What to do in the face of “We tried that and it didn’t work.”

Maybe your original idea wasn’t so great. Or maybe it was.

Often, the failure isn’t a fault with the idea, but with the incentives and feedback mechanisms you implemented.

Maybe you should try again.

The story of “Charity Flights”

A former colleague told me about a great idea he had:

“What if people at work could choose to fly coach instead of business class and a portion of the savings went to a good cause?”

We did some quick arithmetic:

  • Say, on average, that coach is 75% cheaper than business class.
  • Assume 5% of business class travelers opt for the cheaper fare.
  • Split the savings 50/50 between charity and the firm.

In a large firm, the cost of business travel can easily exceed $100 million. So, even if only a small percentage of travelers choose to fly a cheaper class, that could mean $2 million for the firm and $2 million for charity.

That’s enough to give clean drinking water for life (for example) to 80,000 people in just the first year. Or 400,000 people in 5 years.

I was excited. But when I talked to corporate travel experts, they sighed.

“It’s a nice idea. But we tried it before - several times - and it didn’t work.”

3 problems 

I was shocked. Asking people to give up the comfort of business class is no small thing, but I thought doing so 1 of every 20 times was a conservative goal.

Yet the travel administrators had hard evidence I was wrong.

“We did a lot of work to make it happen but nobody chose to fly coach. After a while, we discontinued it for lack of interest.”

The problem wasn’t the travel processes or administration. Or that people were generally donating less. Rather, after carefully reviewing the earlier attempts to implement Charity Flights, we identified 3 main problems:

  1. There wasn't enough reason to care. There wasn’t a strong enough emotional component to the campaign. Instead of focusing on a specific cause, we let employees choose their charity. That diluted the impact and wasn’t enough to compel people to change behavior.
  2. There was too little benefit for the employee. All they had was a brief moment of feeling good about their choice compared to hours of discomfort. There was no recognition of what they did or any way to share their action with others.
  3. There was no feedback. A check was sent to a charity a few weeks later but employees never knew what happened to the money or whether it really made any difference.

A better way

Links to a post on driving enterprise change in a scalable way

All around us, we see so many examples of people giving and driving change. “The Dragonfly Effect” describes numerous case studies and provides an overall framework for programs like Charity Flights. Efforts from Alex’s Lemonade Stand to Kiva to charity:water are all successfully connecting people to drive change.

With Charity Flights, we had a good idea and we failed. But we’ll learn from our failures - and from the successful programs - and we’ll try again.

  • We’ll focus our efforts on just 1 or 2 specific causes so we concentrate our message and have a bigger impact.
  • We’ll tell more stories and use more video so people can feel the need to change.
  • We’ll recognize people’s actions on their corporate profiles and use social platforms to share what they’re doing.
  • We’ll make the impact visible. Employees will visit people and places being helped and record their stories so everyone can see the effects of their actions.

We’ll try again. And we’ll make a difference.