Are We Accountable to Our Mission?

There is a great deal of talk about the accountability of nonprofits. Accountability is on the tip of everyone’s tongue and is being discussed at conferences and seminars and in nonprofit board rooms. It has become a punch line of sorts and frankly is in danger of becoming a meaningless word similar to the “all natural” tag lines you see on just about every food product sold, which have lost total credibility in my opinion.

Terms like accountability, transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness are being over-used and continue to be ill-defined.

One problem is that everyone defines them differently based on their own unique world-view of the terms. Being efficient to one nonprofit might be totally ineffective to another. In other words the bar is higher for some than for others; or their model may be totally different. A soup kitchen has an entirely different process for measuring the success of its mission compared to that of a local theater company.

Which leads is to the potential flaw in the way accountability is being approached:  what we are accountable for and to whom?

Like Jack Nicholson testified in A Few Good Men – “you can’t handle the truth!” And in many ways, we really can’t handle the truth – the truth of the matter is that for many reasons (some legitimate and some not so legitimate) many nonprofits are not conducting efficient businesses. Consequently a great deal of the money being donated to a given charity doesn’t reach the people or cause the donor intended it to reach.

In a previous post I mentioned my displeasure with the news about the IRS attempting to “regulate” a nonprofits effectiveness and efficiency. I pointed out how ironic it is to consider the government being skilled in effectiveness, let alone efficiency. But the more I consider this topic the more I realize there is a basic flaw in the conventional thinking – and in some ways it’s a very big flaw in our approach to this topic.

The flaw is this: we are busy evaluating financial efficiency and effectiveness and making attempts to appear transparent and accountable and we have led ourselves to believe that all we need to do is do a better job explaining the way we allocate funds – AKA display our financials in a more reader-friendly format at the website; or post our 990’s and annual reports in downloadable formats; or develop internal cost saving measures; or prepare better looking pie-charts, and so on.

BUT the big thing we seem to be missing is being accountable to our mission and evaluating our effectiveness at fulfilling that mission. And answering the basic question: how many lives did I impact, and what was the extent of that impact, with the funds I have been entrusted?

Shouldn’t we truly be measured by how we fulfill our mission and the lives impacted through that mission? And not on our ratio of administrative and fundraising costs compared to “program” costs which are very, very subjective in many ways.

If we say we are going to build 100 water wells we better build 100 water wells and nothing less. We should do what we say we are going to do.

The bottom-line: a nonprofit can look good on paper and have a stellar Charity Navigator rating and even carry the BBB seal of approval but may be totally inept at fulfilling its mission. Some of the most revered charities in history look good on paper, have had incredible brand recognition, a perceived aura of honesty and accountability – but as we all know looks can be deceiving.