Are you a bureaucrat?

If you’re reading this, it’s definitely possible.

In a recent New York Times piece called Don’t Let Bureaucracy Ruin Your Day, Russell Bishop explains that the roots of the word “bureaucrat” come from the French word for desk or office and the Greek word for rule. So if you sit behind a desk (even part of the time) and develop procedures for others to follow (even if not very often) then you fit the classical definition of a bureaucrat.

Many people arrive at social change work—either starting up their own social enterprise, or taking a nonprofit job—because they want to avoid bureaucracy. After all, everyone has encountered a frustrating roadblock that’s explained as “just our policy,” and sometimes even the people most directly involved have only a hazy idea of why that particular policy exists or what it’s good for. Who wouldn’t want to break free?

But it’s easier to start something than it is to stop. So policies, procedures, rules, and regulations have a tendency to multiply, complexify, and persist. Piecemeal reforms often make things worse by tweaking one part of the problem but leaving the rest unchanged and even more difficult to understand.


Turn those frowns upside down. Photo: Glen_Wright, Flickr/Creative Commons

But Bishop believes there’s a cure. It’s not necessarily easy – but stick with it and it may be fun and liberating.

Is it your job to administer a rule that seems to chafe? Then figure out how to ease the pain. Find deeper-than-average ways to review why the rule exists, how it might be changed, and what the benefit might be.

Put together a little group of people affected by the rule – including, of course, the people who need it to make their lives easier or safer. Bishop suggests three short questions that might guide a conversation with these people:

  • Based on what we are learning, what do we need to stop doing?
  • What do we need to keep doing?
  • And what do we need to start doing?

A candid talk about the whys and wherefores of any rule should generate suggestions for change and ideas about how to smooth out the rough spots.

I think it’s worth a try. I’d love to live in a world where bureaucratic barriers are less common, where rules simply help everyone to succeed rather than tripping people up.

What do you think? Is it possible to be a good bureaucrat?

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How Much Could the Board Do?

Photo by Northeast Indiana via Creative Commons

Attitudes toward boards of directors in the nonprofits I’ve been around range from awe to grudging respect to frustration. There’s not enough awe, though, and too much frustration.

A couple of English writers have just published a short article that asks, provocatively, how much does an underperforming board cost? And what would it cost, in contrast, to invest both time and money in assuring strong leadership, leadership that supports rather than bypassing—or worse, frustrating—the work of the organization as a whole?

Ruth Lesirge and Hilary Barnard, in “First Among Equals” (posted online as a PDF), focus on the ways a good chair can help a board be a resource for strength. They urge careful recruitment and professional development support for board chairs “comparable to that of the chief executive.”

In theory, the board of directors represents the brains, the heart and the conscience of the organization as a whole. That’s not to take anything away from the energy, care, and intelligence employees and other volunteers bring to the work every day. Law and theory both insist, though, that there has to be oversight of the public purposes and the corporate responsibilities of the organization, oversight that isn’t shaped by everyday stresses and strains. Providing such oversight is the unique task of the board.

But how many do it well? Here are some features that make board work challenging:

  • Board work is often episodic, with long periods where there’s nothing pressing on the agenda.
  • Some people see boards as watchdogs and think they should focus on preventing harm, not be engaged in doing good.
  • The risk that the board will “interfere” or “micromanage” often leads to efforts to limit, not understand, a board’s connection to the strength of the organization.

The too common result: Boards that dutifully perform a sort of charade — listening to reports, making comments and suggestions, and coming back next month for more of the same.

The way the board works should be handled with care, a real opportunity to build toward an even more effective organization. “First Among Equals” will be a conversation starter for any group that wants to examine how much lack of investment in their board’s performance might be costing.

For additional ideas check out the nonprofit BoardSource, which provides in-depth resources to support members’ investments in maintaining highly effective governance.

[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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[Governance Matters] In an Economic Downturn, What's a Nonprofit Board to Do?

