Nonprofit accountability – what does it mean?

Just last week, I taught a short class, as part of a visit to a Mid-western university. I chose the topic of nonprofit accountability and how it is conceptualized. I shared this paper by Alnoor Ebrahim, where he argues that nonprofits must focus on strategy driven forms of accountability that help organizations achieve their missions, instead of being accountable for everything, to everyone.

Ebrahim’s argument is important and we must pay attention to this simply because there is increasing demand for more accountability from all our public serving agencies. Right from donors who seek greater accountability for the money they give, to public agencies that seek to provide services such as healthcare or education, there is an increasing focus on accountability.

Where does this leave the nonprofit executive or leader? What areas should he/she focus on and to whom should they be ‘accountable?’. The answer, Ebrahim suggests, lies in being aware of the different kinds of accountability – horizontal, vertical etc. that is; being accountable to those whom the organization serves and also those who ‘oversee’ its work.

In other words, while some forms of accountability may be coercive, other forms are more peer-based and act as checks and balances. This means that many a time, a nonprofit must choose where it will focus and why. Ebrahim suggests four factors to identity accountability : Transparency, Answerability, Compliance and Enforcement.

This can make the process of being ‘accountable’ quite hard. For instance, is a soda manufacturer accountable to only its share holders or to the general public, given that its products have a negative public impact? what does it mean in to be accountable, in this context?

While this is not a perfect example, given that it is drawn from the world of for-profits, the principle still holds – who does an organization hold itself accountable to? In the class discussion, we spoke about the various stakeholders and their roles in the process of building accountability.

Ultimately, the narrative of accountability is about accountability to certain people or institutions and for certain actions. Unless one clarifies this, it makes little sense to talk about the concept. Depending on the nature of the organization, one can be accountable to one’s members, beneficiaries or donors.  This entire process is about building trust.

While one can use tools such as annual reports, disclosure documents etc. it will work in cases where there is a direct cause-effect relationship. But in more complex cases of rights based work etc. the business of accountability can be more complicated.

Accountability is about building trust and this means that being aware and putting into place practices that add to both internal processes that do this, as well as external ones. Ebrahim’s insight that the future of accountability is more in the realm of adaptive learning rather than enforcement seems poignant.



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