What Happens When You Fail

| by Mendi Nieters

Last week I had the opportunity to retrace my old footsteps both figuratively and literally. I was asked to serve as the “real life example” for a Fund Development class in the MPA Program at NC State University. Go Wolfpack! 

Nostalgia kicked in as I walked across the street to Thompkins Hall. I thought about all the teachers, projects, organizations, and students I had the good fortune to interact with. I smiled as I thought about the lunches enjoyed on the Court of North Carolina with my future husband. I recounted the priceless internships I was privileged to work at, that eventually led to my first job. 

There is just something about being in a place where you were given opportunity that makes you realize how many people took a chance on you; a chance to try, win, fail, but most importantly learn. 

My energy leveled picked up as I walked into Thompkins 125. I spent about an hour with the master’s level class and my only task was to answer their questions. The questions were good! They wanted to know about the difference in working with a national organization and a local nonprofit; how to assess a development program; what I reviewed regularly to track development progress; how to get a board fundraising; the importance of communication in a development program; and my favorite question – what was your most successful campaign. 

I started by sharing a story of reaching $1 M in a single year through a campaign and the program impact it had on my organization. When I finished I thought about some of my best lessons and I rephrased the question and said, “want to hear about a time I failed?” They all said yes. 

I shared a story of a large major gift ask and looking for lead investors in a campaign. An individual we sought support from had a history of making lead gifts, was personally connected to our CEO, had helped us vet the campaign strategy. We also knew confidentially, that he was personally impacted by the cause we were seeking to cure. The day came and we made the ask. His “no” came quick and fast. In the entire process leading up to the ask, we never really sought his personal interest in supporting the campaign, we assumed it. As a result, he never supported the campaign. 

Over my career, I have had some good wins and some humbling failures. The constant is that most of the time, I have been in a culture where it was acceptable to try, and learn, which ultimately led to success. The biggest challenge is building that culture. What does it look like from your seat? 

· Are you the CEO or ED? How do you balance accountability and safe risks? 

· Are you the Director? How are you supporting your team, removing barriers, helping to analyze, and provide a bit of grace and education when needed? 

· Are you on the Board? How can you motivate the team to think outside of the box and try? 

· Are you on staff? Are you willing to take a risk and try? Can you learn from your mistakes? 

Regardless of your seat, you can help build a culture of try. By the way, what did you learn last time you failed?

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