Bridge in Tacoma by Flickr user David Sadler (Creative Commons)

NYU Professor Paul Light spoke at the state conference for nonprofit board members organized by The Nonprofit Center in Tacoma, in my home state of Washington, on October 30th. He bluntly described four possible futures for nonprofits in the midst of a sharp economic downturn:

  • Wait for a miracle. “Believe it if you must, but know that the recovery is going to take a long time to reach far into the nonprofit community.”
  • Wither. Shed programs and activities in a random way that causes the least disruption today. “Do that if you want, but don’t be surprised if opportunities come along and you’re not ready to pounce.”
  • Winnow. End low-impact programs. Mothball activities that might be revived when times change. Look around for someone who might take over your work. Hunker down.
  • Rejuvenate. Take a hard look at everything you do. Preserve core value for the community you serve. Identify your organization’s value proposition and focus energy on doing those things that answer the question “Why us? Why do we exist?” Make tough choices now and you’ll see productivity go up and morale—believe it or not—improve. “Have faith in the possible and pride in your organization. Help your organization to improve through meaningful and deliberate change.”

If it’s the fourth future that appeals, then there are four things Light suggests the board needs to do, today, tomorrow, and, in fact, whether times are tough or flush.

  • Scrub down the organization.Examine the organization’s services and activities through an orderly review that emphasized productivity — not, for heaven’s sake, efficiency. Make a resolution to be more nonprofit-like, to focus on commitment to serving people and the community, and to being sure to do it well. (Light wrote a whole article a few years ago on what it means to be “nonprofit-like.”)
  • Find evidence of success.Talk among yourselves about your “brand,” your “value proposition,” your “theory of change.” Then look at the reports you receive at your board meetings. Review your website and your publications. Do they deliver evidence of your success? Are there areas that may need attention?
  • Pay attention to the tools. Are you wasting your most valuable asset—the wisdom that people bring to work with them everyday—through “economizing” on furniture, staff development, computers and communications? “When I teach nonprofit management,” Light said, “I don’t want my best students to make site visits. If they see the abysmal working conditions too many nonprofits offer, they’ll never want to work with you!” Board members should take the lead in assuring volunteers and staff have what they need to be productive. The undertow from concern about “overhead” is strong. Staff need help to resist it.
  • Broadcast your pride.Nonprofits are making a positive impact every day in the daily lives of people in our communities, in our nation, around the world. It’s hard work done under great stress. Make sure to thank—personally when you can—the people who do it, and their counterparts in other agencies and organizations throughout the community.

[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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[Governance Matters] Resources for Governing Your Organization Well

We’re beginning a series of posts related to self-regulation and self-governance around the world. Here are several resources, including a webinar series that kicks off tomorrow!

One World Trust, a research nonprofit based in London, UK, tracks codes of conduct and standards of self-regulation for civil society organizations in 80 countries. It publishes the results on a webpage at

There are colorful maps which graphically represent the number of initiatives One World Trust has found in each of the countries. Clicking through will bring you, for example, to Auto Evaluación para las Organizaciones de la Sociedad Civil. Principios de buenas prácticas para organizaciones socials from Fundación HelpArgentina — or to any of 319 other models for good practices country by country.

Useful for building your own organization’s policies to ensure the delivery of high-quality services while following good management practices. And interesting to read about the various ways groups of non-governmental organizations have worked together to tackle those tough questions around the world.

Meanwhile, for nonprofits in the US, Independent Sector is offering a five-part webinar series focused on “good governance and ethical practice” for boards of directors. The series is free for members of the nonprofit umbrella group and any organization that joins IS before the end of next January can credit the webinar registration fee toward the dues for next year.

These webinars will be based on the workbook that IS developed to go with the “Principles and Practices” guide published by its panel on the nonprofit sector. The workbook and the guide can be downloaded without charge from the IS website Find all the information about the webinar series here.

Again, for organizations in the US, the Internal Revenue Service offers a review of governance issues that come up frequently in its work with tax-exempt organizations here (pdf). This document is useful because it links somewhat abstract governance matters with the practical steps organizations need to take to complete the required filings with the IRS.

