Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2010

The Many Faces of Nonprofit Accountability

by Alnoor Ebrahim

Abstract

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.

Keywords: Corporate Accountability; Corporate Disclosure; Governing Rules, Regulations, and Reforms; Leadership; Mission and Purpose; Performance Evaluation; Nonprofit Organizations; Business Strategy;

Citation:

Ebrahim, Alnoor. "The Many Faces of Nonprofit Accountability." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 10-069, February 2010.