Finding Opportunity in Failure

The first library we donated was a failure, and that should not be a surprise to you. Getting results during the start-up phase at any non-profit organization is not easy. More times than not this is difficult for one single reason; your ability to find opportunity in failure. This is because your first few programs will most likely not meet your expectations.

Our initial failure

During the Fall of 2007, I had about $10,000 in the bank, one team member, a free office, two desks, and a website. In other words, I didn’t have a lot. More to the point, I had no idea how to find schools that needed a library, what a library donation actually was, or understood the legal implications of carrying out charitable activities in-country. Every day that I showed up to the office, I was one day closer to failure.

Jenny Wang, our only team member at the time, recognized that our first challenge was locating schools to put libraries into. For that reason she approached the Xi’an Charity Association (XACA), a government organization, for help. The people who worked at the XACA were fast to offer support. Within a few days they sent us a list of schools in need of a library donation. Amazing!

After visiting each of the schools we found that they were all well-funded schools with thousands of books on their shelves. This was bad. We were left with an impossible scenario; how do we communicate this to a government organization that has already promised each of the schools that we would be giving them a library? Thankfully, Jenny recommended that we choose one school to provide a library to, and “delicately reject” the others. This was important to her because she wanted our organization to continue working with the XACA in the future.

At the time, this bummed me out. I wanted our first library to go into a school that had a “great need.” Even though this wasn’t the perfect school for our first library, we stayed positive and pushed forward with the planning and purchasing.

About a month later we returned to the school bringing 500 local language children’s books, tables, chairs and stools. The school Principal and teachers were warm, thankful and welcoming. The four volunteers that joined us made fast work organizing the books and assembling the furniture. Very soon we were looking at a beautiful library. Everyone was overjoyed.

That feeling changed to worry when the children arrived. Why? The chairs were too big for the children, the tables had glass tops which were straight-up dangerous, the stools that lined the walls were prone to tipping over, and finally the books we donated were not age-appropriate for their reading level. Just imagine a room filled with young children falling all over the place with teachers shoving books into their hands; confusing the children further. It was a complete shit show.

With all of that said, even with that day’s failures, Jenny and I were very proud. We had successfully implemented our first program; warts and all.

Development work is managing failure

Our first library was a failure, but it also taught us a lot. It showed us the importance of government partnerships, that we needed to purchase furniture that was both kid-sized and safe, that we needed volunteers to implement our programs, that we needed to better understand the kinds of schools we wanted to work with, and that the books had to be age-appropriate. Hindsight truly is 20/20.

Most importantly, Jenny and I both knew we couldn’t fix these issues ourselves. We needed help. Jenny could handle the government partnerships and I could handle the fundraising, but we both knew we needed help with the purchasing of the library items. Knowing what you’re good at is important, but having the clarity to understand what you’re not good at is of equal value. That led us to hire our second team member, Belinda Yu, who became our Logistics & Purchasing Director.

Within a few short months Belinda had located distributors for child-safe furniture, negotiated a deep discount for age-appropriate books at an online distributor, and found cheaper ways to deliver those items to schools.

That first year was exciting. Each library incrementally improved over the last, while also presenting very different challenges for our growing team to solve. We were able to find the opportunity in each of those challenges because we had created a “culture of failure” at the organization from the very beginning.

It’s easy to walk way. It’s easy to focus on the negative. Be better than that. Your team will need you to find the opportunities in their failures, and you’ll need to coach them to find the opportunities within their own failures. Reward failure.