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Getting NGOs to Celebrate Failure, So They Can Learn From Others' Mistakes

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This is the VOA Special English Development Report.

Week after week, we bring you stories about projects to improve lives in the developing world. Projects like banking by mobile phone or low-cost lighting systems or even a toilet bag that recycles itself into fertilizer.

But for every success story, there are countless other projects that fail. These are the stories that people talk about at an event called FAILFaire.

The creators of the event recently held their second FAILFaire. Members of the nonprofit community came together in Washington to talk about their projects, and why they failed.

FAILFaire is sort of like a celebration of failure. A prize is even given to the "best" worst story. But why celebrate?

Katrin Verclas is with a nonprofit group in New York called MobileActive. She was the one with the idea for FAILFaire. She says the event provides an opportunity for people to learn from the mistakes of others.

Katrin Verclas: "Development is a field with finite resources, and so the less money we waste, the better. And part of that is learning from the things that didn't work, so that we don't endlessly repeat them."

MobileActive held its first FAILFaire in New York earlier this year. More than seventy people attended the event.

One of them, for example, was there to talk about his failed nonprofit organization Bradford Frost had hoped to recycle used cell phones and provide them to people in Africa.

Katrin Verclas explained some of the problems with this project, and others like it.

Katrin Verclas: "It didn't work at all, given the prevalence of cheap, very inexpensive handsets in the countries. We often refer to that as SWEDOW -- Stuff We Don't Want. You know, the old stuff that we have that we think we can hand down to developing countries, and that's not a very sustainable or in many ways smart approach."

FAILFaire takes place in a lighthearted social setting, over food and drinks.

Ms. Verclas says the creator of a project is the one responsible for declaring it a failure. She says profit-making businesses talk more about failure than nonprofit organizations do.

Katrin Verclas: "We have to report to donors and donors do not like to look bad, and so we don't like to look bad as nonprofits. And so we have a tendency to highlight our successes and never talk about our failures."

Katrin Verclas says she hopes FAILFaire will change this problem over time. She says members of the nonprofit community have been surprisingly open to her idea.

Join us again next week for more about FAILFaire and who won the award for best worst story.

And that's the VOA Special English Development Report, written by June Simms. Transcripts and MP3s of our reports are at I'm Steve Ember.