What to Do When You Mess Up?

[Publisher’s Note: Before getting to this week’s post, I want to mention that Michael J. Rosen, CFRE, was a guest on The Nonprofit Coach Radio Show hosted by Ted Hart, ACFRE on Tuesday, February 26, 2013. Michael discussed his book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing. You can download a free podcast of the show by clicking here.]

Have you ever messed up at work? Stumbled? Blundered? Bungled? Botched? Made an oversight, gaffe, or mistake, big or small?

If you say you haven’t, I know that one of the following is true about you:

  1. You’re not telling the truth, to others or, perhaps, just to yourself.
  2. You have a selective memory.
  3. You haven’t been paying attention.
  4. You have virtually no work experience.
  5. You need to be more creative and experimental.

Because I believe we have all made and will make mistakes during our careers, I’m going to share five tips with you that will ease the sting when such incidents occur:

Own it. When you make an error, resist the temptation to pass the blame. Instead, take responsibility. When we own our mistakes, we’re more likely to earn and retain the respect of those around us. Moreover, it puts us in the best possible position to do something positive in response to the problem.

Do not hide it. In politics, there’s a saying: “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up.” The idea is that the cover up is usually more damaging than the trigger offense. It’s harder to fix a problem if you cover it up or simply pretend that there is not a problem at all. Furthermore, if people suspect you’re hiding something, they’ll apply that suspicion beyond the one instance. Honesty really is the best policy.

Apologize. If your misstep damages or offends another person, apologize immediately. Ok, I know that lawyers often frown at the idea of an apology. They fear it is an admission of guilt that can expose you and your organization to liability. I say, if it’s appropriate, suck it up and apologize anyway. At the very least, express your regret, which might lower the risk of legal liability since it is not an admission of guilt. (By the way, since I’m not a lawyer, I’m not giving you legal advice.)

Learn from it. When we learn from our mistakes, we’re far less likely to repeat the stumble. In some cases, learning from our missteps will allow us to improve our skills or our processes. In other words, if we look at mistakes as an opportunity to grow, our organizations and we can actually be better off than before the incident.

Rubio Water BottleTurn a negative into a positive. I like the expression, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” We can often turn blunders around into something good. In 1928, Alexander Fleming slipped up. He mistakenly failed to cover a Petri dish containing a Staphylococcus culture. However, it’s a good thing he messed up. When he examined the exposed Petri dish, he observed that mold growth had impeded the spread of the bacteria. Fleming’s mistake, and subsequent observation, led to the use of penicillin as a life-saving antibiotic.

In recent weeks, the news media have shared a couple of stories that nicely illustrate the points I’ve just made.

The Dalton School is a prestigious private school in New York City. While the development office does many things right, The New York Times reported that sensitive alumni data was mistakenly shared with volunteer fundraisers. You can read more about this in my blog post: “Do Not Let This Happen to Your Organization.”

Dalton handled the situation effectively. The Head of School owned the mistake and did not attempt to cover it up or dodge the media attention. She acknowledged that the release of the information was in error. She sent a letter of apology and regret to the alumni whose data was inappropriately released. She said that the School would learn from the problem and would review and enhance its data protocols.

Errors happen. What separates the good folks from the bad ones is how they handle these situations when they arise.

Another recent news story underscores the potential fundraising value of turning a negative into a positive. It also illustrates the value of being able to laugh at ourselves, when appropriate. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union Address. During his speech, Rubio’s mouth became dry. He then, very awkwardly, reached for a bottle of water and took a sip before continuing his speech. The stumble made international headlines. Rubio was the butt of jokes on late-night television including Saturday Night Live.

Rubio or his aides could have tried to make excuses. They could have tried to brush the criticism and jokes aside. They could have insisted that people should be more concerned about the content of his message rather than the delivery. Instead, the senator owned the misstep. Then, he did two very smart things.

First, he was willing to laugh at himself. He even joked about the incident with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the two met recently. Second, the senator also turned the water bottle incident into a fundraising opportunity. Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC  began offering “Rubio” water bottles for contributions of $25 or more. The PACs donation page includes the cheeky line:

Send the liberal detractors a message that not only does Marco Rubio inspire you…he hydrates you too.”

