Towards a new ‘accountability’

At a recent roundtable about nonprofit organizations and politics, a political commentator shared that what she is hearing from elected officials is that nonprofit organizations just need to ‘be accountable’ in order to avoid suffering drastically in the budget deficit reduction context.

Most of the heads around the table nodded. And I felt a little bit like I must have missed the Kool-Aid when it was passed around.

Because, I mean, “be accountable”?

What I think that those elected officials meant, and certainly what the analyst and those listening to her seemed to think, was that accountability means having low ‘overhead’ costs, running our organizations like a for-profit business (or, even better, just like a family balances its checkbook, right?), and finding seemingly magic ways to do more with less, over and over again.

And what I think, when I hear, “be accountable”, is that, first, it’s a pretty obvious effort to provide an ‘out’ for elected officials who will be tempted to cut funding to essential services. We didn’t slash HeadStart because we really, in the final assessment, don’t care all that much about educational equity. We cut HeadStart because it wasn’t ‘accountable’ enough. We aren’t eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit (not a nonprofit, obviously, but the same rationale is being used against them) because we think that low-income working people are kind of expendable. We’re eliminating it because of fraud (cousin to ‘unaccountable’).

Don’t get me wrong: I like accountability. A lot.

I think the only way we will ever make a significant dent in the problems that plague us–problems that literally keep me up at night–is by developing a vision of what our collective impact should be, and then holding each other completely accountable for reaching that vision.


I just disagree with both the definition and the process for this particular approach to ‘accountability’. I don’t think that margins spent on overhead are all that useful an indicator, and I don’t think that instituting management systems that hew to corporate practices is the silver bullet.

Instead, what I want to see made transparent is the theory of change behind organizations’ approaches to their work. We should all be able to know what they are setting out to achieve–present company included–what activities they undertake to pursue those goals, and why they believe that A will lead to B.

We cannot afford to content ourselves with a false transparency, when what we really need to know is impact.

We can’t confuse accountability with efficiency, because being really efficient in the pursuit of an empty metric isn’t something I find very worthy of investment.

When we are public with what change we want to see and how we are positioning ourselves to realize it, then we can hold ourselves accountable. For real.

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