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

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51 thoughts on “Why we should rethink Accountability as an organizational and societal value

  1. Regina Podhorin-Zilinski

    I believe accountability has developed a bad reputation in the nonprofit world because it is viewed as hierarchical and external. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being accountable to those you serve, the community at large, donors, funders etc. I think the central point is that this “external” accountability is never sufficient or sustainable. Without integrity and responsibility we can cook the numbers or take the easy way out (we’ll just serve those who have a better chance of success). Bottom line is that I agree with you but would not throw out accountability so quickly. It’s a “yes, and” not a “yes, but” situation.

  2. Debbie Duncan

    Reasonable review, taking stock, evaluation and planning based on evidence and projection should keep an organization nimble and focused. To my mind the most important result – say,of an employee evaluation – is the communication: clarifying expectations: comparing perceptions of the work and performance; review of the job scope and associated tasks, skills & resources required; and the opportunity to plan both organizational AND career development (i.e. for the organization and the the individual employee). A culture of responsibility and integrity go a long way toward making this communication be a part of regular operations, but we are also dealing with individuals some well-suited to the climate and some not. Being a wise manager requires sensibility to the complex array of factors and keeping this communication of going constantly is easier said than done.

    Evaluation and monitoring are essential to keep on track and maintain high efficiency. Accountability may be interpreted as the external expression of these functions?

    I TOTALLY agree with your identification of the punitive aspect of granting or withholding funding! It is so senseless and destructive, yet I have seen it used over and over again. It is, in my mind, a tactic of oppression. Tthe relationship between funder and non-profit needs to be one of partnership and engagement in the mission, not a power play!

    One model I found inspiring – but somewhat time consuming – is to start every year off by burning the mission statement and plan for the previous year and taking a couple days to start from scratch. What is our mission and how will we accomplish it? This engenders clear goals, staff cohesion and fresh enthusiasm. ​

  3. Ashley Fontaine

    I agree on most of this- though I don’t think accountability should go away altogether, I view it less as an organizational value and more as a professional expectation. Like punctuality: professionally expected of staff, but I wouldn’t put “punctuality” on our values sheet.

    I don’t think performance evaluation should go away. However I propose a complete renovation of the scary, un-fun sounding “performance evaluation”. When I meet with my staff I don’t focus on what has gone poorly, but rather on their goals and hopes for the coming year. Together we operationalize those things and they then have both the buy in and the autonomy to create and accomplish in their own ways. The question becomes not how did you “perform” but how can I support you in reaching these goals? If they’re not where we want them yet, what can we change together? We do something called a Snapshot together that creates a dialogue instead of just an arbitrary scoring system.

    1. Vu Le

      Ashley, I agree with you that accountability can serve as a professional expectation. Punctuality, follow-through, etc., those are all good ones. Values, I think, should be more aspirational. I like your performance eval system, though I don’t like the term “evaluation.” What you describe is more like “ongoing support” and just being an awesome boss, and is way more effective.

  4. ak_laura

    I agree with you. I like the “doing things because it’s the right thing to do” – when I’m asked why I do what I do at our nonprofit, it’s what I say. I also like how you supervise, it is similar to my own beliefs – if you ever have an opening let me know 😉 Keep up the good writing!

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks ak_laura. I think the world would be better if people focus on doing the right things more often, vs. just doing things right, aka, “minimize liabilities.”

  5. skyeschell

    Excellent thoughts. I do like accountability though in one context: holding elected representatives and public officials accountable to the represented (all of us). Both nationally and locally. This also can be done as a once-every-four-years performance evaluation (vote) or through the more frequent checkins you mention.

    On that note, I do actually like regular “performance evals,” either quarterly or yearly; mostly as a staff member and also when in a supervisor role. I especially like them when they involve a “360” of both internal and external peers. Especially as organizations get larger, it’s very helpful to hear how supervisors are doing from those they are supervising, in a safe way.

    Doing things right vs doing the right thing… that’s tough, since America is so full of lawyers and lawsuits. You did the right thing with the kids on the cold rainy night… and also got lucky. (Good karma?) Had someone crashed into your car though, you could have been sued and the organization shut down… and then the kids would have been in trouble too. This is why I like having board members who think about liability 🙂

    1. Vu Le

      Skye, if more elected officials stuck to values of responsibility and integrity, we probably don’t have to hold them accountable as often.

      As for doing the right thing, I think it’s just sad that our society has become so litigious that we have to think twice and consult a lawyer before doing the right things. We’ve had kindergarteners at some schools in Southeast Seattle who have to walk home because buses have been cut. Several were almost lured into a stranger’s car a few weeks ago. When they refused, he took out a gun and SHOT AT THEM! It’s disturbing to think kids could get kidnapped or shot because I was doing “things right” by refusing to give them a ride based on liabilities. Even if my organization didn’t suffer any damage if bad things happen, I am not sure I can live with my conscience.

