Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why Do We Need NPO Accountability? Or, Do We?*

We are glad that we can say with utter honesty that in all of our dealings we have been pure and sincere, quietly depending upon the Lord for His help, and not on our own skills.

My letters have been straight forward and sincere; nothing is written between the lines!

We use no hocus-pocus, no clever trick, no dishonest manipulation of the Word of God.

And even though you don’t know me well (and I hope someday you will), I want you to accept me and be proud of me, as you already are to some extent.

We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord, but also in the eyes of men.

2 Corinthians 1:12-14, 8:20

My last series of posts addressed challenges to the whole idea of transparency and accountability. In this post, I would like to take on the basic question of accountability, and what it is all about, particularly as we look at the nonprofit sector. As you will note, there are some overlaps between the problem of analyzing what accountability looks like and what some of the challenges are to transparency and accountability.

In a recent release from the Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge online forum in the Executive Education Program, the Executive Summary of faculty research by Dr. Alnoor Ebrahim and his paper,
The Many Faces of Nonprofit Accountability, stated:

Nonprofit leaders face multiple, and sometimes competing accountability demands from numerous actors (upward, downward, internal), for varying purposes (financial, governance, performance, mission), and requiring differing levels of organizational responses (compliance and strategic). Yet is it feasible, or even desirable, for nonprofit organizations to be accountable to everyone for everything?
The Executive Summary goes on to point out that few nonprofits have paid serious attention to how they might be more accountable to the communities they seek to serve. Moreover, as Professor Ebrahim noted in his paper's abstract, "nonprofit leaders tend to pay attention to accountability once a problem of trust arises -- a scandal in the sector or in their own organization, questions from citizens or donors who want to know if their money is being well spent, or pressure from regulators to demonstrate that they are serving a public purpose and thus merit tax-exempt status."

In his
INTRODUCTION, Professor Ebrahim affirms that "at its core, accountability is about trust." As he points out, many definitions of accountability define it in terms of "a process of holding actors responsible for actions." What the various definitions of accountability seem to share is the understanding that accountability centers on the relationship of various actors, with some giving accounts of their behavior and others receiving and judging those accounts. Furthermore, most of these discussions pose two further questions: Accountability to whom? And accountability for what? It is this second question that interests me in this post.

In Plato’s
The Republic, the myth of Gyges sets out the question: Why be moral? Gyges was given the opportunity to live life invisibly, able to do anything he wanted to do without anyone discovering what he had done. Given the chance to live like this, Plato raises the issue: Would a person want to be moral? After further dialogue, Plato concluded that being moral was inherently valuable, apart from any benefits one might experience from being moral or harm one might avoid from being moral.

Being moral is normally associated with doing well in life as a person. It is the principal reason that is central to most concepts of human fulfillment. Doing well in life and being a good person seem to fit together for most people. The same is true in the case of society or even organizational life. Most people would not want to be members of a society in which morality was unimportant and in which conceptions of right and wrong carried little or no weight. This is true even if they would define morality relativistically and maybe even a little narcissistically.

Similarly, most people would not want to associate with a charitable organization, either by work, volunteer support, or funding, if morality carried no weight, if there were no concerns for right and wrong, and if there was no concern for important moral virtues, such as fairness, justice, truthfulness, and compassion, as Aristotle would define them.

If accountability simply involves a process of being held responsible for one's acts, then what is the point if there is no moral core against which those acts can be evaluated. It is, therefore, appropriate, that the idea of NPO accountability be associated somehow with the context of morality or ethics if trust has anything to do with the relationship between actors. After all, “accountability” has become the term of modern political correctness in our society to describe a process that has little to do with the choices that are being made by governments, organizations, including NPOs, or individuals. It has displaced the virtues identified above as important to our governments and civil society institutions.

What good is accountability if there is nothing significant for which an organization must account? Why should anyone care, donor, general public, government, volunteers, direct hires, or anyone else, about whether an NPO claims to be accountable if there is no sense that the work of that NPO reflects the choices made by that NPO that promote virtues, such as, fairness, justice, truthfulness, compassion, or some worthwhile public benefit goals if the communications cannot be trusted as truthful and are self-serving or self-justifying?

British journalist, Steve Turner, wrote some years ago in a satirical poem describing the nature and consequences of post-modernity:

We believe that man is essentially good.
It’s only his behavior that lets him down.
That is the fault of society.
Society is the fault of conditions.
Conditions are the fault of society.

We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust.
History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
Except the truth that there is no absolute truth.

I think too often that this is what captures the nature of our culture, and this is why the use of the terms, transparency and accountability seem to mean so little.

As I wrote recently (, Alexis de Tocqueville and Civil Society), a key feature of the civil society movement is its role in influencing and transforming culture. In some cases, that role is clear and unambiguous, as in the case of the advocacy non-government organizations and not-for-profit organizations. In other cases, such as charity, humanitarian, and mercy NPOs, the care for the poor, the sick, the needy, also provides a transformative role in society, not only by meeting real needs of people, but of modeling the moral dimensions of fairness, justice, truthfulness, and compassion for example. However, how an NPO raises funds, is governed, and truthfully discloses its choices to the government, to the public generally, to donors and potential donors, and to monitoring organizations, could demonstrate a transformative moral role model in transparency of its decisionmaking processes.

