Accountability and the Sustainable Nonprofit

Accountability and the Sustainable Nonprofit

In my home state, the Maryland Association of Nonprofits recently announced that their voluntary "standards for excellence" program is going national. That's a good sign. The program requires participating organizations to fill a five-inch-thick binder with documentation about their governing, financial management, and fundraising practices. Organizations that demonstrate their compliance with the program's standards are given permission to use the association's seal of excellence in their materials and on their Web sites. My own organization has engaged in the process with gusto, and such programs are gaining popularity as the nonprofit sector faces a growing chorus of voices demanding greater accountability.

This is the first in a series of three articles by Richard C. Harwood that explores the 3 A's of Public Life:

  • Accountability — Setting realistic expectations for change and pursing actions that have meaning for people.
  • Authority — Possessing knowledge rooted in the community and infusing that knowledge throughout your work.
  • Authenticity — Reflecting the reality of people's lives in your words and actions.

Together, they form a set of touchstones for the practices necessary to create greater sustainability in nonprofit organizations and their work.

But creating organizations that are not only accountable but able to sustain themselves involves more than complying with a set of standards, however well intentioned, and displaying a "Good Housekeeping" seal. It demands a fundamental shift in how nonprofit leaders view accountability. If we are to avoid taking our organizations down the wrong path, we need to pursue an accounting of ourselves.

Unfortunately, discussions about accountability usually focus on external forces and internal procedures. Many of us persevere through detailed checklists to determine whether our organizations are meeting various standards of accountability: Are we fulfilling the goals of our funders? Does our organization meet particular financial-management standards? Is our board structured properly? These and other efforts are vitally important for any nonprofit that strives to be both successful and sustainable. But they do not make up the whole of accountability.

...A significant piece of accountability must come from within each of us.....

A significant piece of accountability must come from within each of us. Each of us must ask, "What promises have I made to people? What claims can I make about my work? Does it have integrity? What about my organization? Is it truly and consistently serving the public good — and if not, why not?" Asking such fundamental questions helps nonprofit leaders to focus on what they can realistically achieve in their work. It reminds them of their responsibility to the communities they serve. And it's a powerful way to reveal an organization's capacity to create change and encourage each member of the organization to examine his or her own personal capacity.

Ultimately, we are all in the business of change. But what are the implications of accounting for ourselves? I believe there are four important factors about which we must be forever conscious: the rhythms of community life; definitions of progress versus success; notions of time; and legacy. Of course, there are other factors. But these four affect every change effort, even though they may sometimes be forgotten or hidden among more common measures of accountability. When we are aware of these factors, we invariably make our efforts more sustainable because we become more accountable — to both our community and ourselves.

Factor #1: Rhythms
I use the word rhythms to refer to the stages of a community's life. My own organization, in a report entitled Community Rhythms, has found that there are five key stages in a community's life: the Waiting Place, Impasse, Catalytic, Growth, and Sustain/Renew. Many efforts designed to bring about change are based on the assumption that the community in question is in the "growth" stage — a stage characterized by respected leaders, strong networks, positive norms, and civic-minded organizations.

But most communities are not in the "growth" stage; they're in an earlier stage where their capacity for change is much less developed. As a result, change in these communities often plays out in all-too-familiar fashion: An organization will announce a new program to great fanfare. It gives the program three years to produce change. When, after three years, people begin to realize that the promised change has not materialized, disappointment sets in and people lose hope. Those in charge are chided and told to try harder. It may seem like farce, but something resembling it happens more often than you'd think.

Efforts that assume that networks already exist which can jump-start and sustain change in a given community, or even that there exists among the people in that community a commonly held idea of a path for change, are almost certainly doomed to failure. Honest assessments of what is possible in a community begin with an honest appraisal of the stage from which that community is starting down the path of change. A community's passage through the five stages can be accelerated, but the stages themselves cannot be ignored or skipped.

Factor #2: Progress vs. Success
Accounting for ourselves also requires being aware of another tension: progress versus success. This has to do with our conception of outcomes and what it means to move forward and generate change. I have consistently found in all kinds of organizations — whether foundations, civic groups, or nonprofits — that the working assumption concerning outcomes is one of success. In other words, either you hit the mark or you don't. In reality, of course, none of us can do our work in this way, nor will any community ever make significant progress if this is the prevailing paradigm. Saddling ourselves with an all-or-nothing idea of success blinds us to the steps we must take on the path toward real change, as well as the knowledge that we stand to gain along the way.

...Saddling ourselves with an all-or-nothing idea of success blinds us to the steps we must take on the path toward real change....

