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When things go wrong

by Christiana Stergiou

I received an unusual email from charity:water, one of my favourite nonprofits, the other day. It admitted failure.

They had grand plans to celebrate and promote the fourth year of their massive September fundraising campaign. Their plan was to broadcast their drill for water live via satellite from Moale in Central African Republic. However, the live drill didn’t go as planned. In fact they failed. Here’s how they explained it in that email to me:

It was going to be an amazing story, and charity:water’s 200th completed project in the country. The people of Moale had been waiting for water for more than a decade. After two failed attempts to reach clean water many years ago, our local partner ICDI brought in a new drilling rig that could dig up to 700 feet. Unfortunately, they never made it that far. In what was by far the most challenging drill we’ve ever witnessed, the team came up short after 30 straight hours when the second borehole caved in.

It was a heartbreaking and messy day. We’d hoped to show you footage of a joyful village celebrating a successful drill, but we didn’t achieve that today. We’re committed to transparency at charity:water, so instead, our Live Drill video will show you the reality and challenges we face on the ground.

Tomorrow, we’ll start drilling in another nearby Bayaka village. We haven’t given up on Moale. For now, the people there will have to wait a little bit longer for their well — but we will be back. In the meantime, with your help, we can provide clean and safe drinking water for every Bayaka through this year’s September Campaign.

You can see it all on video, too. Here’s what they had planned and here’s what actually happened. It’s a great story, even though they didn’t succeed the first time.

Now I’ve just finished reading Adrian Sargeant’s wonderful Tiny Essentials of Donor Loyalty. In it, Adrian explains why he believes that building donor loyalty is the biggest challenge facing our sector. He goes on to explain exactly what fundraisers can do to improve donor loyalty through building donor satisfaction, commitment and trust.

And on that last point, Adrian says, “As donors develop their trust in a nonprofit they will exhibit higher levels of loyalty.”

One of the key ways to build trust with donors is to be honest when things go wrong, as Adrian explains:

There is no need to try and gloss over failure or only partial success. Aside from the fact that donors will find the honesty refreshing and respect you more as a consequence, it is often the case that the reasons for the only  partial success are fascinating and can add real value for donors seeking to understand the complex challenges the organisation might face. It is an odd quirk of human behaviour that when people are willing to admit mistakes and seen to learn from them, they generate significantly higher levels of trust than if they’d got things right first time.

No doubt charity:water had a plan to communicate to donors if the live drill was unsuccessful. I am sure they thought through their communications for this campaign very carefully. Very refreshing indeed.

This post was originally published on the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration (SOFII) Blog. You’ll find some excellent fundraisers from the four corners of the world contributing to SOFII’s Blog.

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