Illustration generated by DALL·E
The Trust Barometer 2021 Global Report reports that businesses are now the only institution trusted by the public, not nonprofits. Reading Tory Martin’s ideas for rebuilding public trust through participation and transparency led me to explore how nonprofits can rebuild public trust through accountability to beneficiaries. Accountability to beneficiaries and their communities, or downward accountability, involves voluntarily opening your organization up to scrutiny by those you serve.
The use of downward accountability mechanisms is growing. Similarly, the concept of empowering beneficiaries and a rights-based approach to development have become more widely used and accepted. Many in the sector may agree with the concept of downward accountability but struggle to effectively put it into practice. Nonprofit leaders frequently named beneficiaries as stakeholders that their organizations are accountable to, but lacked accountability mechanisms that matched their verbal commitments.
Here are a few practical recommendations to implement downward mechanisms (utilizing an ombudsperson, social auditing, participation, etc.) well, and build public trust in the process.
Examine current practices
Many beneficiaries are unaware of existing mechanisms designed to give them a voice and a platform. Don’t make this simple mistake! Tell beneficiaries about mechanisms already in place and share your existing evaluation reports with beneficiaries. Also, make sure your mechanisms align with the nature of your relationships with beneficiaries (short-term vs. long-term).
Change the power dynamic through participation
Without addressing unequal power relations, participation won’t lead to effective downward accountability. Adjust the power asymmetry in your relationships by welcoming criticism, and then use it constructively. Support beneficiaries in participation according to their goals, not yours! Participation is a spectrum with some levels being deep in ownership while others feel more like a sham.
Learn from beneficiaries and peers
Beneficiaries have rated organizational effectiveness lower than the staff, managers, or board members. Prepare to learn from beneficiaries and put new information to use in decision-making. Consider forming peer accountability groups with other nonprofits to learn from organizations with strengths in various accountability relationships.
Prioritize internal accountability and training field staff
Emphasizing internal accountability (to the mission, core values, etc.) has been shown to increase in downward accountability. Meanwhile, an overemphasis on upward accountability can lead to mission creep and losing touch with beneficiaries’ needs. The effectiveness of your downward accountability mechanisms may depend not only on how empathetic your field staff is, but also how well they prepare beneficiaries to engage with the issues covered.
Encourage reciprocal donor communication
Managing multiple accountability relationships is a balancing act. Donors should set an example of voluntarily opening themselves up to feedback. Donors can also make upward mechanisms more flexible by allowing for qualitative feedback from organizations and beneficiaries. Nonprofit leaders can help by guiding donors to focus on long-term outcomes rather than short-term metrics. In fact, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance found donors do want to prioritize long-term goals.
Consider the purpose of accountability to beneficiaries
A mechanism’s result is impacted by whether the mechanism was used to improve performance or enhance public standing. This means that if the purpose of your downward accountability mechanisms is to simply build public trust, they might be perceived as disingenuous and have the opposite effect. Attempts to listen to beneficiaries must come from a desire to truly learn, be responsive to the beneficiary experience, and change if necessary. Public trust may increase as a side benefit to this process. The Edelman Trust Barometer (2021) is based on public perception of nonprofits’ competence and improving programs through learning will certainly hit this mark.
Daniel Tyrrell is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University and a member of the Nu Lambda Mu International Honor Society. He holds a B.A. from Bethany Lutheran College (Mankato, MN) in Business Administration and has coordinated human services programs in Asia and Africa for more than 10 years. Daniel resides in Blantyre, Malawi, with his wife and 5-year-old triplets. He consults for local and international NGOs and is interested in helping field operations become more efficient for greater mission achievement.
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