Buniyaad is an attempt to give you a peek into the deep foundation that we have laid. Download here.
Let’s take a step towards an inclusive and accepting future for the intellectually challenged. Read more on give.do
Social Share :

NGOs talking about failure is important. Here’s what we’ve learned over the past decade

NGOs talking about failure is important. Here’s what we’ve learned over the past decade

Failure is still something of a taboo in the non-profit space. There’s a huge moral responsibility when it comes to using philanthropic funds. This makes it hard for nonprofits and charities to be candid about their failures.

But NGOs talking about their missteps or project misfires can prevent the same (expensive!) mistakes from being repeated at scale. Of course, I am not the first person to speak publicly about failures. There have been several such pioneering efforts over the past few years.

I just wanted to focus on Sambhav Foundation’s learnings from working in skill training and vocational education. Here are some initiatives over the past decade that haven’t achieved their desired results.

1. Special projects in Livelihood programmes.

The problem: 

In skilling and livelihoods programmes, it is challenging to work with difficult populations, like training and placing women in non-traditional jobs. There isn’t a set model for these interventions, and it’s hard to replicate or scale the programmes. 

Why it didn’t work: 

First, skilling women in non-traditional jobs is important to women empowerment and nation building. We aren’t just changing perception of these jobs. We are also battling entrenched perceptions of women’s role in society. 

And any woman working in a traditionally male-dominated field in an ‘exemplar’. And cultivating these ‘exemplars’ takes extraordinary effort. 

You cannot superimpose the blueprint and timelines of a regular skilling programme here. It needs a non-traditional approach, with some flexibility to change models on the go.

For example, you will have to lobby companies to come forward and employ these women. Even your own operations and field teams need some elbow room on timelines and resources to see the project through. This is an understanding we’ve gained after a decade of working on such projects. 

2. Working with the government on infrastructure projects

The problem: 

Coordinating with government departments on infrastructure projects takes time. A poor understanding of this leaves projects stuck for months together. And this is true for projects across health, education or skilling.

Why it didn’t work: 

The problem is twofold. Unlike private builders or companies, NGOs taking on infrastructure projects miss out on the economy of scale. Even in small-scale projects, any delay leads to ballooning costs. This isn’t factored in when the NGO presents the project plan to CSR heads or funding organisations. 

Second, interfacing with the government is a separate expense. The fact is, no infrastructure projects move without the government’s approval. You need significant time, effort and budgets allocated to obtain permissions. 

Building working relationships within the government department requires continuous effort. Even then, officers repeatedly change. There are many meetings and inevitable delays. Teams need some leeway in timelines to account for this. 

3. Ensuring long-term impact in projects

The problem: 

The trend of short-sighted projects with limited goals and objectives is worrying. 

Most CSR funds and projects aren’t looking at longevity as an outcome. 

Why it didn’t work: 

At the Sambhav Foundation, we’ve been fortunate to have good long-term partnerships with organisations. Some of our skilling centres have been present in the same area for more than a decade, making significant inroads with the community. 

The skilling centres have become a focal point for women looking to learn a new trade and get employment. Some of the early students have joined back as trainers, bringing a unique perspective that has deepened the impact of our work. 

Our initiatives have taken root and driven change beyond the yearly funding cycles. But in 20 – 30% of instances, we’ve seen programmes that don’t last for various reasons. This means we can’t gauge the project’s impact or get any real insights. 


This was a snapshot of the lessons we’ve learned at the Sambhav Foundation over the years. We have to openly discuss our learnings and failures to move towards sustainability in social impact. 

To rephrase Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote, “You can learn from the mistakes of others. You don’t need to make them all yourself.”  

Join the Dialogue

We deliver new Vlog directly to your email
Scroll to Top