No spoilers…I promise! In both the book, The Martian, and the equally excellent movie by the same name, astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left on Mars after an unexpected dust storm forces the rest of the crew to abandon the planet without him. With scarce food, an inability to communicate, a living environment built to last only a month, and only disco music, as “setbacks” go, this one is colossal.

If you’ve worked in a nonprofit (or probably just about anywhere), you know that not every project goes as planned. In fact, sometimes plan A turns into plan D or E or F. Often, the setbacks are minor – like you used the wrong mail permit number on a mass mailing – and easily fixed. Sometimes, they are more significant – like a lead gift in a capital campaign changes course and decides not to give at all – and mean you need to go back to reset and re-strategize.

Just as Watney (also, luckily, a trained botanist) figures out how to grow enough potatoes to keep himself alive for four years until another mission can return to save him, there is another setback and it’s a doozey!

What does he do? He “works the problem.”


Working the problem is masterful in its simplicity and more complex in reality, and goes something like this:


  • Give yourself space to clear your head and recover. Maybe you need to be angry or disappointed. That’s OK. Remember that neither dwelling on the setback or reacting without all the right data will help, but a clear head will. Get a little distance and take a deep breath so you can think more logically and get back to work.

  • Examine what happened. Look at the data to determine if there was a process breakdown or some sort of human error. Was there new leadership that caused different decisions to be made or was there a misunderstanding of the situation from the beginning? Was there a misstep that you can avoid in the future?

  • Get counsel. Seek out co-workers, colleagues, volunteers, research, and other smart people who can help you evaluate the situation and offer practical advice for your next steps. Be honest with yourself and your team and learn from any mistakes that might have been made. Forgive yourself if necessary – not everyone can be a botanist and an astronaut!

  • Make a new plan. Try something different. If one donor lost interest, work your list and tell your best story to the next person. Rework the timeline or find a new location so that you can meet your goals. If you need to involve someone with a skill set you don’t have, do that. In The Martian, NASA even worked with the space program in China. You likely know an expert or have a resource closer to home or a phone call away who can help you.

  • Take the next step. Watney says in the movie, “At some point, everything's gonna go south on you... and you're going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem... and you solve the next one... and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” So, take the first step, then the next, until you find a solution.

  • Celebrate the win! The end might look different from how you originally envisioned it. (Seriously, read the book or watch the movie!) I don’t know about you, but in my own work, I have found the ending I could not have imagined is often even better than the one I did. Rejoice in that.


Thankfully, most of us will never be stuck on Mars, left to figure out how to get home against all odds. If you can channel your inner equivalent to astronaut/botanist, and do the math and “work the problem” to reset when something goes wrong, you can turn almost any challenge into a WIN!




Every nonprofit leader will face a time when even the best plans don't work out. When that happens, working harder isn't necessarily the answer. It might be time for a reset. This summer, we'll be sharing stories and ideas to regroup, reimagine, reinvigorate... and reset!                                                               

Posted by Michelle Gorham
Michelle Gorham

Written by Michelle Gorham

Michelle Gorham, MPH, CFRE, is an experienced communicator and fundraiser helping nonprofits implement strategies to tell their stories and raise the dollars they need. Michelle is an adjunct Senior Consultant with DBD Group. She currently is the Chief Advancement Officer with YMCA of Rock River Valley. She offers real-time experience and unique skillsets to our clients.

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