I noted previously in this blog that a number of studies in recent years regarding the third sector in the United States, especially those reporting funds raised, volunteers participating in charitable activities, and the economic power of the sector, generally had not included data and analysis of the role and work of religious charities.
See for example, my papers: Engaging Donors' Trust,, "ICFO Publications," and Engaging Public Trust and Donor Loyalty,

What I noted in these papers was a criticism voiced in the United States regarding the understatement of the presence and influence of religious beliefs, institutions, and charities in American life. Fifteen years ago, Yale University law professor Stephen Carter wrote his book,
The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. This book was, and is important for a number of reasons.

One is that it included the consequences to a society that excludes religion and religious belief and dialogue from the public square. Thus, too often religion and religious beliefs have been viewed as arbitrary and unimportant, fads and hobbies, rather than fundamentals upon which the devout build their lives and a society builds communities in which all can seek and contribute to the public good and happiness, to use a quaint ancient philosophical expression.

Secondly, as Professor Carter pointed out, when Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the early 19th Century and wrote his classic book,
Democracy in America, he noted that the first thing that struck him was that religions provided Americans with the strong moral character without which a democracy cannot function, but that it also as importantly, filled in the vast space between the people and their government, a space the government might otherwise fill.

Most statistics regarding giving in the United States, and in other countries I have examined, tend to be less than somewhat precise. According to some studies, giving to charity in 2007 exceeded $314 billion. Giving dropped slightly in 2008 to $308 billion with the world-wide economic downturn or slump. The major exception to this reduction in giving was giving to religious charities and institutions. The statistics for 2007 and 2008 did not include more than $100 billion given to religious organizations, such as churches, foreign mission organizations, church operated food kitchen and homeless shelters, camps, and large religious institutions, such as the Salvation Army, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church).

More than 89 percent of all households in America gave to Charity, and more than 55 percent of all American adults volunteered services to charity, thus representing the equivalent of more than 9 million full time workers at a value of $239 billion. Aside from the sheer numbers, what I found interesting about one study was that it found that religious motivation was one of the strongest impulses for giving and volunteering service, and that religious organizations were the largest recipients for giving and providing charitable services. Indeed, as several studies reported, individuals who attended religious services frequently tended to give more to charity, whether or not the recipient charity as a religious organization or secular organization, and tended to be more active in volunteering services to charities. More about this in a future post.

But for now, I simply note that the verses quoted at the beginning of this post have been the guiding foundational principles for the founding and continued presence and influence of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability in charity monitoring in the United States.

The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) in the United States was established in 1979 as the first accrediting organization devoted to monitoring the financial accountability of protestant evangelical charitable organizations in the United States. It first established Standards of Responsible Stewardship, and then monitored charities against those Standards granting a seal of approval to those organizations meeting all the requirements of the Standards.

The Standards were based on fundamental principles defining the boundaries against which NPOs could examine themselves to see whether or not they were operating with integrity. The assumption then, based on the Biblical passages quoted above, was that accountability to God is vital, but also in recognition that people form impressions of organizations by looking at the outward appearances. The Standards were developed from the founders’ understanding of Biblical teaching and were considered fundamental to how a religious organization was to operate with integrity.

For reasons beyond the scope of this paper, ECFA’s mission of establishing Standards of Responsible Stewardship and monitoring compliance against those standards was limited to protestant, evangelical nonprofit organizations. There had been a number of consumer protection laws and concerns that led to the American Congressional attention to fundraising within the nonprofit community, including unions and religious charities. It is sufficient to say that because of U.S. Constitutional considerations of separation of Church and State, the establishment of ECFA was thought to be an appropriate response to U.S. Congressional efforts to regulate the entire charitable sector, which would have included churches and religious charities and institutions.

But, recalling Tocqueville's observations, there is also a bigger issue. Namely, how Americans recognize the distinction between the government, individuals, and various social groups. At stake is not simply recognizing the Constitutional matter of the First Amendment's so-called separation of Church and State. Rather, at stake is the whole Constitutional framework for explaining social life in which the only active agents seem to be the individual and government. As one commentator wrote, "except for corporations, which the [U.S. Supreme] Court has recognized as persons and endowed with rights, groups and associations which stand between individuals and the State all too often meet with judicial incomprehension."

Nevertheless, as quoted above from the Bible, there was a religious dimension to both the motivation for establishing a system of accountability in the religious community and how it is to be administered as long as it is understood that accountability is about giving an account to human beings about the choices that were being made by the organization. It is interesting that even the Apostle Paul thought that it was important to disclose his activities with respect to his fundraising efforts and the management of the funds he received for his work.

Although we may be from different faith communities and cultures, or subscribe to no faith at all, the basic principles of integrity, transparency, and truthful disclosures of the decisionmaking activities and finances seem to be relevant to what we are all about when we talk about NPO accountability.

The initial thrust of ECFA and of many monitoring organizations was directed toward ethics in fundraising, proper accounting of funds, and appropriate disclosure of financial statements and conditions, all of which address financial matters of the NPOs being monitored. Indeed, the origin of use of the word, “accountability,” is in finance where accounting was telling the story of what had been done with the money entrusted to the government, the NPO, or to individuals.

However, as ECFA discovered, there is more to an organization’s integrity and accountability than merely meeting certain standards relating to financial statements and disclosures.

