This article examines the concept of accountability from various disciplinary lenses in order to develop an integrated understanding of the term. Special attention is devoted to principal-agent perspectives from political science and economics. An integrated framework is developed, based on four central observations. (1) Accountability is relational in nature and is constructed through inter-and intraorganizational relationships. (2) Accountability is complicated by the dual role of nonprofits as both principals and agents in their relationships with other actors. (3) Characteristics of accountability necessarily vary with the type of nonprofit organization being examined. (4) Accountability operates through external as well as internal processes, such that an emphasis on external oversight and control misses other dimensions of accountability essential to nonprofit organizations. The analysis draws from the experiences of both Northern and Southern nonprofits, that is, organizations based in wealthy industrialized regions of the world (the global North) and those in economically poorer areas (the South).A S NONPROFIT and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have grown in numbers and visibility in many parts of the world over the past two decades, they have also been beset by numerous highly publicized scandals concerning accountability. Board members and key officers have been accused of wrongdoings ranging from mismanagement of resources and use of funds for personal gain to sexual misconduct and fraud. In the United States, for example, scandals have been reported at well-known organizations such as
Organizations with social missions, such as nonprofits and social enterprises, are under growing pressure to demonstrate their impacts on pressing societal problems such as global poverty. This article draws on several cases to build a performance assessment framework premised on an organization's operational mission, scale, and scope. Not all organizations should measure their long-term impact, defined as lasting changes in the lives of people and their societies. Rather, some organizations would be better off measuring shorter-term outputs or individual outcomes. Funders such as foundations and impact investors are better positioned to measure systemic impacts.
This article challenges a normative assumption about accountability in organizations: that more accountability is necessarily better. More specifically, it examines two forms of “myopia” that characterize conceptions of accountability among service-oriented nonprofit organizations: (a) accountability as a set of unconnected binary relationships rather than as a system of relations and (b) accountability as short-term and rule-following behavior rather than as a means to longer-term social change. The article explores the effects of these myopias on a central mechanism of accountability in organizations—evaluation—and proposes a broader view of accountability that includes organizational learning. Future directions for research and practice are elaborated.
This article examines accountability processes in a nonprofitN ONPROFITS HAVE HISTORICALLY operated in a sector that some have considered above criticism. Times are changing, however, and nonprofit status no longer places an organization beyond reproach. Today, nonprofit organizations are expected to incorporate multiple systems of accountability that identify outcomes and demonstrate transparency in financing and decision making. Accordingly, scholars have noted a growing attention in the sector toward increased reporting, auditing, and monitoring activities (Edwards and Hulme, 1996b;Kearns, 1996;Najam, 1996). These mechanisms are generally put into place to provide accountability to funders, donors, and oversight agencies. Two fundamental questions remain: Does this added attention to upward accountability enhance organizational mission, and how do practitioners maintain their focus on mission in the face of stringent reporting demands? The research literature suggests that upward
What does it mean for a nonprofit organization to be accountable? Nonprofit leaders tend to pay attention to accountability once a problem of trust arises -a scandal in the sector or in their own organization, questions from citizens or donors who want to know if their money is being well spent, or pressure from regulators to demonstrate that they are serving a public purpose and thus merit tax-exempt status. Amid this clamor for accountability, it is tempting to accept the popular view that more accountability is better. But is it feasible, or even desirable, for nonprofit organizations to be accountable to everyone for everything? The challenge for leadership and management is to prioritize among competing accountability demands. This involves deciding both to whom and for what they owe accountability. This paper provides an overview of the accountability pressures facing nonprofit leaders, and examines several mechanisms available to them: disclosures, performance evaluations, self-regulation, participation, and adaptive learning.Nonprofit leaders must adapt any such mechanisms to suit their organization -be it a membership-based organization, a service-delivery nonprofit, or an advocacy network. More crucially, they need to pay greater attention to strategy-driven forms of accountability that can help them to achieve their missions.1 This paper is a preprint draft of a chapter accepted for publication in the Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management (Third Edition, 2010). It is a much expanded and revised version of an entry that was first published in the International Encyclopedia of Civil Society (Ebrahim, 2010).
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