WASHINGTON, D.C – Failure – and lessons learned from it – was the theme of the opening session of the Nonprofit Technology Network’s (NTEN) Nonprofit Technology Conference kicked off with a series of five-minute Ignite sessions, in which speakers present their stories while their slides advance intermittently behind them without their control.
A record attendance of more than 2,300 people are packing the Marriott Wardman Park here for three days of educational sessions related to technology, fundraising, IT and other nonprofit issues.
Sammie Rayner thought she had a great idea. In 2009, she started Lumana, a microfinance organization in West Africa. While the organization enjoyed program success, Rayner was convinced there had to be better way to raise money and making giving more personal and more connected to donors. She aimed to build a website where donors could give directly to her borrowers. Then she found out it already existed and it was called Kiva.
“My failure was that I persisted. I kept going and raised very little trying to build a technology platform and a bank,” she said. Rayner later shifted priorities to focus on the bank and Ghana’s biggest bank approached her to acquire Lumana’s portfolio.
“Know what you’re good at, focus on that. Don’t be afraid to collaborate. Building good software takes a team,” she said.
In 2013, Rayner co-founded HandUp, where she is chief operating officer. HandUp partners with 100 nonprofits across the United States, raising $2 million toward programs to end homelessness.
Mark Fisher had trouble landing a job after college, often being the runner-up after interviewing. He likened himself to former American Idol contestant and Congressional candidate Clay Aiken: young, gay and always coming in second place.
Fisher recalled the experience of one potential job that involved a series of eight, one-hour interviews, with candidates advancing after each level, not unlike “Super Mario Brothers.” In the penultimate interview, with the person who would be his boss, Fisher was asked to interpret a math problem. “I had no idea. I was whisked away, game over,” he said. To add insult to injury, he got food poisoning from the earlier lunch interview.
Still, he wasn’t without lessons learned. “Sometimes you really need those awful experiences to refocus you and take another direction,” Fisher said. “Keep at it, keep preparing and try something different. It couldn’t get worse than that,” he said of his debacle of an interview. Today, Fisher is grassroots advocacy manager for the American Heart Association (AHA).
For Josué Blanco, the response to failure is much more important than the failure itself. A communications officer at The Max Foundation in Seattle, Wash., Blanco finds that bad habits crop up in response to failure that prevent him from doing his best work. Seized by fear and anxiety, he would hide everything and often be harshest on himself. “Openly sharing how you need help and support while failing makes for amazing work,” he said. “Learn and respond accordingly.”