Understanding to Whom and to What Nonprofits are Accountable

The public expects that nonprofits will be accountable for achieving some public good. But who should judge that achievement? That’s another way of asking: to whom should nonprofits be accountable? You may instinctively think that they are accountable to their beneficiaries, while someone else may think more about the donors, the volunteers, the public-at-large, or the organization’s defined purpose. Nonprofit leaders should be aware of these divergent meanings of accountability, so that they can confront and manage them. Helpfully, researchers have provided new ways of understanding the multiple meanings of accountability.

Once recent study demonstrates the difficulties when board members understand accountability differently. University of London researchers followed a national governing body of sport, which highly depended upon a single, governmental funder, Sport England. Board members—in apparent agreement—discussed their accountability to “sport,” but this shared language masked an important difference: some meant “sport” as being accountable to Sport England, whereas others meant this as being accountable to a more diffuse idea of the organization’s vision and mission around sport. This tension hampered the ability of the organization to put into practice a coherent and shared sense of accountability.

The board may have benefitted from familiarity with the ways that researchers have pulled apart the idea of accountability. Particularly helpful here are the two types of accountability underscored in a study of sixteen Canadian nonprofits. The authors described the divide they observed as the difference between accountability to resource suppliers, such as donors, staff, and volunteers (“instrumental accountability”) versus accountability to organizational mission, the community, and beneficiaries (“expressive accountability”). Instrumental accountability is practical and resource-seeking. On the other hand, expressive accountability is value-oriented and resource-consuming. Each type of accountability is valid and valuable, but unless the organization’s leaders recognize how individuals are relying on different types of accountability to rationalize their decisions, it will be difficult to come to any consensus on major decisions.

To include both types of accountability in the organization’s decision-making, there may be a need to privilege expressive accountability. This is because of the tendency to defer to instrumental accountability. Resource providers—donors, staff, volunteers—can demand accountability by giving or withholding their money, time, or effort. On the other hand, accountability to the organization’s values—articulated in the organization’s commitment to its mission or in how it seeks to benefit the community—is not enforced by anyone but the organization itself. Consequently, when the Canadian organizations had to balance instrumental and expressive accountability, it was more likely that the expressive accountability would be “traded off.” Likewise, when the UK sport body tried to construct a broad sense of accountability, it found itself still focused on and deferring to the funder.

Appreciating the multiple types of accountability described here leads to a few lessons. First, organization leaders should not assume that everyone understands “accountability” in the same way; consequently, those differences should be made explicit so that everyone understands each other. Second, leaders must consciously give focus to expressive accountability or else risk it being lost. For instance, while reports and program evaluations may be regular forms of instrumental accountability, the organization should consider how it can measure expressive accountability. Likewise, while board recruitment and composition may reflect the need to be responsive to resource suppliers (e.g., by including major funders or people who can speak to the desires of government agencies), the organization should consider how it incorporates fidelity to its mission, purpose, and community in its board representation. Accountability is a complex and multi-faceted responsibility, but one that modern nonprofits must understand and embrace.