  6. mbutown

    The reality is that most of us got into non-profit world because we thought we could run faster, leap higher, network better to bring good things to people who didn’t have them. In small shops, staff are doing double, triple, quadruple the work of their counterparts and their time is incredibly valuable. It is counterproductive to ask them to wedge out some of that valuable time for a performance review. “Sure Mr. E.D. would you prefer I put aside a quarterly ask, the annual event or stop writing this grant so you can decide if I’m working hard enough?” If I could have squeezed my fingers into the 3 hole punch to avoid answering the idiotic questions on a review I would have, but they were too swollen from when I dropped a stack of chairs on them while setting up for a Fundraising Committee meeting. I think you get my point.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, mbutown. I think “ongoing support and teamwork” should replace “performance evaluation.” I’ve just seen evaluations done so wrong and end up destroying morale so often.

  7. Devra Thomas

    You’ve read Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager series, yes? This post puts me in mind of that book series.

  8. Chris Galvin

    I rank accountability with metrics. Folks sound like they are doing an outstanding job when they count stuff.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Chris. Yeah, that seems to be what accountability has become about. I’m working on a post on the inequity of this fixation on “data”

  9. Lea Johnson

    A. completely agree!
    However, I don’t believe that responsibility will always trigger accountability. In some cases it does, but in successful cases, typically responsibility is paired with a self-starting and driven person. I’ve seen new hires get loaded with new and unshared responsibilities that has damaged client relationships and the new hire’s view of the organization. With too many demands to meet and too little guidance, this is a recipe for pushing a bigger and messier responsibility onto someone else’s plate down the road when the disillusioned new hire leaves.

    1. Vu Le

      Leah, I think your comment points out two different definition of responsibility. One is a task (“your responsibility is to do case management for 50 clients”) and one is a value (“it is our responsibility to ensure our kids have bright futures, our natural environment is preserved for future generations, our community thrives, etc.”). tasks won’t necessarily trigger accountability, but I think the the value of responsibility will

  10. Bob McNeil

    I totally agree! Unfortunately, a lot of leaders, directors and managers heavily rely on their authority rather than leadership skills to support responsibility and integrity. Most nonprofits don’t pay for leadership development of their management teams, so those who’ve moved into leadership positions aren’t yet skilled with how to coach. Because of this I created a deck of cards to help leaders grow their skill…unfortunately “accountability” is in the title because it is what people recognize; however, when people learn how to use provocative questions-at the right moment-responsibility, ownership and forward movement happens with integrity. Check out these “Planning with Accountability” shift decks at http://www.ShiftingNorms.net/shift-decks to grow your leadership skills.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Bob, for pointing out this weakness, and for creating a solution. Training managers to be better coaches/leaders would advance our field greatly

    2. Al Errington

      Like the deck Bob, leadership training is so important. My only comment is about accountability philosophy. Accountability, and the application of accountability, is a responsibility, not a weapon.

  11. Courtney Workman

    I’m commenting A! When I first started reading this I thought maybe you’ve gone a bit too far. Are you trying to alienate investors/funders by rebuking Accountability? But your description of Responsibility and Integrity resonates much more with me. I’ve been trying to succinctly describe the thing sucking the life out of nonprofit service – and accountability may be it! I should add that my Gallup StrengthsFinder analysis identified as my primary and resounding strength – RESPONSIBILITY.

    1. Al Errington

      Courtney, it is not accountability that sucks the life out of non-profits, it is bad governance. Part of bad governance is misapplied accountability along with other symptoms of bad governance such as unclear and ineffective delegation, confusion about roles and responsibilities, lack of focus, lack of effective planning etc.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Karen. “Evaluation” as we know it can go wrong in so many ways. It has been a sore spot for many of my colleagues. I’ll think on this further and write about it later, after “10 rules for dating in the nonprofit field.”

  12. Al Errington

    I thoroughly disagree. And I doubt that the Finns don’t have a word or concept of accountability. They do fire people in Finland and they do arrest people in Finland.
    The problem with accountability is abuse. Accountability is not control. Applying draconian policies and micro-managing is control, not applying accountability.

    1. Vu Le

      Al, I am sure the Finns have punishment and consequences. And I think they are necesssary. But organizational values should be things we aspire toward. Do we want our value to be “we will all always do the right things and always have integrity in our work” or do we want it to be “when any of us screw up, we will be sure that punishment is exacted”?