During the last three decades in the United States, and I suspect elsewhere, NPOs have been rocked with a series of scandals involving inappropriate expenditures, excessive executive compensation, self-dealing, corruption at various levels of NPO activities, and conflicts of interest. Is it possible for there to be corruption and moral failings without their exposure in well-prepared and audited financial statements, and that such failings may only have limited immediate financial impact on financial statement? Could it be that such corruption and moral failure would go to the very nature and viability of the NPO in performing its public purpose?

Immoral or unethical behavior in all areas of a nonprofit organization’s operations undermines public confidence in the work of the nonprofit sector and potentially threatens the success of its fundraising efforts. As a result of its findings and determinations in compliance reviews, ECFA revised its standards to include consideration of whether or not an organization’s conduct in all of its affairs was ethical and consistent with its affirmation of its Biblical beliefs.

Unique to ECFA in the United States is this theological basis for the beliefs and practices of those nonprofit organizations that seek to be monitored by ECFA. This theological framework and orthopraxis is the glue that holds all of ECFA accredited nonprofits together in a cohesive community of charities engaged in some form of Christian ministry. This is true whether it is humanitarian relief and development, disaster relief, meeting the needs of the sick, the homeless, and the poor, Bible translation, or planting churches among unreached people groups around the world, and primarily in the tw0-thirds world. The Canadian monitoring member of ICFO, The Canadian Council of Christian Charities (CCCC) has a similar theological framework and program.

It is also important to note that only those nonprofit organizations that join in this common basis of belief and seek accreditation are monitored. This leaves a large segment of the religiously based nonprofit sector without any required accountability to the donor public through compliance with simply stated Standards of Responsible Stewardship.

In the case of both religious and nonreligious NPOs, some of which are monitored by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and other state-based monitoring organizations, only a very small percentage of NPOs are monitored for governance, compliance with some Standards, and disclosure of financial information leaving the vast majority of NPOs without any requirements of accountability other than those minimal requirements prescribed by government tax laws. This does not mean that NPOs that have not sought accreditation through an external monitoring system are operating outside the boundaries of integrity and “accountability” to someone.

The idea of “accountability,” while not a moral virtue in and of itself, suggests an underlying ethical or moral concern. If accountability means that an individual or organization or even a government is liable or answerable to another, or is subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something, then there must be an underlying obligation to act or fail to act in a given area of one’s responsibility. Thus, if a nonprofit organization raises funds for a certain project or for its public benefit purpose, there are certain ethical standards that govern the way funds may be raised and that would proscribe certain means by which they may be raised. A disclosure requirement regarding the raising, management, and use or distribution of funds is a principal means of achieving some level of accountability.

Moreover, the concept of accountability addresses the subject of accountability and to whom that accountability is owed and this may be both its strength and its weakness. In other words: Accountability to whom? and "Accountability for what? Originally, accounting and accountability were related to finance, but involved telling the story of what had been done with the money entrusted to an individual or organization. The auditor certified that the accounts were true and fair.

But through the application of complex and somewhat arbitrary rules to evaluate the activities of individuals in an organization, accounting and accountability then no longer told an understandable story about what happened to the money and how decisions were made. Rather, accounting and accountability became the language used by experts to describe and evaluate the process of whether the money was treated in accordance with certain specific rules. In other words, the subject of accountability refers primarily as to whether the finances of an organization were disclosed as being in accordance with certain specific rules. Thus, if the only criteria to be disclosed with respect to whether an organization is accountable are the financial statements and tax returns or tax information, then a nonprofit organization may be accountable only with respect to those financial matters and whether or not they were reported in accordance with the specified standards and rules, and to nothing else. It seems to me that this is the essence of rating systems employed by some charity monitoring organizations.

If the government prescribes the rules of accounting, governance, fundraising, or some operations practice, then the individual or organization may be required to report, explain, or justify its actions to the government and to the public if the government prescribes laws that require that kind of public disclosure or availability of information. If the stakeholders, such as donors, beneficiaries, or public are the objects to whom accountability is owed, then the charity has the obligation to report, explain, or justify its actions to the stakeholders. If there is a monitoring organization that has issued standards of ethical practices, or as some would say, standards of responsible stewardship, then the accountability of the charity also would flow to the monitoring organization, not simply because it is a monitoring organization, but because it may represent the interests of the stakeholders.

It would seem, therefore, that the concept of “accountability” cannot exist alone and without some external reference or moral principle. If there is to be true accountability, then the individual or organization must be “transparent.” So, for example, when we think of something being transparent, we think of something having a property or quality so that rays of light can be transmitted through its substance and so the bodies beyond or behind it can be distinctly seen. When we think of this in terms of how a charity is administered and led, we think of that charity or individual as being open, frank, honest, and candid, so that what is behind the scene, whether agenda, decisionmaking, financial integrity, responsible governance, can be recognized and detected by those outside the immediate organization. In other words, that which is transparent allows objects to be clearly seen without distortion or being obscure.

But even then, transparency is not a virtue as such. What transparency does, however, is to point to one of the principle weaknesses of accountability. If accountability is about giving an account of one’s actions or failure to act to human beings, there is the possibility of spin or advocacy that can give a false impression of the true facts. Or, the human beings to whom one gives an account may not know all the relevant facts, or be defective in his or her judgments.