[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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Book Review: Creating a Culture of "Can"

From the website for the book

Pollyanna Whittier is the name of the heroine of a 1913 novel that added a noun to the English language. She is a relentlessly cheerful orphan whose determination to find something good in every situation transforms the village of Beldingsville, Vermont. The novel was wildly popular, and there were many sequels and several film adaptations.

The Pollyanna Principles presents a set of six straightforward observations about everyday affairs. In this book, author Hildy Gottlieb calls for a transformation of the way nonprofit organizations conduct themselves. She is convinced that transformational change in communities is “possible, simply because it is not impossible.” She urges her readers to create a “culture of Can” (rather than “cultures of Can’t”), and offers a new way for community organizations to plan and execute their work. Her book follows confidently in Pollyanna Whittier’s footsteps.

Gottlieb’s relentless optimism is founded in practical experience. She and her colleagues at the Community-Driven Institute have a long record of successful work with organizations of many sizes and types, in many parts of the United States. They also have the personal experience of having imagined, initiated, and successfully let go of the flourishing Diaper Bank in their home town of Tuscon, Arizona.

Applying the Pollyanna Principles will lead board members to “govern for what matters most.” Doing so will build an organization that exists “for the community, not for itself.” A board that works this way will always be “conscious of the power it has, in every decision, to change lives, to make a difference — to create the future of its community.”

Gottlieb dismisses the familiar label “nonprofit” organization. She proposes instead that people who care about this work should substitute the term Community Benefit Organization. That phrase, she argues, highlights “the future we want to create for our communities, to ensure that we do not continue to default our focus to the day-to-day.” Toward the final pages of her book, she wonders at the limited investments that are made for ensuring the success of community-benefit work and makes a strong case for finding ways to expand those efforts.

Reading all the way through The Pollyanna Principles can feel like a bit of a chore. Gottlieb offers examples of how the six principles can transform community-benefit work in a wide range of settings. The result is repeated presentation of the basic idea in a variety of contexts and settings. The differences do not come through clearly enough to overcome a growing sense of familiarity.

That said, there is strength in the core logic of the Pollyanna Principles. Gottlieb challenges us to proceed with renewed commitment to community benefit in every detail of “planning, program development, funding, governance, resource development and other systems.” Readers who follow this lead will indeed find themselves living in a happier place, in a culture of can. Not a bad end to keep in view.

Note: If you buy The Pollyanna Principles from, you can use this link; a royalty will be paid that helps to support

[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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Governance Matters: U.S. Nonprofits and the IRS

From Flickr user cliff1066 (Creative Commons)

The part of the United States Internal Revenue Service that deals with nonprofits has a new chief. Sarah Hall Ingram, a long-term IRS employee and now the Commissioner for Tax-exempt and Government Entities, came to the job late in the spring. Her first public statements emphasized continuity, though, as she reiterated the IRS commitment to pressing for attention to the way nonprofits govern themselves and the way IRS agents examine nonprofits for compliance with tax rules and careful practices. “It is fair to ask all organizations,” she said at Georgetown University Law Center on June 23, “whether they have in place systems, safeguards, or controls to minimize the risk of events occurring that contravene the Internal Revenue Code’s requirements for tax-exemption.”

Some of the questions the IRS will be asking are in Part VI of the new “Core” of Form 990 — a series of yes/no inquiries about important, and widely adopted, practices. And more questions will be asked, Ingram made clear, if an IRS examination is underway and there’s any hint that the board and staff have been slighting their responsibilities to stay true to the mission and stay away from anything that might blend private gain with tax-exempt status.

At the same seminar on governance at Georgetown, Diana Aviv, President of Independent Sector, unveiled a new “Workbook” for boards to use alongside the Principles for Good Governance and Ethical Practice IS published recently. The 33 “principles” were worked out through an extensive program of consultation with legal experts, nonprofit leaders, and researchers. They point to areas in the leadership of nonprofits where all too often trouble can brew. And they offer advice about what standards should apply in developing — and administering — policies that protect against trouble and provide a firm foundation for dealing with any issues, or doubts, that might arise. The “Workbook” translates the principles into action-steps that boards can take, working with staff (and a facilitator too, if need be), to assess where their organization stands and what might need to be done to add confidence that everything is on, and will stay on, the right track.

