Are we successful? Beneficiaries’ challenges in self-identifying as successful by Teri Richter | Allan Gray Orbis Foundation
Are we successful? Beneficiaries’ challenges in self-identifying as successful by Teri Richter

Are we successful? Beneficiaries’ challenges in self-identifying as successful by Teri Richter

Defining programme success in order to measure and evaluate progress towards one’s outcomes and ultimate impact is vital for any intervention programme. However, in any intervention working with people, one must consider how the definition and recognition of such success could influence beneficiaries, both positively and negatively.

An academic perspective

Drawing on the concept of labelling theory, originating in the field of criminology and deviance, the act of labelling deviant (undesired) behaviour as criminal (bad) leads to stigmatisation, which in itself can perpetuate the continuation of such deviant behaviour. Howard Becker (1963) postulated that the process of labelling behaviour as social deviance is a consequence of the creation of social rules and subsequent failure to meet those rules. Although labelling theory has been historically researched in the field of criminology and deviance, there is merit for considering its influence in educational and developmental fields.

The process of defining intervention or programme success can create rules within a beneficiary community. These rules, although not always explicitly defined or framed in the negative, can by deduction infer that non-conformity or non-achievement of the defined success implies deviance or failure. Moreover, as Tannenbaum (1938) suggests, the more emphasis is placed on the label, the more the individual is likely to identify with it. This can relate positively to labelling beneficiaries as success stories and celebrating their success – but on the inverse, can cause those not having achieved similarly to self-label as failures.



A beneficiary perspective

The Fellows who form part of the Association of Allan Gray Fellows have assessed the adverse influence that the definition of success can have on them (as a community of beneficiaries) according to three overarching themes:

  • Fear of failure
  • Disengagement within the community
  • Feelings of non-achievement

Fear of failure

“(I am) not in a place where (I) can really experiment.” (2013 Fellow)

Within the field of entrepreneurship, the concept of failure is well-known as central to the process of ultimate business success. The mantra of ‘fail fast, fail often’, although contended by some due to its negative framing, aims to take the fear out of experimentation for developing entrepreneurs. The Fellowship programme of four years aims to provide an ideal playground for our future entrepreneurs to practise both success and failure. Within the Association it is also understood that entrepreneurship can be an arduous journey that takes time. However, even within an environment that is set up to ‘play with failure’, beneficiaries mention a fear of experimentation and failure.

Simply encouraging experimentation and understanding or perhaps even expecting failure does not disarm the risk associated with experiencing it. It shows that organisations must ensure an optimal environment, where speaking about failure is centered on learning, re-framing and re-starting.

Feelings of non-achievement

“Sometimes I feel embarrassed saying I’m a Fellow, knowing that I just go to work.  Yes, I do my best at work and I excel, but that’s all I ever do, whereas I need to be doing something else.” (2013 Fellow)

“(Success) for some is equipping other people in your family…for the first few years it might be small in terms of ensuring everyone in my family is fed.  Or, some of the business ideas I think of are things I want to start with my family, so that they can be financially stable as well, and I can soar and go wherever I want to.  So those little things, how do you share them, because you feel, ‘I haven’t done anything, I haven’t really started this measure of business.” (2012 Fellow)

These views of Fellows show the importance for organisations to define, dialogue and profile multiple types of success, which all form milestones on the journey towards the final destination. Some alternative successes that have been seen at the Foundation include Fellows who have been the first in their families to go to university and graduate and Fellows who are supporting their families financially and paying for their siblings’ education. Highlighting and profiling such examples of success can contribute to beneficiaries not feeling inadequate or like failures just because they have not yet reached their destination.

Disengagement within a community

Within a community that has a defined goal it can be challenging to be repeatedly exposed to individuals who are labelled as successful without comparing one’s own achievements. Beneficiaries mention that comparing themselves to the image of success brings up feelings of inadequacy. For some this in turn results in disengagement or self-exclusion from the community and becomes a great challenge in a community whose aim is to encourage and develop its members through engagement and interaction.

“Sometimes we stay away because we think [we] don’t have anything great to share. I’m not doing any business, I’m not pursuing any business idea. I don’t want to be in that space.” (2012 Fellow)

A key lesson for beneficiary communities is the importance of creating an inclusive society in which all beneficiaries feel welcomed and recognised for their own personal strengths and successes. This can be achieved through redefining and celebrating diverse forms of success, broadening the typecast of success, increasing the ability of beneficiaries to identify with success stories and encourage and enhance engagement as well as further sharing of success stories within the community.

Overall, the way in which organisations speak about and write about success has the ability to alienate or embrace its beneficiaries. It directly effects how beneficiaries engage with the organisation as well as with each other. It can also influence their own sense of accomplishment and self-worth and their ability to make progress towards the organisation’s ultimate impact.


  • Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, 2015 Association Year End Report.
  • Becker, H. (1973) [1963]. Outsiders. New York: Free Press.
  • Tannenbaum, F. (1938). Crime and Community. London and New York: Columbia University Press

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