What Does Accountability Mean in Philanthropy?

Thursday, September 12, 2019 - 9:40 am
Liz Alsina

At our Chicago learning session, I was inspired by the approaches of colleagues from the MacArthur, Kellogg, Joyce, Grand Victoria, and California Wellness foundations, alongside friends from BoardSource and the Council on Foundations. Over the course of three days, these brilliant women (yes, they were all women!) tackled various aspects of organizational leadership: being the CEO, managing board relationships, re-imagining grantmaking processes and tools, leading organizational change, tackling investments and finances, communicating effectively, and understanding key legal issues in the field. Their feedback was thoughtful, diverse, and specific, but I also found myself weaving a common thread throughout the sessions: accountability. Since Chicago I’ve been ruminating on a central question: what does accountability mean in philanthropy?

According to Merriam-Webster, accountability refers to “the quality or state of being accountable (answerable, liable); especially, an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions.” The role of a philanthropy CEO delineates a set of responsibilities and hierarchies and a set of “usual suspects” to which the role is accountable, generally:

  • The organization’s Board of Directors, whom generally oversee the CEO position.
  • The Internal Revenue Service and various State regulatory agencies, to which the CEO is (generally) the primary signatory.

Each of the above, if taken separately, makes for a complex set of relationships, but the relative brevity of this list struck me (caveat: this is not an exhaustive list and organizations are structured differently). If our CEO’s have the highest level of accountability, and they “officially” are responsible to a finite group of high-level stakeholders, is that enough? In an age where philanthropic institutions espouse inclusion as one of our primary goals and values, should leaders be holding themselves accountable to just a few governing bodies? I wrestled with these questions following our Chicago trip and, inspired by our speakers and my brilliant Pathways fellows, came to some thoughts about the kind of accountability to which we might consider holding ourselves as a field:

  • Let’s be as accountable to our grantees as we are to our Board members. The work we do, in most cases, would not be possible without our grantees, yet philanthropic institutions tend to dominate in this relationship dynamic. What would you do differently in your everyday practice if your grantee relationships were just as important as your Board relationships?
  • Let’s deepen our relationship to the public. The IRS largely defines charitable organizations, simply, as organizations that serve the public good. If we answer to the IRS and other state agencies with this call to purpose, how can we pivot our public relationship to one of greater transparency and opportunities for authentic participation?  
  • Let’s be accountable to the staff that comprise our institutions. Philanthropy staffers are often indefatigable do-gooders, subject matter experts, and advocates that are part of the fabric of social change. To our CEO’s, how do we create spaces where the very best professionals can thrive, bring their full selves to work, and feel seen and respected by organizational leadership?

The space we occupy in philanthropy, at every level, represents privilege as well as the responsibility to mobilize extraordinary resources in the service of something far greater than any single person. The call to action I have put to myself and any others that want to hold up that banner respects the accountability we hold to the “usual suspects” but also looks beyond. I want to center a greater sense of service, respect for human dignity, and, dare I say, love (talk to Pathways fellow Kurian Thomas for more). I love our field, I love what I get to do everyday, and I love the people and institutions at the heart of this work (pun intended), and this is the central force of my accountability. What’s yours?

Learn more about the Career Pathways Program

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on all
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Leadership Development
Professional Development