It seems appropriate to think also of accountability in connection with the idea of “stewardship.” I remember during the 50th Anniversary Annual General Meeting of ICFO in Berlin in 2008 that a number of the speakers referred to the term, "stewardship," in their presentations on accountability in the NPO sector and my thinking at the time that this analysis of the reason for and nature of accountability was so interesting.

The use of the term, “stewardship,” in third sector literature is interesting for several reasons. The Greek word translated as “stewardship” means the management of a household. It simply refers to the administration of duties or goods in one’s care. So, the requirement for stewards is faithfulness, and specifically, faithfulness in the administration of trust according to directions. While the modern understanding and emphasis on stewardship tends to direct our attention to possessions, which is certainly a significant factor, it can obscure the fact that stewardship also involves the use of one’s life as well as money.

Although the use of the word, “stewardship” has been primarily understood in religious literature and context, it is interesting that it is used so frequently in the literature regarding the nonprofit sector. First, it suggests that the funds, property, and assets we possess as individuals, ultimately belong to someone else and, therefore, we are responsible for the management of those funds consistent with fiduciary responsibilities. Secondly, it suggests that nonprofit organizations and institutions do not actually own the funds, property, or assets that come to their possession. Rather, they are held in trust, to be managed and used for the purposes for which the organization was established and consistent with the intent of the donors. Third, the concept of stewardship of necessity involves accountability and reporting to the master as to how that trust has been satisfied in the operation and management of that which was entrusted to the steward. Thus, the leadership of the NPO has an obligation to be accountable with respect to the management and operation of the NPO to the governments that give it authority to exist as an NPO with some specified tax status, to the public that donated goods, services, and funds to sustain it in its public benefit purpose, and to those organizations which have authority to oversee or monitor public benefit organizations.

Yet, even here the term “accountability” is ambiguous.

In the initial and original Standards established by ECFA at the time of its founding, the key Standard was one that required financial disclosure, where “every member shall provide a copy of the current financial statements upon written request and provide other disclosures as the law may require.” This is the current statement of that Standard and does not differ substantively from the original Standard issued in 1979.

Similarly, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance contains in its Standards of Charity Accountability, the requirement to “make available to all, on request, complete annual financial statements prepared in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles,” and then describes what must be contained in the financial statements. Its Standards also require certain information to be disclosed on the charities’ websites. It seems to me that without the principle of stewardship, there can be no real basis of accountability, either to government authorities or to the public and donors.

However, once again we see in the BBB Wise Giving Alliance Standard the idea that accountability addresses the accounting of financial information, gathered and reported in accordance with certain specific rules.

In the case of ECFA, the Standard requiring disclosure speaks in terms of financial disclosure but without reference to their preparation in accordance with certain accounting rules. What is also interesting about the ECFA Standard relating to disclosure is that it also requires "other disclosures as the law may require." What those other disclosures are, and what the law requires is not specified. But, the commentary for that Standard addresses the more important issue of integrity in all operations and activities of the organization, and the importance of transparency in the context of stewardship. Thus, the commentary states: "They [Christian ministries, Christian NPOs] must also conduct themselves and give an account to their respective constituencies in accordance with biblically informed practices of integrity and accountability." According to the commentary on this Standard, public disclosure of financial information protects the NPO from the danger of claiming ownership of these assets held in trust and from the temptation to regard the assets and acquisition thereof as our lasting companion and goal.

As Professor Ebrahim of Harvard University wrote, "at its core, accountability is about trust." However, if “accountability” is not really a virtue or a moral principle, then what does it have to do with NPO trust? If “accountability,” like accounting is a process that might lead us to truth, even though there is a risk of deception, spin, advocacy, fraud, or misunderstanding for example, how is it believed to serve the NPO sector building bridges of trust between the sector and the public. It seems to me that more is involved than simply accountability. There must be an underlying practice of integrity and morality in the choices made by the leadership of the NPO.

Assuming, therefore, that there is a requirement for ethical practices in the leadership of a nonprofit organization and that it is inherent in the concept of accountability, then our attention is of necessity directed to the subject of ethics. Indeed, how can there be any accountability and any real trust between donors (and the general public) and the nonprofit organization, and indeed the nonprofit sector without some ethical basis on which that trust must be based? This, then, brings up the subject of ethics and the role of ethics in society, particularly as it pertains to the relationship of the third sector to society.

This raises another interesting question. Although the United States Supreme Court has recognized the corporation as a "person" for purposes of Constitutional application, as I mentioned above, the legal understanding regarding associations, religious organizations, including churches, and organizations within the nonprofit sector is less clear. Groups, including families, the church, associations, foundations, and nonprofit organizations are virtually invisible in American legal and political discussions, except when they are recognized, mainly negatively, as interest groups. So the social importance and significance which these groups have on our social life and social well-being is not something that is readily recognized and understood.

While the State may have no trouble recognizing that certain rights and obligations belong to individuals, it has a far more difficult time recognizing that these groups, such as, families, the church, associations, foundations, and nonprofit organizations have any rights and obligations, other than those which are only derivative from the individual.

Therefore, when we speak of obligations to be transparent, accountable, and to act with integrity, are we really addressing the obligations of our public benefit organizations, or are we thinking that whatever obligations exist, they exist derivatively. I hope to explore the implications of this idea in my next post.