      1. Al Errington

        I can’t disagree strongly enough Vu Le. You are making the assumption that accountability is bad because some people apply accountability stupidly. Employees etc, who make significant mistakes need to have some type of repercussions, if for no other reason than to be fair to your other employees etc. And people learn best from the mistakes they pay for themselves. Repercussions for poor performance do not have to be draconian, but they need to send a message that poor performance has negative repercussions and the coinciding message needs to be that good performance is rewarded.
        And responsibility is not interchangeable with accountability. Responsibility is what you delegate, accountability is applied to the person being delegated to. re: You delegate a responsibility clearly, effectively and accountably.
        Also, accountability is a legal duty of Board’s of Directors. Boards have a legal duty of due diligence. Board’s have a legal duty to ensure that the business or organization they are responsible for overseeing is being operated effectively and ethically. And if it is not, they have the duty to make sure corrective action is taken up to and including termination.
        Again, you are assuming that just because some people apply accountability very badly, that accountability is bad. Accountability is only good or bad in how it is applied, and perhaps the worst accountability, is applying no accountability at all.

  13. Kenneth Foster

    Did you read my mind on this? I couldn’t agree more! Like so many of your posts, you raise what are actually real values issues, not just “management” issues. This one coheres with your recent post about restricted funding and how Foundations, which don’t seem to trust that nonprofits will behave in a responsible way, substitute their restrictive parameters as a way to insure “accountability.” Ditto the lengthy and complex grant application forms. And like the sheep that we too often are, we go along. Complaining all the way. Leadership nonprofit organizations should take a proactive stance on this, calling out what’s really going on when accountability is thrown around as an expectation, and insist on substituting, as you suggest, responsibility and integrity. Those are the core values that really matter.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Kenneth. We really need to shift values in the sector. There is such a lack of trust between funders and nonprofits, and a lack of collaboration/community between them. These are values we need to push for if our sector will be able to tackle the growing problems in the world.

  14. verucaamish

    I’m hesitant to adopt an internalized value system as a way to hold ourselves to a standard. I’ve seen far too many nonprofit leaders invested in their own vision without being able to get a check from others. I’m clearly speaking form a different position as I’ve been through choice and circumstance, program focused as opposed to organization focused. But I’ll give you an example where someone had not external checks. A friend of my husband got married. Noone liked her fiancé so she got more and more internal about the wedding planning. She didn’t run anything by anyone. Noone was there to say, “umm…a backyard wedding in Texas in July, OUTDOORS????” In the end the wedding as as big a disaster as one could imagine. I got roped into helping because one of the helpers burst into tears because she was never told where anything went. The evening ended when an elderly man tripped on a wineglass, fell, and landed face first into the shards of said wineglass. I planned my own wedding. I had two highly competent friends check me every step of the way – no, we cannot expect people to have the small glass throughout the entire night so suck it up and pay for three glasses per person. I may be completely misreading your distinctions so feel free to correct me.

    1. Vu Le

      I think responsibility and integrity would have been great values in the examples you gave: Your friend was responsible for seeking outside feedback, and should have the integrity to realize when she is wrong is when she has made a mistake. Being responsible and focusing on integrity doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t get external assistance and feedback and even consequences. It’s just a matter of what we value more: All of us intrinsically doing the right things–including admitting to our own failures and learning from them–or all of us who do the wrong things getting our punishment.

      I hope the elderly man is OK now 🙁

  15. Mat Despard

    I relate Vu’s take on accountability vs. responsibility to the distinction between evaluation and organizational learning, including the external-internal distinction others have noted. Accountability is fine, but it is routinely misapplied both in terms of process and content. I think Vu’s disdain for performance evaluation is an example. But what if we used performance evaluation as a way to assess mutual and self accountability? My accountability to strive to meet my work goals, your accountability for giving me the support and resources to do so. Our accountability as an organization to uphold our values. In terms of content, what about being accountable for being caring, compassionate, curious, and supportive of your colleagues? For developing new skills? Rather than, did you always submit your reports on time, show up on time. etc. At the organizational level. I hope funders can focus their accountability interests on the progress the nonprofit is making in understanding and addressing social problems, building community, and upholding its own values. And nonprofits should hold funders accountable for not making their work in solving community problems any harder than it already is (e.g., via time limited restricted, and below-cost funding coupled with unreasonable impact demands).

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Mat. I think what you’re describing would change the definition of accountability as we are currently applying it. And I think that would be great. But all those things you mentioned would still make sense if we replace the word “accountability” with “responsibility” or “integrity.” “My responsibility to strive to meet my work goals, your responsibility for giving me the support and resources to do so. Our integrity as
      an organization to uphold our values. In terms of content, what about
      being responsible for being caring, compassionate, curious, and
      supportive of your colleagues?” Accountability, currently, to me, conjures “we will punish those who don’t follow the above.”

  16. Alaina

    I’m curious if you’ve heard of Results Based Accountability? If so, what are your thoughts on that method?

  17. Sue Hine

    Yes! Right on! I was exclaiming out loud as I read through your arguments. I cringe every time I hear “must be held accountable for his/her actions” – like a public hanging is the answer. It’s another example of how we abuse the meaning of words. Yes, there is a place for ‘accountability’, but surely responsibility and integrity go with its application.

  18. drfinlay

    According to a Finn of my acquaintance the Finnish word for accountability is “tilivelvollinen”.

  19. Karen Miskell

    I absolutely couldn’t agree more that “accountability” has
    become a poison in most current organizations. I was a teacher in a public
    school system for six years and the “accountability” we had to live up to
    crushed any type of organic growth and learning. Students essentially only
    either pass or fail with prescribed standardized tests and “methods” of
    learning, often through no fault of their own. I saw good teachers leave or get
    let go while bad teachers were continually held on to since they managed to appear
    in good standings (according to district evaluations that were given by
    supervisors who had no experience in the field they were evaluating). Whether
    in schools or in any business/organization, motivation to do well has to be
    intrinsic in order to have solid growth and development. What scares me,
    however, is this growing sentiment of entitlement – I’m not sure intrinsic
    accountability (responsibility and integrity) is possible with those who’ve
    never been told no, who’ve never experienced and bounced back from failures, or
    who don’t understand the concept of working hard to earn
    opportunities/advancements. I would LOVE to work/teach in a place where, as you mentioned, no one is micromanaged or given performance evaluations, but instead provided immediate and continuous
    feedback while still expected to do the work independently. I think students
    (or anyone for that matter) would THRIVE in that type of environment. But at
    some point, there will be a time where someone isn’t cutting it and has to be
    let go, or not allowed to continue with whatever is happening, or just plain
    fails. In the way things are currently structured (generally speaking), the
    entitled majority fight any form of failure or being told no by running home to
    mom and dad, or calling lawyers, or filing some kind of complaint because there
    is literally no concept of ownership of ones actions. The boss is to blame, the
    teacher doesn’t like you, the work is unfair, etc. I realize I speak only from
    my limited experience (which has been primarily education based), but I’ve seen
    it happen often and at all levels. Someone is always to blame and it’s always
    an extrinsic source. The crappy forms of “accountability” are the only ways to
    CYA (cover your a–). As much as I disagree with and hate them, I understand
    why they exist. Replacing accountability with intrinsic responsibility and integrity is with out a doubt
    the way to go. But I worry that with out a societal change in mindset and
    people teaching instilling all that in their children from an early age, we’ll
    be trapped in these archaic forms of accountability…

  20. Patrick Taylor

    I agree and I disagree.

    At my day job we pounded our heads against the wall about “accountability” until we reframed it from a more systems-centric report. At the board I volunteer on, we’ve been struggling with how to hold the board “accountable” to our duties. In both cases, what we are really talking about is being clear about our responsibilities, expectations and deliverables, making sure there are tools to help us succeed, and making sure that if people are not meeting their responsibilities there is support and, if they consistently fail to meet responsibilities, consequences. There is a punitive angle to “accountability,” that assumes the employee is messing up. It also puts the onus on the accountable one to prove they are doing their job, rather than on the manager to provide guidance on how to succeed and help, you know, manage the employee if they aren’t succeeding.

    Where I disagree is that “accountability” is wholly useless as a concept,and not as a synonym for “responsibility.” Having clear guidelines and deliverables is often very helpful, provided they are not too onerous to meet and compliment or aid in the work rather than distract from it. and people like this kind of accountability – knowing what they need to do, what expectations there are, and what happens if those expectations aren’t met. I worked somewhere with very little structure, and it drove employees crazy – no one wants to have to constantly reinvent the wheel or guess what they should be doing for their non-standard tasks, and no one likes it when there is no mechanism to flag who is slacking and who is going above and beyond. Accountability in terms of making sure an employee is meeting set deliverables can be helpful. And having gone from a yearly performance eval to a more nebulous annual development conversation, I much prefer the annual performance eval, where i have a set list of metrics me and my manager hold me accountable to and can measure me against, rather than a touchy-feely meeting that is so nebulous and vague that it ends up not producing any tangible results, if it ever even gets scheduled. I am much more likely to complete a task, and especially a task outside my day-to-day work, if I know that I am going to have to report out on it or be held accountable to doing it in some way.

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