THE BLOG
02/08/2013 05:48 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

Are Social Entrepreneurs Failing to Fail?

This blog is a failure. I started out to write a few suggestions about failure as a tool for greater social impact. I failed.

We know un-scrutinized failure leads to more of the same. The National Transportation Board (your tax dollars at work) automatically investigates every airplane crash so that industry-wide safety improvements occur and fewer airplanes fall out of the sky. When a social enterprise crashes, there is no post-mortem and, thus, no sector improvement. Three years after high-flying Unitus imploded, the flame-out remains widely unexamined.

Social entrepreneurs hate admitting failure. None of us brags about our failures unless we can spin them (hide them?) with a triumphant social-entrepreneur-overcomes-adversity success story. I'm as guilty as anyone.

Indeed, my street cred to write this blog is only because I founded two thriving social enterprises: MicroCredit Enterprises (financing microloans in 30 countries) and the Opportunity Collaboration (anti-poverty leadership unconference). Too numerous to list, my fall-on-your face ventures go unremarked.

Five things to know about your flops:

1. Failure is not contagious. You can't catch it from talking about it.

2. Failure is how we live our lives. We have a 100 percent failure rate at finding a new apartment, and then 100 percent success. Finding a mate is pretty much a case of repeated, short-term failure, and then lustful, long-term success.

3. Failure is not a verdict about you. As Rockwood Leadership Institute CEO Akaya Windwood reminds us, "You are not your ideas."

4. Failure builds character and seasoned leadership. Management consultant Barry LePatner once quipped, "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment."

5. Failure sucks. Your mission, your self-esteem and your reputation shrivel (for awhile). Get over it.

In the world of venture capital, tech gadgetry and science, openly sharing failure is standard operating procedure. Everyone channels Thomas Edison who said about himself, "I failed my way to success."

In the world of social change, it's the opposite. The received wisdom (the buzz) is all about the critical role failure plays in social sector innovation, but -- hypocritically - failing and flunking social entrepreneurs are leadership lepers.

Organizational failures are mostly unwelcome at social change conferences -- let alone given marquee billing. "FAILFaires" are mostly ghettoized workshops. Where are the travel expenses for losers to share what they did wrong?

Social sector transparency is extolled, expected and even applauded, but rarely rewarded. Few funders will fund failure the second time.

Coarsening our collective candor, the social sector is replete with competitions which too-often reward best presentation -- not necessarily best idea or best enterprise. The erotic fiction writer Anais Nin wrote, "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." And, none of us likes to see ourselves in the failure of others.

The solution? I don't know. Failure.

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