* Some of the substance of this post was presented in Taipei, Taiwan in December 2009 at the International Conference on NPO Accountability 2009 -- NPO Trust, sponsored by the Taiwan NPO Self-Regulation Alliance.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Challenges to Transparency and Accountability, Part 4


As I returned from almost two weeks in Germany, enjoying so much of what that great country has to offer, and got caught up with the celebrations surrounding the
Declaration of Independence of the United States on 4 July 1776, I was reminded again of the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, and specifically the piece I quoted from his Democracy in America, in my last post. But, my mind also sent me to a copy of the Declaration of Independence, which contained the subtitle, The Want, Will, and Hopes of the People.

What struck me about this Declaration of Independence, although I had read it before many times, was the statement of principle, followed by a list a grievances giving rise to the action on the part of this united American Congress in its unanimous vote to separate from Britain. The basic statement of principle was:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying the foundation on such principles and organizing it powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

What seemed important to me as I read this document again was that it proclaimed that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable gifts from God, in other words, natural rights, which are neither granted by government or individuals, nor can be rightfully taken away by government or individuals. It affirms that the purpose of government is to secure these unalienable individual rights. These rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are generally identified as "negative rights." That is, they protect us from others, including government, without obliging us to do anything for others except to recognize that others possess the same natural rights as do we. Negative rights are both limited and reciprocal, are eternal and unchanging, are part of the very fabric of nature itself, and are neither created or destroyed. It is not, as one saying would have it, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." In the natural law and related political philosophical traditions, the vast majority of rights are "negative" and consequently impose no affirmative obligations on others. This is the bedrock of civil society.

We are all too acquainted with the meaning of life and liberty, and how governments and a society can abridge those rights with impunity, or legitimize the taking of life and restriction of liberty.

The "pursuit of happiness" is a little more difficult to understand in today's society because it refers to an ancient philosophical concept of happiness that is not necessarily synonymous with some level of glee. When Thomas Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness when he drafted the Declaration of Independence, there was nothing vague or abstract in his thinking. Rather, he, as the political philosophers of his time and of earlier times, had in mind a public happiness which was measurable, which represented a science of morality to use the term as used in Enlightenment thought.

While the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence are primarily relevant to issues of one sovereign rule over its colonial entities, as I read down through this list of grievances, it occurred to me how relevant were many of Tocqueville's observations regarding the role of private and intermediate associations were to the pursuit of these Rights identified in the Declaration of Independence. However, thinking about the nature of the grievances articulated in the Declaration of Independence, and the dangers of a powerful central government identified by Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, and particularly in the extended quote in my last post, I could not help but think of the role of non-government, independent charity monitoring in addressing some of the challenges to transparency and accountability in the sector.

But, my eyes also focused on an article in The Washington Post newspaper on Sunday, 4 July 2010, which seemed to remind me of the relevance of this series of posts on the challenges to transparency and accountability and the grow of the third sector. According to this article, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, while in Krakow, Poland on Saturday, 3 July 2010, expressed alarm at what she called the growing crackdown on citizen groups around the world, and when she announced a fund to help them fight back. More about this US funding in a moment.

Speaking to an international meeting of democracies, Secretary Clinton said:

We must be wary of the steel vice in which many governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit.

In her speech, she identified a number of countries which she said were putting pressure or outlawing civil society groups. What she said she was emphasizing was not simply the prior administration's emphasis on democracy by stressing free elections, but rather was finding ways to build up democratic institutions and public interest groups that fight corruption and promote environmental causes, women's rights, and other goals. Moreover, in her speech, Secretary Clinton noted that 50 governments had issued new restrictions on non-governmental organizations in the past six years. She, therefore, pledged to establish a fund with $2 million to help citizen groups under siege hire lawyers and acquire mobile phones and Internet access.

What struck me about this visit, and other visits she made on this trip, and about her comments, is that the civil society agenda as she articulated it is primarily a political and cultural agenda of the the United States as set forth by the current government, and that the funding is not so much funding for public benefit services, but rather for advocacy. It was not a recognition of these natural rights which, according to philosophy and political thought, are "negative" rights which are thoroughly rational, which are eternal and unchanging, which are part of the very fabric of nature itself and cannot be created or destroyed. But it seems to me that what the government, any government, can recognize as a civil society activity worthy of attention and support, it can take away or regulate. In a news report following her visit to Poland, there was discussion about how governments limit the role of CSOs through registration and tax laws.

As I discussed in my posts, Alexis de Tocqueville and Civil Society, 1 November 2009, and Government, Civil Society, Charity, and Public Benefit, 22 November 2009, this form of thinking hardly addresses the historical basis and understanding of civil society and its role in the world. Rather, it seems to be just another program advancing the political agenda or fashions of a country or group of countries seeking to control the direction of a global community, with little thought to the serious role of civil society organizations around the world.

There has been a dramatic proliferation in the number of NPOs, NGOs, or CSOs of all types during the last 20-30 years. This has been accompanied with an attendant growth of public and private grants, donations, and contracts flowing to them thereby enabling them to become a powerful force in world politics. Because of the variety of organizations fitting within the broad categories and description of civil society, it is impossible to accurately gauge the size of the sector around the world.

