Monday, July 29, 2013

More Failures

One thing I enjoy about fund-raising is having clear goals. There are many qualitative measurements -- relationship with the funder, strength of the project, quality of the proposal -- but ultimately, the results are quantitative: How much money did we raise at the end of the year? 

Interviewee Dan McDougall talked about a similar satisfaction he gets with his work at Curtis, which involves a lot of data entry. He said, "At the end of the day, I can point to something and say, 'That’s done,' versus a concert that is played and goes out in the air and it’s gone. The music side is satisfying in a different way, but it seems less permanent to me."

For my recent Curtis performance review, one measurement I looked at was how many proposals we submitted that were funded. We had a roughly* 78% success rate. When I shared this information with my supervisor, he said that this year, he would like "more failures." 

I thought that was an interesting way to describe it. Of course, we want more successes, right? 

But when I thought about it more, it made sense. He wants us to get in front of more funders, which will result in more rejection -- but also more feedback, more contact with donors, more refinement of our proposal-writing and research, and hopefully more money raised. Musicians go through the same process with auditions, sometimes being rejected dozens of times before winning a job.

This reinforced my belief in the importance of defining your own success -- especially in a business that is rapidly-changing, full of rejection, ultimately subjective, and has myriad career possibilities, like music; or in fundraising, which can be assessed in many ways and the outcome is somewhat out of your control; or if you have multiple careers and compromise is inevitable.

And does success always have to mean being the best? As I've written before, I have already achieved an unimagined degree of personal success with my music, considering I started my career thinking I would never play professionally, but there are a lot of musicians that wouldn't be happy doing what I do. At Curtis this year, of course I set dollar goals -- but also goals for new proposals submitted, meetings with funders, and research on the field to appropriately benchmark my program.

I think assessing success also means being truly candid about failure. This was another exercise I did in my performance review. What didn't go as well as it could have, why, and how can I do it better the next time? And that's another goal we have this year: getting feedback after a request is declined.

One organization, GiveWell, has a comprehensive page called "Our Shortcomings" about all of the mistakes -- and then, improvements -- it has made since its founding. Ben Cameron of The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation encourages arts organizations to embrace the possibility of failure -- otherwise, they will never take risks. Diane Ragsdale has written about the concept of "permanently failing organizations...those that persist even though they are no longer achieving their goals."

Failure is only failure if you have a limited definition of success and if you don't learn and improve from mistakes. How do you define and measure career success? Are there other organizations like GiveWell you can think of that openly share their mistakes and what they learned?

*If you want to know why I say "approximately" in reference to something that should be a hard number, please email me and I will explain it to you.

1 comment: