Accountability is a funny thing in philanthropy. For most funders, it’s self-driven. Therefore, it’s a matter of conscience-the territory of values, emotions, and vision. But accountability in the field is frequently discussed in terms of data and evaluation: “Using data to hold ourselves accountable.”
There are two problems here: One is that evaluation is not only about accountability, but just as importantly about learning and improvement. The other is that self-driven accountability won’t come just from facts and figures. The data don’t speak for themselves. “No stories without data, no data without stories.”
These and related ideas wove through and emerged from Saturday’s global philanthropy preconference session here in Chicago. And the content and tone of the dialogue serve as a harbinger of what’s to come for U.S. philanthropy. So listen up, “domestic” funders!
The “aid effectiveness debate” and a simultaneous push for more impact evaluation in international development have brought the practices of international funders–both government and private-under increased scrutiny. One of Saturday’s speakers talked about the rise of an “accountability class,” a cadre of organizations like MoveOn that has emerged to hold those in power more accountable to the people. In the global funding world, this takes the form of questioning the value of evaluation practices that don’t draw on local knowledge, and of development practices that don’t build local capacity. (The new president of the World Bank recently talked about improving “the science of delivery”-which, to one panelist’s mind, presumes an external expert coming in to save the day.)
In the global context, the debate is conducted across national lines. “Experts” from the global North are chastised for not tapping local knowledge or building local capacity in the global South. In the United States, the borders separating the actors in a parallel debate are not as sharply demarcated, and therefore not as contentious or fraught-yet. But they will be, particularly with the rise of the accountability class.
Shouldn’t we all join the accountability class, and do a better job holding ourselves and our institutions accountable for responsiveness to communities and mission effectiveness?
Some thoughts emerged from Saturday’s session about how to get there. Jacob Harold, the new CEO of Guidestar, pointed out in his talk that “society gathers data faster than it gathers information, faster than it gathers knowledge, faster than it gathers wisdom.” If accountability creates pressure, it should be the pressure to get to wisdom urgently. And guess what? Including the voices of those directly affected by the work is a great way to get there. Adele Simmons, former head of the MacArthur Foundation, pointed out how its trustees quickly revised their assumptions about what success looks like after doing a series of site visits to villages where the foundation’s grantees were working. Sometimes making that connection directly can accelerate the development of wisdom.
How do you hold yourself accountable for your mission?
Chris Cardona is associate director of philanthropy at TCC Group.