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Fail forward essays

Fail forward is our campaign to encourage organizations to open up about how they learn. Not every idea is an instant success. In fact, if most of what you try works, then you aren't trying very hard to innovate a solution to the world's most pressing problems. Here are some essays from our partners on what they've tried and learned over the years.


We hired an agricultural expert who lived nearby to teach farming. He assured us he knew the people and taboos but then showed up on a motorbike, which is comparable to showing up in a Maserati. He assured us that this was the ideal location for potatoes. But the blazing sun on top of the mountain cuased the newly planted potatoes to withered away in the heat. Not a single potato was harvested. We lost all credibility with this community. 

But one of the farmers ignored to the agricultural expert's advice.  He planted his potatoes down by the creek in the shade of a mango tree. His potato harvest was phenomenal, and others learned from him, not us. 

Distributing 2kg of potatoes each to the community


When we built the center, the husband of one of the weavers donated land.... Over the years he influenced the cooperative so that his family members benefitted more. He told the women that he was the president.... This struggle helped us learn what empowering women is really about.Weavers during the center

Aasraa Trust

Naina said, “I am the leader for all the [street] children. Talk to me.” And she was. But Naina suddenly disappeared. She was sold off into marriage to the highest bidder. Naina was our most ‘spirited horse’, a natural leader, a go getter, and we pray each night for her safety. We have faith that sooner or later, Naina will be back. And we are now better equipped and  more experienced to deal with abused, battered children.

Initial Days on the Pavement

Community health, housing and social education (CHHASE)

We distributed 12 sewing machines to mothers of child labor to earn an income ($120 value). Instead, two of them sold their sewing machines to meet medical expenses for family members for a very low price of $18. We needed to listen more actively.

Mountains of Hope Childrens Ministries

We didn't always learn about child abuse cases during our child protection meetings. We discovered many lower level cases were solved by the community locally without the police. This hampered the follow up process. So we became the community liaison.

Child protection meeting


Fabulous African Fabrics

"Your work looks beautiful!" passers by would say. But no one bought. This summer we called it quits. Now FAF only sells hats and silk scarves when contacted, or when the overhead is less than 7 percent.

FAF Hats for Sale at Art Market

Expanding Opportunities

We were seeking the best way to assist the girl child, and we were awarded a grant to build the center! But years later the local partner was unable to operate the center, so we had to change plans.

The Rescue Center and Site of the Academy

Aravind Eye Foundation

It turns out “free” can be very expensive to the average Indian worker, who has to pay for transportation and take off time from work, losing a day’s wages.  A blind beggar told us, “Your ‘free’ surgery costs me 100 rupees.”

Cataract patients at Aravind

Nav Bharat jagriti Kendra

We built a Vision Centre but few people came. So we interviewed patients who visited and random people nearby. The location of the Vision Centre was difficult to reach, and the customers were not happy with the range of spectacles we provided. Now, we have our inventory that suits our customer's demands. 

Global Emergency Care Collaborative

We had a newly constructed emergency department in rural Uganda with no one trained to run it. We had to rethink our mission. Our solution became training local providers.

Hot Sun Foundation

We invited film and media professionals to lecture at our film school in Kibera, Nairobi. They embraced the concept, but they didn't show up. Now our core trainers are our own graduates, who are willing to return and teach others. Industry serve more as mentors.

Hot Sun Foundation graduates training others


We aspired to restore dignity and respect to destitute widow mothers through the provision of food and basic necessities. For a time, the programme worked well. But none of the funding came through from the State Government as promised. But in 2012 Maitri was featured on a popular TV show in India, and the money we raised allowed us to build and support our own home.

Widows awaiting the opening of the Old Age Home

La Reserva Forest Foundation

One a landowner called us to say he’d brought in a “forest engineer” to look at his property. The “engineer” was horrified. The timber had no financial value, so they cut down the beautiful, native trees we worked so hard to find, raise, and plant in order to establish a diverse forest restoration project. Now we work hard to achieve a deeper understanding with landowners about why natural trees have value, and enforce agreements with contracts. 

Fountain of hope Youth Initiative Group

A few girls complained that the reusable sanitary napkins we provided were heavy, not good on them etc, and we were quick to dismiss them as unappreciative instead of wanting to find out why their sentiments were different from the rest. After deeper listening, it turned out that they were too poor to buy soap to wash them, and were ashamed to say it. Now we provide disposable pads for those who may be too poor to afford soap to clean them.