With differing requirements regarding formation, registration, and definition of the NGO, it is difficult, if not impossible to estimate the number of charitable organizations or foundations in various countries. However, with a sample of some trends reflected in this growth, we can get a sense for what we are facing in this sector. There are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the US, and something in excess of one million NGOs in India, are just to cite two examples reflecting the growth of the sector. The UK has approximately 160,500 charities registered with the Charity Commission, plus approximately 23,300 charities registered in Scotland by the Office of Scottish Charity Regulators (OSCR). The Canadian Revenue Agency reports approximately 114,500 charities registered in Canada. Germany has approximately 15,000 foundations that are registered for public benefit purposes. There are approximately 277,000 in Russia. The number of NGOs operating internationally is estimated to be 40,000, with approximately 4500 NGOs working with the UN in a consultative status. Recent reports indicate that there are 160 international NGOs, INGOs, associated with Inter Action alone. These are just a few examples of the scope of the third sector in the world.

In light of these challenges, is there any hope for transparency and accountability? I think on the grand scale, we will never be truly satisfied with the level of transparency and accountability within the sector across the world. First, we really do not know what we mean when we talk about transparency and accountability, and what the qualities of transparency and accountability would look like.

Secondly, as illustrated above, the sector is extremely large and present in so many countries that with the variety of definitions of NPO, NGO, and CSO, and what is required by the State to be established and recognized legally as an NPO, NGO, or CSO, establishing Standards appropriate to the entire sector without regard to their potential application to each type or class of organization could prove to be impossible. For the major INGOs with operations and activities in many different countries, either directly or through subsidiaries and affiliates, and often with many different international governmental or quasi-governmental organizations regulating their status and activities, they are in all likelihood too large to be monitored and required to accept and adhere to Standards of Accountability that they have not written or negotiated with either a governmental agency or with a independent monitoring body.

Thirdly, with different national histories, traditions, laws, policy orientations, etc., it is questionable whether Standards requiring certain ethical practices, standards of transparency, and rules of accountability could ever be accepted so that there would be commonly accepted practices of charity monitoring.

Fourthly, as reflected in the Corruption Perception Index and the Global Corruption Barometer of Transparency International, the current levels of corruption as defined and indexed in these indexes make the likelihood of broadly accepted practices of transparency and accountability almost impossible to achieve in many societies.

There is an ancient warning that “men are condemned because light came into the world, but that men liked darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.” Although this warning addresses a different matter, the fact is that it is human nature to hide what one does, and to avoid transparency, especially when what is not disclosed does not represent the highest ethical standard or practice. Moreover, we have heard of ancient times when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Accountability properly understood addresses these basic human problems.

An issue here may be abuses, such as where funds being improperly diverted into private hands, fraud, self-dealing and enrichment, where there are payments of excessive compensation to key employees, and the like. But, it is more, is it not? There may be no improper diversion of funds, no fraud, no self-dealing or enrichment, no excessive compensation, and yet, the funds and in-kind gifts given to charities, or any NGO, for that matter, may never be distributed to the primary mission of the organization, or to the cause for which we made the donation in response to a solicitation. In a world in which we use language carelessly, it is important that we be clear about what we call accountability.

An example of the problem I am addressing was the declaration of the current administration in the U.S. on assuming office. Throughout the campaign for the U.S. Presidency, the campaign promise was made that upon assuming office, this administration would be the most open and transparent and accountable administration in U.S. history. In an effort to achieve this goal and make the federal government more open and transparent, the administration “found a new, technological savvy way to circumvent legal requirement that official correspondence must be archived.”

The change in policy came in early April 2010 at which time the President lessened the requirements of the 1980 Paperwork Reduction Act to ease government agencies’ participation in social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and the posting of blogs without archiving the data. Although there was the appearance of openness and wide dissemination of information through the new media outlets, as stated in this report, this new policy permitted government officials to communicate in secret without worrying about Freedom of Information Act requests and without leaving a record for the public to view after the information leaves a website. Prior to this change in policy, this kind of information was archived so that the government remained accountable. The further implication of this policy change, as reported in this independent analysis, was that if employees at any government agency were able to engage lobbyists and other outside actors via the Internet without having to archive their conversations, “then the government will be opening the door to more conflicts of interest and corruption with no record of the communications.”

The New York Times recently reported that current administration White House officials have regularly met with prominent Washington, D.C. lobbyists and political operatives outside the White House in coffee houses and other similar venues to discuss legislation that is pending before the Congress. Policies, such as energy policy, climate control, federal stimulus money, health care rules, Wall Street financial regulations, and how Congressional legislation would affect the lobbyists' corporate climate, have all been discussed in these coffee shops. Because these meetings did not take place in the White House, they were not subject to disclosure and the names of lobbyists and political operatives that administration officials met with were not recorded in official White House visitor logs, which are subject to open records laws.

If the word, accountability, just becomes one more useless cliché, euphemism, question-begging term, political promise, or a term clouded with vagueness, we accomplish nothing in advancing the cause of ethical standards and responsibility. Merely posting large amounts of data and information on the Internet hardly provides for accountability, especially where potential readers of the website are buried with information that is unsystematically presented, confusing, and where its importance is not adequately disclosed or demonstrated to be related to the decisions in question.

We need to be clear that accountability involves describing something that is real, complete, accurate, current, and open to examination, to someone. That it involves a relationship with someone or some organization that understands what is happening and can say “no” and make it stick. In other words, it involves both rationality and relationality. There must be a disclosure or an accounting of reality that can become understood by all observers.

Secondly, that disclosure must be made within the context of a relationship, however that relationship is established and defined. Accountability, if it is to be effective, must be based on the complete and open disclosure of conduct or activity measured against certain standards, with enforcement mechanisms, formal or informal, to ensure compliance with the Standards.

