Success is a Lousy Teacher!

Success is a Lousy Teacher!

Gary Kernahan | 10 September 2015

An old proverb says that the difference between a smart person and a wise one is that a smart one learns from their mistakes, and a wise one learns from the mistakes of others. One of the things I love about the charity sector in Scotland is how openly we share with others, and this is one of the reasons why I always look forward to the Scottish Fundraising Conference.

It is more common that speakers at events like the Scottish Fundraising Conference will focus on initiatives that have gone well rather than those that didn’t quite go to plan. However, at this year’s conference, there is one session that is designed to fill this gap!

Fundraisers often say that they don’t have the freedom to fail (I much prefer thinking of this as the freedom to try). When innovating and trying new things, it is inevitable that some will not work. The temptation is often to focus on the ones that succeed and to brush the failures under the carpet; however some of the most valuable learnings can come from those initiatives that don’t work.

So at this year’s conference, I will be chairing a panel session called ‘Oops’ during which I and three other Scottish fundraising leaders – Gavin McLellan, Barbara Osborne and Jo Anderson – will share our ‘oops’ moments.

My ‘oops’ moments

Bill Gates once said 'Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.'  Everyone makes mistakes, and to avoid making those same mistakes again, we need to learn from them. When reflecting back at my own career, the biggest regrets I have are the recruitment decisions I got wrong.

Fundraising teams are typically lean so when someone drops out the vacancy has a material impact. Because of this, the need to fill the gap quickly is great and the temptation to ‘settle’ sometimes is strong. 

When recruiting, it is wonderful when you find the ideal candidate; conversely, it is hugely frustrating to have spent a full day interviewing and not to have found someone to fill the role. Sometimes, you’ll interview someone and think ‘maybe’ and you’ll convince yourself that with your management and coaching they will be able to do the job.

Often settling can have short term benefit, but in the longer term there can be ‘pain’ to deal with, and the overall impact on the organisations can be much greater than simply living with the vacancy a little longer and going back to market to find your ideal candidate.

I have learned, the hard way, not to settle or lower standards, and that may mean that I have to live with the pain caused by a vacancy for a little longer.

Join us and be wise

Join us at the Scottish Fundraising Conference at 4pm on Tuesday 6th October and you’ll be a wise person as you hopefully learn from our mistakes and if you are brave you’ll come with your own ‘Oops’ story to tell. Book now to avoid disappointment!


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