In place of the idea of success as a hit-or-miss affair, we should instead consider our aspirations — not wishful dreams or a wild vision, but what we truly hope to achieve through our efforts. What are the milestones that will help us understand whether or not we are moving toward that goal? I once had the opportunity to work in South Carolina with school and community leaders from four of the lowest-performing districts in the state who were looking for ways to improve their local schools. I asked them to identify what they wanted to achieve in seeking such improvements. One of the goals they mentioned was the desire to turn their local schools into the "highest performing" schools in the state over the next three years.

But they also described for me the context in which they hoped to achieve this goal: Many of the school buildings in the four districts were dilapidated; many parents never showed up for teacher-parent conferences; kids went to school hungry and undernourished. They told me their communities did not value education, that through ways big and small they were signaling to the children in those communities that attending school wasn't important. Given the conditions they described, I asked myself:

  • Realistically, how fast might change come about in these communities?
  • What, if any, building blocks for change are already in place?
  • What might give people in these communities a sense of possibility and hope to sustain their efforts, especially when the going gets tough?
...When people inflate their expectations, they end up accomplishing less than they could have by adopting a more realistic view of the situation....

I have found that when people inflate their expectations, they end up accomplishing less than they could have by adopting a more realistic view of the situation. They overreach and over-promise and, in doing so, end up undermining their efforts. In the worst cases, they distort what needs to be done, when, and by whom — and end up producing very little. It seems to me a moral imperative to avoid this approach. Every child is entitled to a quality education. The question is, what steps have to be taken in order to deliver on that promise? Grand plans and lofty rhetoric must be checked against real results. We must constantly look at ourselves and ask whether the actions we are taking are right and necessary. Doing so puts us in a position to become more, not less, accountable for making progress and helps us to sustain our efforts over time.

Factor #3: Time
All this talk about change underscores the need for us to think about time differently. The notion of time — its literal playing out — is an acute challenge to all of us, whether in our day-to-day work or in our personal lives. In our society people tend to adopt a stopwatch mentality, an approach that can drive them to feel overworked and personally stretched. Every thing we do is a race against time. This same dynamic can push us to design programs and pursue goals that we know are unattainable but which sound good, position us well, and/or help us to raise needed dollars. Then we — and others — wonder why so many people are skeptical, or even cynical, about efforts undertaken in the name of the public good.

In similar fashion, the very expectations that the public, funders, colleagues, and others impose on us can be downright onerous. It often seems as if people engaged in change efforts are expected to solve the most vexing public dilemmas overnight. Funding for organizations expires just when programs have been ramped up and are beginning to gain traction. My own organization has found itself in this situation a number of times, and our experience is not unique. Money becomes a proxy for time.

...a blind allegiance to the stopwatch is not only unhealthy, it's dangerous....

Most of us assume that because we are consumed by the demands of time, we are accountable to them as well. And in some ways we are. None of us can escape the realities of our day-to-day existence. But a blind allegiance to the stopwatch is not only unhealthy, it's dangerous: The essence of time — how things really unfold and what it takes to be part of a larger cycle of change — totally escapes us.

Factor #4: Legacy
The idea of a larger cycle of change leads me to my last point: the notion of legacy. What do we want to leave behind as a result of our work? Often, the talk of legacy, if it is broached at all, is a matter of personal gain — how to position oneself in a field or embellish one's results. Such talk often is found in annual reports.

Less often do we think about legacy in ways that place ourselves and our work in a larger context. The simple fact is, there have always been people who were willing to wrestle with the issues with which we wrestle, and there will always be people who follow in our footsteps and work to address the same issues that engage us today.

The notion of legacy embodies the other three factors I have mentioned. In order to have a sense of a community's rhythms, you have to be willing to see the work that has come before. Your progress — and what you hope will be the lasting impact of your work — must be viewed in the larger context of what is possible. An appreciation of one's legacy also helps to put time in the proper perspective, placing your work within the unfolding and neverending story of a community.

The Challenge of Leadership
Ultimately, the challenge of accountability is a challenge of leadership. And leadership requires two qualities that are enormously important but often difficult to integrate into our lives: courage and humility. Courage enables those who possess it to step forward and ask the questions that need to be asked, to hold themselves accountable for their promises, actions, and the progress that they are, or are not, making in their work. Humility requires us to acknowledge that we do not have all the answers — we are neither the first nor will be the last to take on the work we do — and that real change takes longer than the limited time we are usually able to devote to a project.

So, what is a true "seal of excellence"? The good work of the Maryland Association of Nonprofits is part of it. But there's another part, one that often is obfuscated in our rush to be seen as being accountable. That part is much harder to quantify. We must account for ourselves, something that requires each of us to exercise constant vigilance and sensitivity. It is a promise we should all make and try our best to keep. If we can keep that promise, we may even find a new path to sustainability for our organizations and the work they do. There is no better time to begin than now.

The sustainable nonprofit

February 19, 2021