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On Accountability

"This meeting is not going well," I thought to myself. The tension was palpable, silence hung heavy, and faces were drawn tight. There seemed to be a current of anger or resentment coursing around the table. I kept searching for an answer to explain what was going on with these program directors.

The occasion was the final review of a proposed strategic plan in preparation for a meeting of the board of directors. In order to determine priorities and develop a plan to secure the necessary resources, the board had asked for input from the staff. An earlier staff retreat had surfaced ideas and concerns in an open atmosphere. Staff were clear about the organization’s mission and articulated a vision for the development of existing and potential programs.

So, what had gone wrong? A new element had been introduced: accountability. The question posed was, "If we pursue these strategies, how will we know we have been successful?" The mood changed quickly; it was almost surly.

Nonprofit organizations have been slow to embrace results-oriented planning and management. Staff and boards have long been satisfied knowing that they have the intention of "doing good." In fact, there is often considerable resistance to defining expected outcomes and measuring results.

Initially, staff may protest that their efforts don’t produce results that can be measured. How do you determine the deepening of one’s faith, advancing tolerance of cultural or racial differences, or improving self-esteem? These and many other intangible goals are often incorporated in organizational mission statements.

If pressed, staff might propose quantifiable measures such as the numbers of people enrolled in a program, numbers of volunteers recruited, or the numbers of groups which request a speaker. These only reveal a small portion of an organization’s effectiveness, however.

Pushed to go beyond these suggestions, staff sometimes withdraw to stubborn resistance or hostile silence. These reactions could indicate antipathy to real or perceived attempts to control their programs. It may be that staff misunderstands a board’s interest in results.

One of a board’s principal responsibilities is to determine the organization’s strategic direction, to discern what is the right thing to do in striving to achieve the organization’s mission. It is the staff’s responsibility to decide how to do those things the right way. That is what management is all about: using resources efficiently to accomplish desired objectives.

Focusing on results is not a matter of exercising control; it’s fulfilling the responsibility of stewardship. Boards serve as trustees for the public interest. It is their duty to assure that funds contributed to or earned by nonprofit organizations are used for their intended purpose for the maximum benefit of the constituents served.

In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that is the definition of accountability: liability for the discharge of duties. Peter Senge in The Dance of Change points out that accountability in imperial Rome meant "to freely stand and be counted as when Roman senators stood and walked across the floor of the senate to cast their affirming vote for a measure, simultaneously demonstrating their stand and commitment to carrying out the measure if it passed."

An organization is fortunate to be governed by a board which takes its responsibility for results seriously. It is holding both itself and the staff accountable. Pursuit of the mission is properly a partnership, a joint effort. Typically, a board doesn’t decree to staff how to measure outcomes because generally its members don’t have a detailed understanding of specific programs sufficient to determine what those should be. And astute board members realize that they can’t legislate accountability. Peter Block in Stewardship reminds us that such a tack only produces compliance and caution.

So, they rely upon staff to recommend how to evaluate and measure results. They ask open-ended questions; they challenge. They seek to justify to themselves and to the public why the organization is doing what it’s doing, and how well it is doing it. Fundamentally, that is what stewardship implies.

Nonprofit organizations are accountable to the people they serve, too. Peter Drucker in Managing the Non-Profit Organization believes that we have to ask, "What is really important to them (constituents)? Non-profit people must respect their customers and their donors enough to listen to their values and understand their satisfactions. They do not impose the executive’s or the organization’s own views and egos on those they serve."

What do our constituents think? How do they feel about our organizations and our efforts to serve them? Do they acknowledge that they have been asked what their needs are and how those can best be met? Do they feel they are listened to, that they have a say in how we serve them? Do they feel treated with dignity? Is their self-esteem uplifted? Are we trying to measure improvements in things that matter to them?

Block asserts, "Stewardship asks us to be deeply accountable for the outcomes of an institution, without acting to define purpose for others, control others, or take care of others." Both boards and staff would do well to embrace that philosophy.

So, how does an organization hold itself accountable? Stephen Covey in First Things First offers sound advice for a board and staff to work together to accomplish a shared vision.

Desired results: What is it we’re trying to do? What outcomes do we want — both quantitative and qualitative — and by when?

Guidelines: What are the parameters within which we’re trying to do it? What are the essential values, policies, legalities, ethics, limits, and levels of initiative to be aware of in going after the desired results?

Resources: What do we have to work with? What budgetary, systemic, and human help is available and how do we access it?

Accountability: How do we measure what we’re doing? What criteria will indicate the accomplishment of the desired results? Will they be measurable, observable, or discernible, or some combination of the three? To whom are we accountable? When will the accountability process take place?

Consequences: Why are we trying to do it? What are the natural and logical consequences of accomplishing or not accomplishing the desired results?

The process must begin with determining the desired results. What do we want to achieve? When we’re forced to express these as concrete, tangible goals, we often think first in terms of numbers, results which can be quantitatively measured. However, establishing the right numbers is not always easy.

Thinking beyond those outcomes is often more difficult; its stretches us beyond our own experience into the unknown. Drucker provides us a clue in stating, "Every non-profit organization exists for the sake of performance in changing people and society.... We need to remind ourselves again and again that the results of a non-profit institution are always outside the organization, not inside." Therefore, seeking meaningful input from those to be served is essential to determining qualitative results.

As an organization struggles to define desired results, contributing author John Seeley in Evaluation with Power offers a method for us to organize our thinking. He describes three types of results: outputs, outcomes and impacts.

Outputs are quantitative indicators of what the program actually does: the number of clients it serves, for example. Outputs are the quantitative evidence of the activity component of the program.

Outcomes focus on observable changes in people, conditions or services linked to program objectives and activities.

Impacts refer to the longer-term, community-based results of the program. Quality of life indicators include economic, educational, health, family and neighborhood assessments.

Establishing expected results is a difficult process. When board members and staff are tempted to give up or inclined to be satisfied with general rather than specific goals, Covey has a reminder for us. "There’s no way we can escape accountability. We do make a difference — one way or another." It’s our responsibility to hold one another accountable to assure that we make a definable, measurable difference.

What does this have to do with us as fund raisers? I believe that fund raising is an integral part of an organization. That alone is answer enough as to why we should care or be involved in determining results. More to the point, though, it has a direct bearing on our efforts to raise funds. Drucker warns, "Creating a record of performance is the only thing that will encourage people to trust you and support you."

Though not a fund raiser, Drucker has good advice for us because he understands people. "In fund development you appeal to the heart, but you also have to appeal to the head, and try to build a continuing effort. The non-profit manager has to think through how to define results for an effort, and then report back to the donors, to show them that they are achieving results. You also have to educate donors so that they can recognize and accept what the results are."

He poses this to board members and staff. "The ultimate question, which I think people in the non-profit organization should ask again and again and again, both of themselves and the institution, is: ‘What should I hold myself accountable for by way of contribution and results? What should this institution hold itself accountable for by way of contribution and results? What should both this institution and I be remembered for?’"

Good questions. What are your answers?

Suggested reading:

Block, Peter, Stewardship, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1993.

Covey, Stephen R., Merrill, A. Roger, and Merrill, Rebecca R., First Things First, Fireside, New York, 1995.

Drucker, Peter F., Managing the Non-Profit Organization, HarperBusiness, New York, 1992.

Gray, Sandra T., and Associates, Evaluation with Power, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1998.

Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Roth, G., and Smith, B., The Dance of Change, Doubleday/Currency, New York, 1999.


Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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