In my previous posts I have looked in detail at some finance matters, whether on the level of bookkeeping, finance management or policy development or something in between. But this week, on the threshold to a new decade and living in a spirit of looking back as well as ahead, I want to share my thoughts on accountability with you.
In the not-for-profit sector accountability is sometimes perceived as a necessary evil. It is associated with auditors and donors, with requirements of external parties that go beyond the reasonable. It seems accountability is about having your paperwork in order; having all the reports ticked off and your invoices and receipts archived properly. It is often about keeping up appearances toward people you have no real loving connection to.
Accountability is a way of life
For me, accountability is something we should all practice, daily, in all our ‘transactions’. It is a way of living. We make plans and promises every day, to ourselves, our families and friends, our colleagues and bosses, funders and shareholders…. Accountability is nothing more than making clear what happened to these plans and promises and why. Reflecting on this, exchanging thoughts about this and analyzing this is a sure way of moving forward, and bringing plans and promises closer to achievement.
What does accountability look like?
Accountability starts with being clear: what am I planning to do, how, with whom, for what amount of money, when will I be finished, and what will the situation be once I am done – what will I have achieved (and how can I visualise that, what does it look like concretely). It is not only about being clear in your plans, before you start your activity whatever it is, but also about being clear in how you will show progress of each step of the way against the plan and about how you will communicate this toward all stakeholders.
That is much more than just ticking off a report as done. It is about being sure you convey clear, understandable and honest information and a thorough analysis based on facts, data and stories – in whatever shape or form. The reader or viewer should have a chance of ‘getting it’, of understanding what happened, what went well and what did not go well, and why. (You could call that true transparency). They should be able to assess the value of what was done and form their own opinion about it. They should be able to comprehend your next steps toward the bigger picture, especially if they, as stakeholder, are somehow part of that bigger picture.
Not-for-profit organisations have many more stakeholders in this kind of accountability than just donors and auditors. What about the people the organization works with and serves? What about their families? What about the wider community in which the targeted people live and work? What about the authorities in charge of and responsible for these communities? Not-for-profit impact is often much broader than just the people involved in the activities themselves.
At the same time, the organization should be accountable to itself too. The people who volunteer or work for it should have all information to be able to assess the work done, to reflect on it and learn from this with a view to constantly improving performance toward the mission. This accountability is not just from management to staff and volunteers but also from each team member to their colleagues. Have I delivered properly and did that have the desired and needed result and impact? If not, what can I change to better contribute to our work and the greater good we aspire to via our mission?
Responsibility and ownership travel hand in hand with accountability
Accountability is not easy, even if you can make it a way of life. Because it means you need to be clear, data driven (I view stories as a type of data) and brutally honest. With yourself first of all, and then toward all other stakeholders involved in your activity. In my experience, true openness and honesty incite respect and acknowledgement. And quite possibly lead to more support rather than less, even if you have not managed to deliver on all of your plans and promises 100%.
As the starting point lies in your plans and promises and dreams, accountability is not about external factors or third parties and how they messed up everything. After all, when you clearly defined your plans, you were well aware there was an outside world, and you should have taken that into account before you started planning, promising and dreaming. Thus, it follows that the only one to blame when the outside world throws a spanner in your wheel is you – for not making the correct assessment at the start. (this does not mean, of course, that you cannot hold others accountable for not delivering on what they promised – I merely want to point out that true accountability focuses on your own ownership of your plans, promises and dreams as this is the only element you can control yourself).
It may seem that this way of living accountability is far removed from everything I wrote about before, and everything it seems to be perceived as. That is not really the case though. Donors and auditors are important partners in accountability, as they can help you keep on track of your plans, promises and dreams. You might view their requirements (quarterly reports, underlying documentation for expenses reported, etc.) as tools to help you practice accountability.
The same way, you could say that all I wrote about before (understanding your finances, having correct balance account positions, developing a policy for per diems, etc.) is just a concretization of devising a clear approach for your plans and ensuring clear communication during and after implementation. After all, having your bookkeeping in order will make it easier for you to extract data to share in reports and graphs. Having a per diem policy will make it easier to prepare your plans (and budgets) and to be transparent about how you work. (These are just some examples I wrote about.) The point is that for accountability to become a way of life you need to make it easy for yourself to comply. Daily routines, systems and policies are helpful tools in this. And that is why I will continue to write about all the (little and not so little) improvements you can implement to pave the way toward easy accountability towards all of your stakeholders.
People who do not have too many colleagues they can exchange with sometimes organize accountability partners for themselves. I, for example, have an accountability partner with whom I share weekly plans and reflections on the plans I made for the previous week. For me this works very well because it becomes a routine to take time to look back and ahead. I feel it improves my productivity and impact a lot.