Posts Tagged ‘Aleem Walji’

Nonprofit Technology Failures: How They Can Spur Innovation, If Shared

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Yesterday the New York Times Technology beat ran an article about a FailFaire event hosted by the World Bank. What’s FailFaire, you ask?

FailFaire was initially organized by, an organization interested in advancing the field of mobile technology for social change and development. But now anyone can host their own FailFaire event to share technology failures.

MobileActive founder Katrin Verclas sees these events more like a party than a briefing. “Getting people to talk about [failure] honestly is not so easy,” she muses. “So I thought, why not try to start conversations about failure through an evening event with drinks and finger foods in a relaxed, informal atmosphere.”

At the event featured in the NYT article several funders competed for a worst failure prize. One participant shared:

how female weavers in a remote Amazonian region of Guyana had against all odds built themselves a thriving global online business selling intricately woven hammocks for $1,000 apiece…[but then] their husbands pulled the plug, worried that their wives’ sudden increase in income was a threat to the traditional male domination in their society.


The World Bank representative explained the failure as a case of, “taking technology embedded with our values and our culture and embedding it in the developing world, which has very different values and cultures.”

Other failures shared at the event included a Global Capacity Building Initiative that had too many players, each wanting different things and “an Egyptian government program to roll out telecenters across the country to increase access to the Internet” that boasted 23 centers, but only 4 of which actually worked.

The failures shared can be summed up by one participant’s insightful comment:

“We dump hardware down and hope magic will happen.”

Participant Aleem Walji was surprised when he left Google to join the World Bank that “mistakes were rarely discussed, so different from the for-profit world, where failures are used to spur innovation.”

Mr. Walji pointed out that “the private sector talks about failure freely and candidly,” while the nonprofit world “has to worry about donors who don’t want to be associated with failure and beneficiaries who may not benefit from admissions of failure.”

"I have not failed, I just found 10,000 ways that won't work."--Thomas Edison

But through sharing failures funders are able to better understand the cultural ecosystems in which they are trying to operate. Not only can other funders learn from these mistakes and avoid them, but for many failure is one of the necessary steps toward true innovation.


Read the New York Times article “Nonprofits Review Technology Failures” online.


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