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Does failure play a role in the road to success?

At Social Entrepreneurs Ireland,  we’ve recently been updating the profiles of Alumni to detail how their projects developed after their time with SEI, and where they are now. Many are still involved in their original projects, while others achieved what they intended and moved on to other things. Some projects however encountered difficulties with sustainability, and did not achieve their original goals.

Success and failure go hand in hand, but the latter is not often something we are willing to talk about or share. It should be. When something does not go as planned, it presents a huge learning opportunity to all involved, and is only worth nothing if it is not shared.

Trying to Make a Change

The thing to note here is that regardless of outcomes, none of these enterprises should be classified entirely as a failure, at least not in the usual sense. A for-profit business measures its success in terms of the continuous creation of capital; if it fails to do this and does not keep up with competitors it goes out of business. The measure of success with a charity or social enterprise, in contrast, is its social impact and what it manages to achieve, regardless of how long it stays in operation or how much money it happens to make.  Wealth creation is of course a part of social entrepreneurship, but more as a means to an end, which is to create a sustainable enterprise that accomplishes predefined social goals.

Regardless of whether or not Alumni projects had the impact hoped for, they took a chance at trying to make change happen in Ireland, and that has value in itself. People enjoy success stories, and there is no doubt that they can provide a source of motivation. However, it is the stories where success only came after a number of failures, and where the very definition of success changed along the way, which can inspire.

Inherent Risk

At SEI, we acknowledge the risk of failure as inherent to the process of supporting social entrepreneurs. The success rate of Alumni projects from the Elevator Programme is generally about 55%, while that of the Impact Programme is about 80%. If you want to support the ideas that excite, the ideas that change Ireland and the ideas that really have the potential to make a huge difference, you have to put up with the reality that not all of them will succeed. We as a sector should make every effort not to hide away from that, as it is a natural part of the social entrepreneurship narrative.

By sharing failure, we all stand to gain from the perspectives of similar people working towards common goals. If we do not tell these stories, we might mistake the world as being made of shining stars much more capable than we perceive ourselves to be, rather than the reality of a rich landscape of many talented, inspired individuals who are earning their success one failure at a time.

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