Thirdly, in a postmodern world where radical doubt is a pervasive feature of everyday life, where sequestration of public and private spheres of life may limit theories of value from concepts of obligation, where concepts of ethics and morality are confined to private, personal preference and have no universal binding authority and affect beyond that, and where pluralization offers multiple options and choices, a system of accountability must involve rationality, that is, that it conveys reality that is clearly understandable, and relationality, where radical doubt and skepticism are minimized and trust promoted. Notwithstanding the globalization of commerce and civil society, legal jurisdiction is still generally bounded by geographic national borders.

It is virtually impossible to recognize some universal, binding moral principles that would govern decisionmaking and conduct where the postmodern culture denies the existence of such standards. While nation/states may not be able to prescribe standards for accountability with respect to extraterritorial conduct, or provide a monitoring regime to evaluate that conduct external to the State, it would seem that if accountability standards are to provide for the open, candid, honest, complete, accurate, and current disclosure of the agendas, decisionmaking, financial affairs, integrity in all spheres of operation, and governance, they should have some extraterritorial reach. Otherwise, we are only getting part of the picture of the quality and exercise of stewardship, and whatever we think of accountability just is not going to happen.

Too often, our emphasis has been on appearances, and specifically appearance of impropriety. It is so much easier to just look at the surface appearance than to do the hard work of investigating suspected wrong doing, especially when the subject of that investigation does not cooperate with the investigation. Where the State is responsible for regulating and monitoring the sector, the likelihood of any cooperation by the investigated NPO decreases, especially when lawyers, accountants, and other experts are involved in protecting the NGO from possible prosecution.

One could hardly expect there to be any transparency in that situation unless there is what lawyers call, a data dump. That is, where all the records that may be directly or indirectly and remotely related to the matter in question are provided whether or not they are relevant to the inquiry, and without any mapping or guidance showing the relationship, if any, to the question raised in the inquiry or investigation.

If accountability is to be worth anything, then the standards must be clear, the compliance procedures must be fair and complete, and the disclosure of the results of the investigation must be honest with respect to exoneration or to the failure and the sanction.

The warning of Alexis de Tocqueville is appropriate. If nongovernmental NPO standard setting and monitoring organizations are not in place, my sense is that governments will tend to assert and insert themselves in regulating nonprofit organizations. As noted by a former Commissioner of the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS): “Questions of religion and civil rights are far afield from the more typical tasks of tax administrators – determining taxable income.” Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court had often expressed concern that the scope of a government agency’s authorization be limited to those areas in which the agency fairly may be said to have expertise, and this concern applies to the asserted authoritative power of an agency that determines the scope of public policy.

Historically, in the United States, much of the NPO and charitable activity arose initially and primarily in the church or religious orders. Thus, the comment of the former Commissioner of the IRS.

If the general idea is that transparency is important to prevent unethical or irresponsible conduct as described in the warning I just quoted, then it seems to me that a culture of transparency and accountability is required if the leadership of the NPO, board and management, are to govern and lead the organization with integrity and wisdom. In other words, internal accountability is absolutely essential to the proper operation of the NPO and to its external accountability. There will never be external transparency and accountability if there is lacking internal transparency and accountability.

The argument has been made that billions of dollars in the US, and I suspect elsewhere, are transferred each year to nonprofits, and there is no market or voter to exercise discipline to assure that they are providing something of value to society. According to this argument, nonprofits are accountable to no one but their boards and few boards make the effort to assure that these groups are being productive so as to merit the support they receive from donors.

I have trouble with this argument, especially when it is the basis for asserting more active government involvement in regulating and monitoring the sector. It seems to me that the basic argument regarding government regulating and monitoring is premised on the idea that ultimately, the government is the owner of all things, including all financial assets in the country, and it is only on the basis of some act of grace or largess that governments allow individuals and organizations to hold some of the assets in trust to accomplish the societal goals governments deems worthy of promoting.

Indeed, this thinking regarding the activities and tax exempt status of the nonprofit sector is already discussed in the halls of government. In other words, citizens have no real freedom with regard to what they want to do with the resources that have come into their possession.

Notwithstanding this philosophical difference I have with that argument, transparency and accountability are important to developing and enhancing trust with the donors, donor public, and with the public generally. Most givers do not have either the requisite expertise or time or inclination to engage in appropriate due diligence to ensure that their donations are directed to the charitable purpose that they intend to support. My guess, without the support of reliable statistical data, is that most donors are giving to charity on an emotional or emotive level, rather than on the basis of clear thinking about the how the organization is managed, and how funds are raised, reported, and used for the public benefit for which the organization was established. Accountability to independent monitoring agencies, to the news media, to governments, and to the public generally, serves at least some minimal purpose to provide that assurance of the responsible stewardship on the part of the NPO of its operations and assets.

Finally, I think that we can look to a model that does not depend on increasing the number of organizations required to be accountable as part of a monitoring scheme. Too often we have bought into the idea that big is good, bigger is better, and biggest is best. I am not convinced that a model built on this basis is necessarily the best model.

