Stop Sign: Focusing Boards on Accountability for the Money

Question: If this is the sector that was supposed to change the world, how come the world has not changed? And how can we then change the sector, to change the world? Those questions have been at the core of our work for 10 years now.

That work has led us to uncover layer upon layer of what isn’t working and why. How can we develop practical means for creating visionary change? Every time an answer seemed apparent, it only led to another layer. But 10 years of researching and analyzing have led to some pretty concrete discoveries, and we are excited to share those with you!

These days I am spending more time writing the book and doing public talks and keynotes about what we have found. And so we thought we would offer a sneak preview of all that, sort of like the movie serials my mom used to attend for a nickel when she was a kid.

And so, friends, today begins the first of a series of Stop Signs we have found – things that stop this sector from creating significant, visionary, community improvement.

As you read, however, be forewarned:
The list is not pretty. That is because it reflects the work this sector has been taught to believe is “best practice.”  After all these years of research and analysis, what we have found is that “Nonprofit Best Practices” often encourage efforts that are actually precluding our changing the world. Yes, those “best practices” actually teach us to do the wrong things (and do them very well!), and then codify those wrong things, ensuring the assumptions underlying those actions continue to go unchallenged. As you read these Stop Signs over the coming weeks, if any of them make you uncomfortable, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

For the first in this series, I thought I would start with an easy one:

STOP Sign: Focusing Boards on Accountability for the Money
Stop SignOh Enron did us dirty, it sure did, and not because Ken Lay died before he could pay for his crimes. Before Enron, boards of Community Benefit Organizations* thought their jobs were about watching the money. But after Enron, those boards now had that assumption codified in the body of Sarbanes Oxley and all the Standards of Excellence that have popped up around the issue of Accountability.

It’s not as if boards didn’t always spend far more time talking about money than they did about any other topic. But now, thanks to the Accountability Movement, they talk about it even more! Oh yeay!

So what should boards hold themselves accountable for? How about the impact they want to have in their community? How about determining how they want to measure that community impact? How about determining what that community change would look like in 5 years, in 10 years, in 50 years?

What if boards held themselves accountable for using their organization’s mission to create a better future for their communities?

As we have worked with boards around this topic, we have found something remarkable: an organization that holds itself accountable for creating significant, visionary change in its community MUST also hold itself accountable for all the means for achieving that impact. Those means include accountability for the money, but they also include holding themselves accountable for having the best staff, with the best training possible. It includes holding themselves accountable for ensuring that staff has what it needs to do the job – facilities, equipment. The list goes on.

We cannot create significant community improvement if we are holding ourselves primarily accountable for something other than that. If we don’t aim at the goal, hitting it will be a coincidence, an accident – and highly unlikely.

So what has this “accountability for the money” movement led to? Fiscally solvent organizations who are not aiming at creating significant community impact. Ask any organization, “Do you have a plan for making your community an amazing place to live?” and we will place bets on the answer.

Holding ourselves accountable for the money cannot change the world. But flip that coin over: Holding ourselves accountable for changing the world can indeed make us accountable for the money! Watching the money does not lead to an amazing future. But watching that future requires we also watch the money – and everything else. MORE accountability, BROADER accountability, more ACCURATELY AIMED accountability.

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That’s it for this week’s Stop Sign. By the time I am done, I hope you begin to see that this sector has paved the road to the future with so many Stop Signs, it is no surprise at all we have not changed the world. But there is indeed hope, and we are excited to share that as well!

So tune in next time, same Bat Time, same Bat Channel!

And in the meantime, please let me know what your experience has been in this area. What have you tried? How has it worked? If we are going to build an army for changing the world, we need everyone’s wisdom, so please join in!

* Wondering about our use of the words Community Benefit Organizations? Click here

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