Words That Count

What does it mean to be accountable?

I was asked this question in the context of my consultancy, but the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to realise how apt it is for our sector. Especially now, as the dust of lockdown settles and the reality of the impact of Covid-19 begins to sink in.

So, what does it mean? Perhaps we could substitute a word with similar meaning – responsibility.

To me, it means owning our actions … and sometimes owning up to our inaction. For too many years, the non-profit sector in South Africa was not really held accountable, particularly when it came to accounting for the investments made in the societal change they promised.

This was perpetuated throughout the dark years of apartheid. Such was the empathy for the plight of South Africans of colour that funding flowed into organisations fighting the nationalist government on many fronts. From literally fighting the armed forces of the country to supporting the health, education and even nutrition of the many people confined to townships and informal settlements under this repressive regime.

Post-1994, there was an air of optimism – Madiba Magic had averted a civil war, and the goodwill generated for his rainbow nation from the international community was unprecedented. Along with the financial support. There was no need to be too concerned about accounting for one’s actions, there were so many pots of money available that if an organisation fell out with a donor, they simply moved on to the next one.

Non-profit organisations have proliferated – today, there are almost 230,000 on the government’s NPO registry. Far too many for a country of our size. But it couldn’t last. From the late 1990s, the storm clouds gathered around the rainbow nation and other global priorities beckoned. Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Floods. Droughts. Wars. The refugee crisis.

It has become more and more of a competition to catch the attention of a donor for long enough to convince them of the change your organisation claims to bring about. But nobody addressed the elephant in the room – what did you do with the money we gave you before?

And right now, I need to stop and share a caveat – this is a generalisation. There are some South African organisations that are flourishing and one of the reasons that they are is that they are accountable to all of their constituencies.

But more about that later. Back to the problem at hand. Too many non-profits. Not enough money. International pressure to support different causes. No longer sexy. The problems abound.

And the biggest challenge we have ever faced – COVID-19.

Coronavirus is cutting a swathe through the global population but its impact on the non-profit sector is going to be even worse. Organisations are going to close because while the need continues to grow, there is simply not enough funding to go ‘round.

So, who will the survivors be? It’s simple – the organisations to weather this storm are accountable. Donors, beneficiaries, governing boards … they are all educated through a clearly articulated communication strategy that shares the big goal and identifies the steps to be taken towards it. Then they disseminate their progress towards that goal. Clearly, simply, cleverly … and with integrity. Integrity is a critical element of accountability – you know, doing the right thing, even when nobody is looking.

But the bottom line is that we all need to be accountable to our constituencies. Create honest, open lines of communication. Admit when we are wrong. Celebrate when things work out. But take responsibility for your actions and those of your organisation. It’s the right thing to do.

It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.