A Successful First Ashoka FailFaire

“It just didn’t work.”
“We ended up with angry donors.”
“If I were to do it differently, I would do it ALL differently.”
“We spent countless hours building a system not fully adopted by the institution. Ten years ago we spent countless hours building a similar system.”


These stories make even veteran social entrepreneurs cringe. Why then would we hold an event just to listen to stories of Ashoka’s failures for an hour?

FailFaire began as a way for NGOs to share failures surrounding projects featuring the use of mobile phone technology in international development – primarily as a way to learn. Originally conceived by Mobile Active, who have generously licensed it under Creative Commons, the FailFaire concept caught the attention of both The New York Times and the citizen sector, including Ashoka.

As an organization dedicated to innovation and encouraging its staff to be bold risk-takers, it’s inevitable that not everything Ashoka has tried has been successful. We’re ok with that. But we also believe that it is crucial for all of us to learn from each other’s experiments – those that worked and, perhaps, especially those that didn’t work.

So a couple weeks ago, in between bursts of ‘appropriate technology’ (i.e. music – our staff DJ created a special “FailFaire Playlist”), much laughter, and empathetic gasps, the Ashoka staff listened to colleagues share stories of disheartening failures. But as these brave Ashokans shared their sad tales, lessons surfaced, one after the other, including these messages:

  • Internal systems need to be designed to last – well after we are gone;
  • Surround yourself with people that challenge you to be strategic and temper your instinct to dive in and ‘entrepreneur away’;
  • While you need big players aligned with your vision, you also need buy-in from ground level implementers. Don’t forget to bring them along.
  • Never forget that with our relationship with Ashoka Fellows is not the same as a relationship between a foundation and a grantee. We should never attempt to act like a foundation.

The irony of Ashoka’s first-ever FailFaire? Plenty of people packed our conference room and staff from every continent participated via Webex —the FailFaire was a success. Clearly there was a huge interest in the chance to talk openly about failure, and to learn from it together. We also simply had a great time.

This blog post was contributed by Ashoka's Amy Dalebout and Roshan Paul.

This article was originally published on November 3, 2010
Related TopicsSocial enterprise, Communications, Business & Social Enterprise, Social Entrepreneurship

More For You