  • The full text of Sarah Hall Ingram’s talk at Georgetown University is online here
  • A copy of The Principles Workbook can be downloaded for free (after registering) on this page along with further information about the principles and the project that developed them
  • Section VI of the Core Form 990 is explained in the instructions here

All this attention to governance isn’t asking well-run organizations to do anything new. These principles and practices reflect values that are part of everyday life at the vast majority of America’s nonprofit organizations. What is being asked is that each organization take a careful look at itself and check whether policies and protections are in place to put commitment to the mission at the top of everyone’s to do list day after day. What could be more important than that?

[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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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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A Refresher: 990s in the Merry Month of May

IRS logo

US nonprofits have to file a report known as Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service each year. The report is due five months and 15 days after the end of the organization’s fiscal year. Since lots of nonprofits have fiscal years that end on December 31, those organizations will need to file with the IRS this year by Thursday, May 15.

Remember, all 990s are public documents and can be reviewed by anyone. Preparing a complete, accurate and easy-to-read 990 is a simple step in the direction of assuring the community, donors and grant-makers that the organization takes its management responsibilities seriously. Increasingly, organizations are seeing their 990 as an element in their communications planning — it’s technical for sure, and hardly the raw material for a run-away best-seller or an SRO movie, but it’s something anyone can look for online to learn about the organization and its work. That alone makes it worth a second glance before filing, just to be sure it is telling the organization’s story in the most effective way.

There’s been much discussion of change in the Form 990 recently, so a recap of where things stand now may be useful.

  • The Form 990 to use for reporting to the IRS during 2008 is available online at It is not much changed from last year.
  • Organizations with more than $25,000 but less than $100,000 in gross receipts may use Form 990-EZ, which is somewhat simpler to prepare. Form 990-EZ is available online at
  • NEW: Organizations with less than $25,000 in gross receipts now must file a simple annual report with the IRS each year. Called the 990-N, this form is available only in an electronic format for e-filing. Read more about the requirements and procedures for Form 990-N at,,id=169250,00.html.
  • CHANGE: Charitable nonprofits (also known as 501(c)(3) organizations) with more than $1,000 in business income that is not related to their exempt purposes must also file Form 990-T. In the past, the Form 990-T was not subject to public disclosure. Starting in August 2006, the Form 990-T is a public document and organizations must provide a copy to anyone who requests one. Copies can also be requested from the IRS; it recently published guidance for how to make such a request. See
  • BIG CHANGES COMING: The Form 990 and the Form 990-EZ are changing. They have both been redesigned for use in 2009 and future years. There are more questions, more data is required, and both forms use a new structure with many schedules that focus on specific data from organizations that do different kinds of work. The redesigned form was published in December 2007. The IRS published draft instructions for the new form on April 7, with a comment period that runs until the first of June. An introduction to the draft Instructions is at,,id=181089,00.html.

You may want to look at the new instructions and send any comments you have to the IRS before June 1, 2008.

Here are some other things you should be aware of:

  • Transition rules: Because the new forms are complicated and unfamiliar, the IRS is phasing in their use over several years. For the 2008 tax year (returns filed in 2009), organizations with gross receipts less than $1.0 million and total assets less than $2.5 million may file the Form 990-EZ. For the 2009 tax year (returns filed in 2010), organizations with gross receipts less than $500,000 and total assets less than $1.25 million may file the Form 990-EZ. The Form 990-EZ filing thresholds will be adjusted permanently to gross receipts less than $200,000 and total assets less than $500,000 beginning with 2010 tax years. There are also some further transition rules that apply to the use of particular schedules.
  • Electronic filing: Filing your forms online with the IRS increases accuracy, reduces delays, and cuts costs. Congress is encouraging the IRS to bring more and more filing online — and nonprofits are no exception. The 990-N must be filed online; there is no equivalent form that can be printed out and mailed. Certain large organizations are already required to file their 990s online, and the threshold for this requirement is moved lower each year. Any organization is now invited to file online; many firms that prepare 990s use electronic filing programs already. Professionals that prepare 990s and individual organizations may also use the publicly available program at, a project of the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Urban Institute. (There is a sliding scale fee for use of this system with organizations up to $100,000 in gross revenue given access without charge.)

