Changing the way we change the world

What to do when things go wrong? Resources

By Susan Davis, Executive Director

Last week I moderated a panel discussion on WHAT TO DO WHEN THINGS GO WRONG? (or what we’ve been calling “resolution“) at charity:water’s office in New York. Here’s my introduction:

Because millions of people lack safe water services and billions are without toilets, many organizations have worked for decades to help. With the development of monitoring tools and the power of the internet, more and more organizations are sharing their data and evaluations. These are highlighting that we’re all experiencing similar challenges. For example, challenges with keeping water flowing. Many studies show that toilets are not kept clean, or not used at all, or are abandoned when the latrine pits fill.

Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” We might say the same thing about WASH, except that we are dealing with people’s health and lives, not just a light bulb. So what is failure? We often talk about things breaking, but what’s really behind the “stuff” is the failure to change the systems that keep water and sanitation services going. We fail at encouraging behavior change that leads people to use the safe water, or the handwashing station, or the toilet.

In recent years, there has been a movement to “celebrate failure” but that’s not enough. We are affecting people’s lives, so we must hold ourselves accountable – as implementing organizations and donors – to find, learn, and respond to failures. And we must learn, not just from our own failures, but from the past, and those of our peers.

That’s why I’m thrilled that Helvetas invited me to moderate this panel on “What to do when things go wrong?”  What stops organizations from turning mistakes into success?  How can foundations, companies, development organizations, and local partners make sure that learning from failure leads to action? The panel, which consisted of representatives of donors and a large international development organization, answered these questions and discussed case studies:

  • Brian Hoyer, Director of Program Operations, charity: water. Understanding when projects aren’t functioning helps us learn how to make them more successful. charity: water has developed PIPELINE- a system of local leaders, innovative technology and trained mechanics all working together to keep water flowing. One key tool we are using is a water point sensor to measure functionality in near real-time to directly monitor projects after implementation
  • Melchior Lengsfeld, Executive Director, Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation. After hygiene education fell short, Helvetas started an evidence-based learning expedition in behavior change, which made the organization change course and totally rethink its approach. Helvetas is a is a learning organization that wants staff and partners to learn from their daily experience in development cooperation in different ways, by reflecting regularly and systematically on what went well and what could have gone better, and what this implies for our future work.
  • Maya Winkelstein, Executive Director, Open Road Alliance. We are in the business of risk. A private funder, Open Road only supports projects after they have encountered an unexpected obstacle. With a portfolio of 80+ case studies and counting, we are developing an expertise in what goes wrong – and a theory on what we can do to prevent it.

The hosts shared a few relevant articles and resources that you might find interesting.

The Guardian: When it Comes to Water Access, We Keep Doing the Same Thing. And Failing.

Stanford Social Innovation Review: Development Malpractice in Ghana

Stanford Social Innovation Review: When Innovation Goes Wrong

Harvard Business Review: Strategies for Learning from Failure

Ted Talk: Learning from Failure, David Damberger


WASHfunders Blog: WASH and Behavior Change: Six Key Lessons from an Evidence-based “Learning Expedition” in Haiti, Mali, Benin, and Mozambique

HELVETAS Learning Expeditions

Open Road Alliance

Risk management toolkit

Funders Don’t Ask & Non-Profits Don’t Tell – 2015 Survey Report

New York Times: A Tool Kit for the Donor Eager to Grasp All the Risks of Donation

Fast Company: Helping Philanthropy Be More Realistic About the Risks Inherent In Its Mission

Newsletter signup link

Improve International

Improve International: Guidelines for Resolution of Problems with Water Systems

Improve International: Failure Data – An Acquired Taste

Leave a Reply