Days for Girls International

When I began working Kenya, I failed to think about a pivotal barrier to education. It turned out girls would wait on a piece of cardboard for their period to end (not in school) because they lacked sanitary napkins. Through trial and error we learned to make pads that didn't look like pads. 

"Before you came we had to let ‘them’ use us if we wanted to stay in class." It was crazy, but true! They had been sexually exploited in exchange for simple pads until we brought a solution they could count on month after month.

Girls served by Days for Girls New Zealand

Mathare Children's Fund

Our girls were not really attending our vocational trainings because we were not paying them, like other NGOs were doing. Next we tried to recruit teen mothers referrals from community health workers (CHWs). The 13 teenage mothers referred to us ended up being not really teenage mothers but women/wives/girlfriends/relatives of the CHWs that had been coached on what to say.

Fundown caribe - How we learned to propose ideas based on the others' perspectives.


Coca-Cola gets everywhere but medicines don’t - because it is carried 'the last mile' to the village by independent small retailers. So, ColaLife worked with Zambian mothers to design an innovative and desirable anti-diarrhoea kit, that village retailers could buy at the Coca-Cola wholesaler in towns and carry home in the spaces between bottles in a cola crate. But a robust trial of the new concept and its distribution showed that although both customers and retailers loved the kit, almost no retailers chose to save space by transporting it in cola crates. So, we've had to discontinue the award-winning packaging, even though the image of the kit in the crates has 'gone viral', and go back to the drawing board: keeping the benefits that customers really love: the smaller sachet size within a pack that measures water correctly; the ability to buy everything they need in one affordable pack, close to home; the clear instructions and desirable branding. It was the space in the market, not the space in the crate, that was important.

Accusations of failure

Fair Life Africa Foundation

Tony was a troubled street child that ran away many times because life at home was even harder. We couldn't help him in the current system. So because of children like Tony, we decided to start up a different initiative, Disadvantage to Advantage, which is not focused on street children, but disadvantaged children. We support children who are disadvantaged, but brilliant, to achieve their potential.

Mother's Heart

Jana was a pregnant sex worker looking to us for a way out of that life. However, our haste was our downfall. We helped, but Jana soon sold her shop supplies and gave her baby away. If we had taken the time to ask more probing questions, we would have found that Jana already had two other children who she was not caring for, and wasn't really prepared to leave her old life.

Surmang Foundation

"If you could change anything about our work, what would it be?"

"You should have started 10 years earlier! So many mothers and babies who died would be walking the earth with their loved ones now!” 

I was speechless.

Read more

Center for Amazon Community Ecology

The artisans made beautiful prototypes but couldn’t replicate them because they would forget the design or didn't have the same dye plants around. Some got mad when we told them we couldn’t pay them for poor quality crafts that we couldn’t sell. Eventually we learned they were jealous and distrustful of each other. So we offered a "tool-kit" to help artisans improve their skills with communication. They role-played dealing with buyers, drew pictures of chambira palm trees they would plant to replenish their stocks, and formed mock companies to compete. And it worked!

Artisans drawing chambira palms at workshop.

A Global Friendship

Given our desire to use a sustainable, natural product, one that grows abundantly on the reservation, we thought sage was a good choice to make crafts. However when we realized the issues of choosing a seasonal plant for a product we want to sell year-round, we brainstormed and found sweet-grass to be a better alternative.

Kenya Connect

We worked with SafariCom to built infrastructure on a trial basis to our villages so children can learn over the Internet. Sadly, there was still not enough bandwidth in Wamunyu to allow establish a clear connection.

Wings of Courage Orphan Outreach Society

We tried holding a magic show to raise funds for our projects in Uganda, but it wasn't successful. So we turned to online fundraising.

Vaga Lume Association

We partnered with a big private company to get literature books to Amazon children. Managing the new libraries demanded much more attention than the existing ones ecause our investor had too much influence in our work, and diverted us from our own way of managing.

Project POOCH, Inc.

We hosted a fundraising event at an area business that work out as planned. It became clear that what had been discussed didn't match the business's expectations. We didn't get the money we thought we had raised, but we learned how to get it in writing.

Etta Projects

Yuvinka’s departure left the community without a health promoter to educate and serve. This time around we recognize that, for various personal and economic reasons, people leave the village. So we train extra healthcare promoters.

Save The Children Alliance Orphanage - Read report 

Chinseu Community Based Organization - Read report


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