With just over a month before the deadline, I hope you will take the time to make sure your Form 990 tells the story of your organization accurately and well. Good luck!

[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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Shake Up in the Accounting Department: The New 990

US nonprofits of a certain size have had to file a standard form — called Form 990 — with the Internal Revenue Service every year. Until 2006, the design of the 990 and the requirements for filing it changed slowly, if at all, from year to year.

Now, suddenly, nearly everything is new! Only a very few organizations will be able to go ahead and file a 990 covering operations in 2008 without making changes in the way they collect and report the information required. Nearly every organization needs to start preparing now to make sure that the information to meet these new requirements will be ready when the time comes.

The first impact of all this change in the way nonprofits report to the IRS will be in the accounting department. But the impact will quickly spread throughout the field. The accountants will need to ask their colleagues to keep track of everyday information in new ways. Managers will have to get used to new formats for measuring progress and summarizing operations. Outsiders with an interest in the financial operations of nonprofits — whether it’s the one just down the street or statistical profiles of entire industries — will have to learn how to work with the new forms. Journalists and watchdogs, policy makers and researchers, will have lots of new information available to them, and a big chore in connecting the information from 2008 and beyond to what’s already in the history books about America’s nonprofits over time.

During the time the IRS was collecting comments on the proposed changes there was pretty broad agreement that the previous version of From 990 had become unwieldy and disorganized. The new approach streamlines and structures the form in a much more logical way. Making the required changes, though, is going to be a struggle for nearly everyone who prepares, or uses, financial information on America’s nonprofits.

So who gets the easy ride this year? Organizations that normally receive between $25,000 and $100,000 in revenues will file the shorter Form 990-EZ, using a version of the form that is fundamentally unchanged from the recent past. (Private foundations that use Form 990-PF are also going to be using the same familiar document.)

And who gets the hard row to hoe? Organizations with more than $1 million in total revenues or more than $2.5 million in total assets will have to use the new — completely revised — version of the Form 990, which was published on December 20, 2007.

And what about everyone else?

Organizations (with the exception of some churches and church associations) with less than $25,000 in total revenue, no matter how small, are required to file a new form — the 990-N — by the 15th day of the fifth month after the end of their most recent fiscal year. For many organizations, that day will be May 15, 2008. There is no paper version of Form 990-N. It has to be filed electronically using the Internet. The IRS has posted an explanation of this new requirement here. The gotcha here is that an organization that is supposed to file a 990-N and doesn’t do it for three years running will lose its tax-exempt status and have to start over again seeking recognition from the IRS — a complicated and expensive process.

Organizations with more than $100,000 (but less than $1 million) in total revenue will be allowed to use the existing Form 990-EZ this year, instead of the new long-form 990. The 990-EZ may be unfamiliar but it represents a smaller change from previous years than the new full 990 requires.

For those organizations that have to use it, what does the new “big” Form 990 look like?

There is a new “core form” that every filing organization will complete. It includes items that ask for basic information about every aspect of the organization’s work. Along the way, the core form highlights thresholds that, if crossed, require completion of supplemental “schedules” on everything from investment income to proceeds from gambling operations. The idea is that most organizations will need to use only a few of these schedules, and that will cut down on unnecessary paperwork, focus attention on the parts of their operations that are important in understanding their work, and help assure continued eligibility for tax-exempt status. The IRS has said that it will delay implementation of a couple of the schedules because of the complexity of the new record-keeping that is necessary for completing them.

A discussion of the filing rules plus a general outline of the new Form 990 is on the IRS website at on this page.

One other change in the rules about nonprofits’ reporting to the IRS will be important to some organizations. Form 990-T — the form that is used to report unrelated business income and for calculating whether any taxes are due — is now a public document. Filing organizations must make their 990-T returns available for inspection by anyone who asks. (This disclosure requirement applies to returns filed after August 17, 2006, and affects every organization that files a 990-T, even churches, whether or not they file a Form 990 that is subject to public inspection.)

[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 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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