When Does It End?

One local initiative that I’ve recently joined is The Kolo Project, a community focusing on growing Saskatchewan’s entrepreneurial roots. At a recent steering committee meeting, we worked to refine our vision and mission and created a blueprint for our activities in the coming new year. Towards the end of the meeting, we were asked to brainstorm what failure would look like – at what point do we know that Kolo has failed, that we’re throwing good money, time, and resources after bad? Hopefully we won’t reach that junction any time soon, but it’s a good question to consider. With capacity to fail coming up earlier this month, I figure it’s a good opportunity to further explore that topic as it applies to non-profits: namely, when should a program, initiative, or even a whole organization call it quits? What signs indicate that it’s passed the “best before” date?

A good first step to take when making any decision is to define the key factor(s). In this case, what is our definition of “failure”? The first things that may come to mind in a non-profit setting would be concrete indicators, such as low attendance or lack of continued funding, but as the name suggests, those factors only indicate what’s happening, they are not success in and of themselves. As an example, I remember learning about an organization that for several years held an annual barbeque in their parking lot. At first glance it appeared to be successful, with steady attendance, positive feedback, and even a bit of revenue to help fund other programs; so, it came as a surprise to people when the organization decided to cancel the event. Why did they do it? Despite those positive indicators, the barbeque was not attracting new people or raising the non-profit’s profile in the neighbourhood (both confirmed via surveys with new clients asking how they had learned about the organization or specific programs). Ultimately, the organization’s staff and leadership decided that the time and effort put into the event could be used in other ways to meet the goal of increased public awareness.

So, how do we know when a program is failing or has failed? As the example above demonstrates, starting with the right indicators is crucial. Attendance at the event and the amount of revenue generated would be important if the barbeque was a fundraising event; as a promotional activity, public awareness would be more applicable.

More generally, program staff need to be aware of changes in the local context, be they demographic shifts, changes in government policy, or the entrance or departure of another program or organization. An initiative created to address a specific need in a certain context may not work anymore when the environment changes; our assumptions, stated or not, may no longer be valid. In the example above, the organization’s barbeque in the first few years of existence may very well have improved its awareness in the community but at some point the returns diminished – new people were not being reached by this method. Does this mean that the organization reached everyone who they wanted to? Maybe, maybe not – but they reached the limit of what that particular approach could do.

I do not mean to imply that a program that does not seem to be meeting its goals needs to be immediately thrown out with the bathwater. In assessing an initiative, program staff and evaluators need to be responsive to changing circumstances and open to developing aspects of program – for example, in response to low attendance at event, an organization can try a different date or venue, increase its outreach efforts, or redefine the target population. However, it is also important to keep in mind that at some point it’s better to let the program end so that the resources it was using can cycle back and allow new ideas to flourish.