Slate reported on February 18 that the Reclaim America PAC water-bottle fundraising effort had already generated over $100,000. This is a great example of what can happen when you own your gaffe, keep your sense of humor, and turn a negative into a positive.

I’m interested in hearing from you. Have you successfully turned a negative into a positive? Do you have any additional tips for effectively dealing with mistakes?

I think we can all agree that it’s far better to avoid a mistake than deal with the aftermath of one. But, mistakes are a part of life. Eventually, we all have to deal with them. I wish you well with that.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

6 Responses to “What to Do When You Mess Up?”

  1. Michael,

    This post is one of my favorites as long as I have been reading your blog. What you have written about is something that is a key part of my personal and professional philosophies. Mistakes do happen from time to time. Perhaps you overlooked a possible outcome or made a poor choice, and things didn’t go exactly as planned. It happens. It is far better to own up to your mistakes, learn from them, apologize if necessary, and then go on with life.

    When you look at politicians as an example. both Nixon and Clinton could have survived or better survived the fiascos they created if they had just acknowledged their mistakes and apologized right away instead of trying to cover them up. Because they didn’t. Nixon resigned and Clinton was impeached.

    I have always done my best to acknowledge when I am wrong and be honest about it, than try to cover it up or place the blame on others. For me, I would rather be embarrassed by the truth than lie.

  2. Great post! We all make mistakes and owning up to our professional stumbles can result in a positive experience in the long run. Thank you for sharing some great examples. Another example of owning up to a blunder happened this past week with Tribber. Here is link to Dino’s response to a serious mistake. http://diyblogger.net/domain-expiration-story After reading the post, I finally signed up for Tribber.

    • Jo, thank you for your kind comment and for sharing another great blunder story. Interestingly, research shows that making and fixing mistakes can actually be good for business. No one is suggesting that organizations should go out and intentionally commit blunders so they can be fixed. But, when mistakes do happen, it’s an opportunity to earn the public’s trust and respect or, conversely, to alienate the public. It all comes down to how the situation is handled.

  3. I was new to the position – just over a year. After spending sometime with “Mr. Brown” a past donor, I asked and he said yes to a $15k gift…. near the end of our conversation he told me that he did not need a thank you letter. A week later, his check arrived and i sent an appropriate thank you letter to Mr. Brown.

    Less than a week later the President asked me to come by his office. I did. “Did you send Mr. Brown a thank you letter” he asked. I responded “Yes.” “If you do that again I will fire you.” the President remarked.

    Lessons learned and practiced:

    Lesson 1) If you did it – tell the truth and admit it. (As I did)

    Lesson 2) Always ask the “next question.”( I didn’t) —- I had presumed that Mr Brown was being cavalier when declining the thank you letter. Had I asked the ‘next question” I would have learned that Mr Brown and his wife had an understanding; “Whatever Mr. Brown gave to charity he was to add twice as much to the grandchildren’s trust.” My actions and his sneakiness “cost” Mr. Brown an additional $30,000.

    I always ask “the next question” now!

    • Gary, thank you very much for sharing this story! You’ve proven that we can all learn something valuable from each other.

      Your story about Mr. Brown is a complex one. We all want to do right by our donors. We want to show them appreciation. And, we want to make sure they have the proper gift receipt for their tax purposes. However, as your story demonstrates, we need to be donor-centered even when it comes to expressing gratitude.

      In Mr. Brown’s case, not sending a thank-you letter might not have been sufficient “protection” for the donor. Even if you had not sent the letter, the organization might have recognized him other ways (i.e.: a donor honor roll) that would have still tipped-off Mrs. Brown. Like I said, and you already know, it’s a complex tale.

      Whenever a donor throws us a curve ball, it’s a good idea to probe. By exploring further, we can find out what the donor really means by what he is saying. And, we can better meet his needs.

      Again, thank you for your willingness to share this personal story. It contains a great lesson for us all.


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