Why we should rethink Accountability as an organizational and societal value


white-tailed-eagle-416795_960_720Every once a while we nonprofits have a retreat to select or reevaluate organizational values. Invariably during the brainstorming, someone will scream out “Accountability!” and feel very proud for thinking up such an awesome value, and others will nod their heads in agreement. Accountability has become as American as organic gluten-free non-GMO apple pie. Which is why politicians use it all the time. If I ever decided to run for public office, my speech will probably go something like this: “Middle class! Small businesses! Patriotism! Accountability! America! Bald Eagle! Accountability! Vote for me!”

But every time I hear it, it grates on my nerves. Sure, at first it sounds great. I mean, who doesn’t like it when people do what they say they’re going to do and take the consequences for their mistakes and failures. But as we look closer, Accountability sucks as a value, and society’s focus on it has led to more bad than good. Consider:

A supervisor, in an attempt to keep everyone “accountable,” ends up micromanaging people, creating an environment where blame and punishment are the norm, not teamwork and intrinsic motivation.

A grantmaker, in an attempt to be “accountable” to donors and trustees, creates a process where the best written grants win, not necessarily the projects and communities that most need the funds and have the most long-term potential for impact.

Politicians, trying to make sure educators are “accountable,” make students spend hours taking standardized tests, even the little kindergarteners who barely know how to fill in a bubble. And then, to keep welfare recipients “accountable,” blame the poor for their conditions, and enact mind-numbingly stupid and punitive measures like removing welfare support when kids don’t get good grades. Yes, of course starving poor families will help kids do better in school.

We, the nonprofit sector, should resist falling for the Accountability siren song, because at first it sounds beautiful and sexy, but more often than not it has been a rationale to perpetuate crappy policies and systems that disproportionately affect the poor and other marginalized communities (See “Which comes first, the Equity Egg, or the Accountability Chicken?“) 

Accountability has become about assigning blame and doling out punishment, and these are not values that should drive our work. So, what values should we have in place of Accountability? I propose two: Responsibility and Integrity.

Accountability Vs. Responsibility

lost mindA couple of years ago, my partner and I became parents. Having a kid makes you think about your own death a lot, and not just when you’re trying to feed the kid (“Please. Just eat one more spoon of quinoa-pear-kale puree for Daddy…”) We started thinking about what would happen if we died unexpectedly. Who would take care of our son? Frantic, we went and bought life insurance. Then we started working on our wills.

That’s the difference between Accountability and Responsibility. One is extrinsic: We should do something because people are “holding us accountable.” The other is intrinsic: We should do something because it is our duty, and it is the right thing to do. If I’m dead, how the heck is anyone going to hold me accountable? It is responsibility for my son, not accountability to him or to society, that makes me put measures in place to ensure he has the best chance to succeed in life, even if I’m not there and don’t need to report to anyone.

This is not an original thought. It comes from Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility. As you may know, Finland’s education system ranks first in the world right now. And when you look at it, it is completely the opposite of what we are used to. There are no standardized tests, less homework, more creative play. Teachers and students are not being kept “accountable.”

“There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” said Sahlberg, “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” His argument, and Finland’s students’ performance shows, that when we instill responsibility and trust, there is no need for accountability, because people will always be motivated by their duties to do the right things. Read The Atlantic article.

While the Finnish example pertains mainly to education, I think we nonprofits can learn a lot from it. We have started buying into this concept called “Accountability.” It has led to things like nerve-wracking annual performance evaluations. These things are not necessarily bad, but often they satisfy the minimum that Accountability requires, and nothing more. Responsibility, though, is what drives people to go above and beyond. Responsibility transcends death, whether we’re talking about parents buying life insurance, or departing staff or board members putting measures in place so the program/organization can still thrive even after they leave and are no longer accountable.

Accountability Vs. Integrity

Accountability is about doing things right: Having the right data, metrics, rules, policies, and procedures in place. It protects us from liabilities. Integrity is about doing the right thing—when everyone is watching, and when no one is.

Doing things right, however, is not the same as doing the right thing. Again, this is not an original thought, but it bears being highlighted.

I remember earlier in my career when I coordinated an after-school program for low-income kids who just arrived in the US. One day, it got dark as the program ended. A storm started and freezing rain fell. Some of the students waited for the bus, but others were not on the bus routes and would have to walk home in the rain and darkness. We were still working on getting organizational insurance, so I was warned not to give rides to students. Staff and I had a dilemma: Doing things right would be to let the kids walk the two or three miles; doing the right thing would be to risk incurring liabilities by giving them rides. We decided to drive them all home that night, praying that nothing bad would happen. It was a tough choice, a calculated decision. I think when forced to choose, we should always do the right thing over doing things right.

In my nine years of being an Executive Director, I’ve given like three formal performance evaluations, and only because I was forced to. I also don’t like constantly monitoring staff performance on a regular basis and cracking down when things aren’t going well. That makes me sound like a really lazy supervisor. But I think it’s the opposite. A good supervisor will instill a vision and a sense of responsibility and integrity and community in our teams, and the belief that everyone’s work matters, and then provide constant feedback, coaching, and support, not just run through a performance evaluation form once a year. When these things are in place, there is no need to crack down on anyone; team members will naturally strive to learn and to improve. The focus on accountability often destroys supportive relationships and self-growth.


And so that’s why I think Accountability sucks. We nonprofits should not settle for a low-hanging-fruit value like Accountability, especially when it is often used unintentionally to perpetuate inequity. We should aim for values that are more aspirational of the kind of intrinsically motivated organizational culture and society we want to see, where people act not out of fear of punishment but out of a drive to build a strong and just community. Equity. Responsibility. Integrity. Community. Courage. Transformation. These values are usually harder to achieve, but they are what will move us forward as a sector and as a society. If you have Accountability among your set of values, think about what exactly you mean, and whether this is a good value to guide your organization.

What do you think? I realized that I’ve done a pretty poor job encouraging discussion on this blog. So, please let me know your thoughts in the comment section. Since everyone is so busy, you can write your own comments, or choose one of the options below:

A. Vu, you sexy vegan nonprofit unicorn, I completely agree with you!
B. Meh, Accountability, Responsibility, all same to me; it just depends on how you operationalize them
C. Did you just say you don’t believe in accountability?! What next, you don’t believe in bald eagles?! I don’t believe you love America…
D. This is the least funny post you’ve done in a while. My Monday is going to suck MORE because of this post!
E. B and D
F. All of the above

Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page and enter in your email address.