager of the organisation so was able to find out why the program didn't go ahead and avoid those pitfalls myself. I now belong to a self managed, sector specific volunteer coordinator network and the one standing agenda item we have is to describe current successes and challenges so we can learn from each other, and it is often the challenges that elicit the most conversation and learning.