Some Consequences of Bad Endings

a person is walking out of a building plling a small wheeled suitcase. the day is cloudy but the sun in rising.

“A good consumer off-boarding experience should be…connected consciously to the rest of the experience through emotional triggers that are the measurable and actionable by the user. It should identify and bond the consumer and provider together in mutual responsibility.” It’s aim should be to neutralise the negative consequences of consumption. It should be concluded in a timely manner and avoid.”

– Joe Macleod, Endineering: Designing Consumption Lifecycles That End As Well As They Begin

Though Joe Macleod’s book Endineering is focused on designing consumer offboarding experiences, it offers ample information and much sage advice that is universally applicable to those of us thinking about designing ends of services, projects, and organizations.

While the importance of bringing thought and intention to closing down mission-different work is immediately obvious to some, others might struggle to grasp why time, money, and human effort should be given over to any enterprise that is no longer growing. In the hope that more people — especially those in the position to fund and implement — understand the importance of conscious closures, I compiled this short (and non-sequential!) list of critical things that can be lost in bad endings.

Knowledge Loss

Whether an organization is in operation for a hundred years or even just one, the collective efforts of all the people whose time and energy went into making the work happen also represent a wealth of knowledge that can likely be of great use to the public at-large and more specifically to the sorts of people that might want to carry forward the mission of the organization in the future. In the haste to close down, organizations often don’t take the time to properly store and or share that data in an easily accessible place or pass along critical information to partner (or even former competitor!) organizations who might urgently need it.

Without a focus on the gathering and long-term stewardship of such information, the blog posts, reports, and white papers you lovingly published eventually fade away from hard drives, while passwords and logins to shared clouds are lost. If you don’t discuss who will carry on renewing the domain and maintaining the hosting, credit cards get cancelled and websites expire. The breadcrumbs that would lead the next generation in the right direction are blown away in the wind.

Relationship Breakdown – Internal

As mentioned above, an organization or project is its people. When endings are mishandled or carried out without critical communication, transparency, and consideration, the bonds that held you together can quickly break down. If people feel their livelihoods or identities are threatened by the end of the organization and they don’t feel as though they have a say in the how or when of that end, they can quickly get burned out and checked out.

According to the Areas of Worklife Model, one of the key contributors to burnout is the feeling of unfairness coupled with feeling as though you have no voice. While the group may be winding down, the same people that kept it open are often critical to making a successful landing. When they aren’t on board, the ride can be bumpy and many people may be looking to make a quicker than desirable exit.

“When you do not have the opportunity to express what you are feeling at the close of a relationship, the relationship is incomplete…without closure in any relationship, the people involved feel incomplete…[it] evokes a tremendous amount of emotion that must be released. The release results in closure. When you do not release, you wonder, you hurt, the whys go unanswered and eventually create anger and fear. More important…when there is no closure, you miss the lessons and the blessings.”

– Iyanla Vanzant, One Day My Soul Just Opened Up

Relationship Breakdown – External

In addition to the breakdown of critical relationships within the initiative, poorly-considered endings can also alienate partners and funders.

As projects grow, the network of organizations they are a part of can also continue to grow and deepen. When the difficult decision to close down occurs, it is important to identify and communicate with all the people that make your work happen. In many cases, the community in which you operate may be quite small and if people feel as though they were “the last to know”, they may feel snubbed or insulted.

Failure to loop in external stakeholders can also result in lost opportunities to archive knowledge, shift initiatives to other more thriving organizations, or even just share your story with other people in the space. In addition, alienating external partners and funders can result in the loss of critical contacts who could support you in the development and funding of future endeavors.

Reputational Damage

While the name you built up during the time you were in operation may not live on, a bad ending can severely tarnish the legacy of your efforts and everyone affiliated with them. This is particularly critical if you are shutting down a project but the umbrella organization will continue on. Treating employees, members, or service recipients callously can make a bad ending worse as you struggle to juggle the operational aspects while fighting a battle in your community or even in the media.

Service Vacuum

If your work involved providing critical support to vulnerable populations, a bad ending can mean that people go without access to crucial resources. In 2012, UK NGO EveryChild made the decision to shut down operations and transfer funds to a new international alliance that they felt could more successfully achieve EveryChild’s mission. EveryChild described itself as “an international development charity working to stop children growing up vulnerable and alone. Working with local partners we keep children safe when they are alone and at risk. We protect children in danger of ending up on their own by keeping families together. And we get children back into a safe and caring family, wherever we can.” As part of the process of winding down the charity, the programme management team came together to define principles that would help them make hard decisions about how and when to shutter operations to ensure that they did as little harm as possible.

In the report Working at the Sharp End of Programme Closure: EveryChild’s Responsible Exit Principles, Lucy Morris, formerly of EveryChild and now of INTRAC (the International NGO Training and Research Centre) outlines the three guiding “responsible exit principles”:

  1. As far as possible, ensure the work we have done is sustainable – this could be continuation of services or lasting changes in children’s lives.
  2. Ensure that exit does not have a detrimental effect on the children and communities where we work.
  3. As far as possible, ensure that expertise and momentum for
    change in the country is not lost.

As she goes on to note, “Having exit principles helped our partners to understand the rationale behind decision making and provided reassurances that EveryChild would not suddenly withdraw.”

Loss of Traceability

Finally, if your organization employed people or involved anyone as a volunteer or intern, those people may want to list your organization on their resume and CV. However, if there is no trace of your organization in the digital space, it can lead to an awkward situation where the veracity of the position can be called into question. Websites that lead to 404 error messages and dormant LinkedIn pages can look dubious.

Additionally, if someone is simply interested in gathering information about the organization — perhaps for a research project or a new initiative — and no one can be found, a critical opportunity may be missed to breathe new life into your old works.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that can go bad at the ending of a project, but it should give you a good idea of what you might want to think about and plan for. If you are interested in exploring what a good ending could look like for your effort, definitely reach out!


One response to “Some Consequences of Bad Endings”

  1. […] a consultant helping you navigate the choppy waters of organization can help you avoid doing additional harm and walk away feeling proud of all that you accomplished during the life of your […]

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