Accountability has become a focus for all organisations, whatever sector they operate in. For the social impact sector, the demand for greater accountability has never been higher.
What should this accountability look like? Is ticking the boxes on policies and procedures really enough, or should we expect more from organisations that exist to make people lives better?
I think we should, if we are going to encourage other sectors to be more accountable, we need to lead the way.
Currently we see a very flexible approach to accountability that reflects the “nice guys” image social impact organisations have. It undermines the professionalism, complexity and impact of the work they do.
For many, not delivering on objectives is explained by a myriad of excuses. Worst amongst these is that the approved project plan meant that there was little or no flexibility to change, even when it was known that the project wasn’t delivering. It is considered better to deliver to the plan approved by the funder than admit things aren’t working and change.
In many respects this is driven by power imbalances across the delivery chain, with funders holding the most power and local implementers the least. The big iNGO in the middle only holds a little less than the funder.
What if a different approach to accountability was used? What if we held each other accountable for the impact we want, not the inputs and project plan? What if we gave the local communities projects are delivered in a greater say in whether or not a project was successful?
Secondly, social impact organisations talk accountability, but demonstrate leniency. We are surprised how often behavior that is described by iCSO leaders as unacceptable has been left unchallenged and without consequences. The willingness to really hold people accountable for delivery is often reduced by the preference to be the “nice guys”.
It could be argued that by doing this they are accepting reduced impact and poor behaviour. Is this really the message they want to deliver communities, that average delivery is OK for them? Is it OK to hide behind the idea that good work is being done when not addressing bad behaviour?
Instead, imagine if the impact expectations were agreed up front and progress towards them was regularly reviewed with the local community, making adjustments in an agile way to improve impact.
And what if colleagues and partners determined if the behaviour of staff at all levels was appropriate, and had an easy to use, safe process for reporting issues. This would encourage accountability, and build the relationship and trust between all stakeholders.
Ultimately, accountability is not just a measurement process, it is a culture trait that defines organisations. Unless accountability practices are aligned with the desired culture, the risk that these processes will undermine the culture are very real.
Understanding the approach to accountability in an organisation starts with a culture discussion.
Understanding how accountability is perceived and the affect it has on daily actions enables gaps to be identified and closed, and for accountability to become a part of the culture of the organisation.