A Report Is a Report Is a Report—Or Is It?

By Flickr user Dominic Alves

Along with falling leaves and various forms of holiday excess, autumn turns up the page on many nonprofits’ to-do list that says “Prepare the Annual Report.”

Annual reports make their appearance after the end of the fiscal year and can serve an important function as a recap of the organization’s contributions to the community and a demonstration of the organization’s stewardship of its resources.

The term “annual report” can cover a lot of variations. For some organizations, the annual report is a perfunctory couple of columns of numbers buried in the back of a newsletter. For others, it may be a showy multi-page document prepared with the help of specialists in accounting, copywriting, and design.

Marketing guru Seth Godin and the Community Leadership program at Canada’s Dalhousie University both suggest that most nonprofits should view the annual report primarily as an opportunity to tell the organization’s story. And a financial summary for the recent year is often seen as a required element in the report; not saying anything about finances in a document called “Annual Report” would probably raise the anxiety level of some readers—a result most nonprofits probably want to avoid.

Godin and Dalhousie are both cited in a recently updated entry in Idealist’s Nonprofit FAQ, along with other comments from experts about what needs to go into an annual report. Timely help with planning the annual report is just one of the useful items to be found in this collection of Frequently Asked Questions covering every aspect of nonprofit organizations and their work.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Experts Debate Nonprofit Accountability

Peter Frumkin

Paul Shoemaker

On November 29 two strong voices among America’s nonprofits talked critically about nonprofit accountability at the University of Washington in Seattle. The speakers were Peter Frumkin, author of the new book Strategic Giving: The Art and Science of Philanthropy and Director, RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas at Austin, and Paul Shoemaker, ED of Social Venture Partners Seattle.

Frumkin described two dominant forms of accountability: the use of logic models and the development of balanced scorecards.

Logic Models (there’s a sample here) link inputs to activities to outputs to outcomes to impact. Frumkin said the first couple of steps are useful and doable, but there’s an “organizational horizon” when talking about outcomes and impacts where the links within the agency’s programs get so mixed up with other causes and influences that implied claims about the organization’s part in any long-term benefits are hard to take seriously.

Balanced Scorecards (see discussion and examples from consultants at www.balancedscorecard.org) offer a format for assessing multiple aspects of an organization’s work. Discussing what belongs in the scorecard, Frumkin said, can be very useful to an organization. Actually trying to have things set up so an overall assessment is available “at the press of a button” has so far proven to be way too difficult to implement.

By focusing on this sort of “process accountability,” he said, nonprofits and their critics and supporters have avoided the hard questions and, too often, created distracting make-work and arguments over compliance that miss the point. What we need is “substantive accountability” that engages the organization and its stakeholders in the difficult task of sharing evidence of effectiveness.

Lurking beyond much of the debate over accountability, Frumkin concluded, are unresolved conflicts over legitimacy and power. Nonprofits do more, in Frumkin’s view, than deliver needed community services as private actors working on public purposes. They also play important expressive roles through pluralism, diversity, innovation and autonomy, allowing people and communities to address shared tasks and articulate shared values in a way that no other form of organization can do so well. Focusing on process accountability shifts energies and attention away from those goals.

Paul Shoemaker agreed that nonprofits play invaluable roles in projecting pluralistic values of ideals, values and beliefs. But they also do serve critical public purposes, he said, and it’s important to be sure that part of the work is being done effectively. “I don’t know how people could be doing work that is that important — for both those reasons,” he said, “and not be concerned with knowing that the work is being done well.”

For Shoemaker, a major problem is short-sightedness on the part of funders, inspired too often by models adapted from government contracting. “Funders have to push themselves,” he said, “to find better ways of supporting their grantees and the community in general in assessments that can really get at effectiveness in terms of long-term improvements in people’s lives.”

As they wrapped up their presentation, Shoemaker and Frumkin agreed that there are three reasons nonprofits should take accountability seriously. The first, and for both speakers the least important, is trying to prove something about the organization’s work to outsiders. The second is because talking and thinking about accountability is the starting point for learning and growth. And the third is because being clear about what you’re doing and why it’s important, being sure you’re doing it well, is critical to continued high morale and commitment to mission for the organization as a whole.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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