Debunking “Accountability to Donors” – Finale

We accomplish what we hold ourselves accountable for.

In wrapping up the past week’s rant about the issues related to Donor Accountability, I want to first share what triggered that rant. And then I want to share what we can do to hold ourselves accountable in a way that makes donors happy and, most importantly, makes our communities happy.

(If you have not read the posts leading up to this one, you can start at the beginning here.)

First, the trigger. It was a discussion at the always-thoughtful and thought-provoking Tactical Philanthropy blog. I appreciate Sean Stannard-Stockton for consistently raising issues that are important to the work we all do, and this was no exception.

Here was the question, from several months back: As we search for the keys to board effectiveness, should donors vote for nonprofit board members?

I won’t go into all the answers I had just to that one question – I think you all have had enough of my ranting to last quite a while!

But back to the issue of donor accountability – if demanding more donor rights is not the answer to the question of organizational effectiveness, then what is the answer?

And that answer is that we stop aiming at the symptoms, and start aiming boards at their potential. And then have them hold themselves accountable for that.

And what is that potential? It is no less than the community’s highest aspirations – the aspiration for our communities to be safe, healthy, vibrant, humane, joyful places to live.

Here’s the thing about the Donor Accountability Movement: It stems from the same frustration everyone seems to have about the work of this sector. It is the frustration reflected in the title to the book that yes, I promise, will be released this fall: Why Nonprofits / NGOs Have Not Changed the World and How They Can.

Donors and boards and everyone else want the same thing from community organizations – we want amazing places to live. To date, the systems this sector relies on fail to aim at that, and in some cases aim glaringly away from that.

But if we change both governance systems and governance culture, making it not only acceptable for boards to hold themselves accountable for creating the future of our communities, but making that the norm – then they will be accountable to their donors and everyone else.

Boards cannot accomplish “extraordinary” if they are wasteful and inefficient. And, more to the point, if boards are holding themselves accountable for creating extraordinary communities, donors will be excited and engaged, rather than critical.

Donors are a hugely important part of what makes our organizations work. They are, in fact, investing their dollars, their in-kind gifts and their time. And they are, in fact, frustrated with the fact that our communities do not seem to be dramatically changing.

Unfortunately, those advocating for donor rights are making the mistake of aiming their complaints at the money, rather than the results. But that does not invalidate their reasons for doing so. They want what we all want – better communities, and healthier organizations leading that charge.

And so, I propose the following:

If the board is holding itself first and foremost accountable for creating an amazing future for anyone whose lives are touched by the organization, and
If a board is making every single decision based on vision, mission and values, and
If that board is creating plans that aim first at the difference they want to make, and then at ensuring they have all the means to accomplish that,
Then our organizations will have far more than just happy donors.

Our organizations will have boards that are committed.

Our communities will have organizations that are energized.

And we will all have communities that are becoming all they have the potential to become.

The issue of where we aim our accountability is therefore the most important question any organization can ask. It is why I took a whole week of posts to debunk the current “wisdom” of accountability to donors. It is why I roam the country, teaching boards how highly practical and do-able it is to Govern for What Matters Most – holding themselves accountable for creating visionary change in their communities.

Thanks to you all for letting me rant this past week. In the next week or so, we will be assembling those points into a white paper. So please just let me know if you would like a copy, and we will get that to you!!

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