What I Learned at F--k Up Night

by Esmee Wilcox 25/09/2017

So there I was at 'F--k Up Night” in a beautiful garden shed in the middle of Cambridge.  Here, three incredibly candid, wise and, overall, exceedingly successful social entrepreneurs, humbly shared their personal experiences of failure.    

With stories that took us into the celebratory fashion world, corporate finance and back to rural England, they all shared a wish that they had been open to certain advice at the time.  And a mission for us not to repeat their mistakes.

I came away from that night with an overwhelming sense of inspiration: yes they’d had some major ‘f**k ups’ but at no point were they paralysed by their challenges.

There are so many big issues going on right now - lack of trust in charities as a sector, volatility in the environment, and the economy, well… -  but the ‘failure survivors’ won’t be letting that get in the way.

So…in 30 seconds….what ones do I, having spent time in their company, want to really make sure we tackle head on?

The first one I got to is political:

Many of us are just surviving right now.  But when we’re locked into that mode, we stop thinking about what’s keeping us in this state.  

Why is there less money left?  

What else is it being spent on? 

How can we find out?

We know what life will look like if we’re not here, but why aren’t we spending more time explaining that in a way that energises people?  

To, ask and actually get answers to these questions.  

And then making sure we keep evolving by really understanding, knowing and improving our own impact so that we – and the organisations we lead – are exceptional more of the time.

The second is about tackling the competition through partnerships:

It sounds a bit of an anathema, but we do need to work with the system we have right now: if it’s all about scale and making it easy to be commissioned, then we have to cooperate more formally within “the sector”. 

It’s hard not to see the differences, but let’s focus more on the common purpose of organisations working for social good, and use that as a hook.

Yes we have to find ways of managing our egos, and yes we should not be naïve about the cultural and technical differences.  

But if we can specialise, keep developing and honing what we’re exceptional at, and get to the right scale, then partnering with other social purpose organisations has got to be the future.

My final provocation is a personal one about prioritising the time to listen, think and follow up:

I was impressed by how many people came and talked to strangers, asked a tonne of questions.

But it is a tall order to give ourselves time to listen deeply, think and then do something differently as a result.

I believe that as people – with more or less visible mistakes on offer – we have to take the time to learn from each other.  

If we don’t, we’ll keep making other people’s mistakes as well as our own, and we won’t be tackling the bigger issues.

Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation have coined the term social ‘extrepreneur’ for those weaving and building the systems that support social impact across all the sectors.

Extrapreneurs understand and spread learning, work on institutional change and tackle  the bigger contextual issues.

It’s an underrated set of activities, and hard to do when we feel like we’re simply surviving.  

I came away from 'F--k-Up Night' with the belief that we have the capacity to do it, we just need to get savvy about organising ourselves.


Esmee Wilcox is a freelance strategist and organisational development practitioner, specialising in behaviour change. She is a featured social innovator at the Cambridge Judge Centre for Social Innovation, and published on learning from failure. 

T: @esmeewsocial; E: ; M: 07812 201333



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