First, with millions of tax-exempt organizations around the world, governments simply are not going to be able to monitor them, nor will governments be able to assure their accountability either to the government, the general public, or any monitoring organization. An attempt to do so would significantly curtail the number of NGOs, particularly the small and locally based charities that provide social services to the poor and homeless, too often exclude CSOs that have agendas that may not be in accord with what a political authority values or wants to see happen within its control, and would in any event, in all likelihood, increase the administrative costs necessary for that NGO or CSO to operate within the constraints of the law.

Moreover, with an emphasis on growth of monitoring organizations and increased attention by governments to the activities of NPOs, NGOs, and CSOs, there is the tendency to take on a trade association mentality. As stated above, consistent with postmodernity, the tendency is to believe that bigger is better and biggest is best. Unfortunately with that, comes less emphasis on Standards and compliance monitoring since the attempt is made to qualify or accredit as many NGOs as possible, and yet be unable to perform reasonable monitoring to ensure compliance with standards of accountability because of lack of resources.

The scheme for many monitoring organizations is to grow the number of accredited accountable organizations that are being monitored. Perhaps driven by the idea that the larger the monitoring organization is with a large number of accredited organizations, the more influential it becomes. Rather than the force of Standards of Accountability or Ethical Responsibility, the emphasis is on marketing to gain the largest number of “accountable” members possible. What is needed is that the sector, including monitoring organizations, such as the members of ICFO, prioritize the practice of faithfulness to ethical conduct, transparency, and accountability which is not significant in society through the achievement of growth and presence.

It is my view that the larger the number of NPOs subject to this kind of monitoring, the less accountability there is. What would seem to me to be more effective in achieving some level of accountability would be to follow the model of a number of religious communities and orders. This model has been followed in non-religious small group accountability arrangements, in which each member of the group meets regularly with the other members in transparent disclosure of life as they are experiencing it.

Accountability by government compulsion of law and government imposed sanctions may result in an appearance of some kind of strict, but limited accountability. However, it is doubtful that there would ever be real transparency under this model. Accountants, lawyers, and other experts would simply advice the NPO management how to comply with the minimal requirements of the law and regulations or policies, without the moral foundations required for true transparency.

Applied to the NPO sector, what I see happening is where there is a form of “peer” review and accountability. One model employed in the United States is based on a panel of specialists, such as fundraisers, accountants, lawyers, NPO operational leaders, and the like, examining the disclosures of monitored NPOs against set Standards of Responsible Stewardship.

However, unlike many independent monitoring schemes, these members of the panels are frequently participants in the sector through their participation on NPO boards or in management positions in a variety of NPOs. They are independent to the extent that they are not employees or staff members of the monitoring organization. Rather, they are volunteers from various disciplines associated with the sector, including staff or board members of NPOs or NGOs. As such, they understand the sector and have already committed themselves to the goals of civil society. They not only have the requisite skills to evaluate financial reports, like those involved in some of the rating monitoring organizations, and the satisfaction of performance objectives, they have actually participated in the governance of organizations within the sector. Since they may be reporting directly to the Board of Directors, which has the power to determine compliance with the Standard and the authority to impose sanction for noncompliance, they are independent from the management's pressure to market the monitoring organization to achieve greater size in the number of NPOs subject to monitoring, either by decreasing the level of sanctions for noncompliance, waiving violations of Standards, or reducing the requirements for entry into accreditation.

Relationships also can be established and nourished through transparent communication between the panel and the charities monitored. The expertise is present to interact with the NPO, and bonds of trust are developed where the emphasis is on enabling corrective compliance with the Standards and best practices rather than merely on imposing sanctions, such as termination of the accreditation or withdrawal of the seal.

If transparency involves communication and words, then as Josef Peeper observes, the communication must connect with reality and must involve relationality, that is, it must express the entire relevant reality and include the interpersonal nature of communication.

Merely publishing financial information from informational tax returns on the Internet hardly constitutes real accountability, especially since the transparency, to the extent that it exists at all, is limited to what accountants or bookkeepers determine from the array of data available what they must report in the financial statements of the respective charities.

Similarly, many charity rating services have different ways of expressing their ratings based on the methodology for determining what numbers are included in the formulas for determining ratings. The larger the base for these ratings or publication of tax return financial information, the less like there is to be transparency and accountability on the part of the individual NPOs, NGOs, or CSOs.

An analysis of the national member organizations of ICFO reveals that no individual member monitoring organization is large in terms of the scope of the its monitoring of NPOs, NGOs, or CSOs as a percentage of the total number of NPOs, NGOs, or CSOs operating in that country. Moreover, it is clear from the size of ICFO and its entire membership that monitoring occurs over a very small number of NGOs. This naturally raises the questions about the level of transparency and accountability within the sector at large that can be expected as a result of the work of the members of ICFO and whether we should despair at what to many may be an inadequate monitoring regime for such a large sector.

I think not. While there is no doubt that the current model does not require transparency and accountability across the sector, the model represented by the member organizations of ICFO does promote a certain level of transparency and accountability with respect to those NPOs monitored, or at least has the potential to do so. Although there is always room for improvement in the articulation of Standards of Accountability, and the level of monitoring to ensure compliance with those Standards, I have become convinced that we have it about right.

I have come to this conclusion on the bases of several observations.

The first is that the sector is simply too large and complex to permit adequate monitoring across the sector, including the kind of monitoring which would be required and enforced by governments. Governments are incapable, both on the basis of the lack of knowledge of the sector, expertise in the variety of disciplines involved in the civil society movement, and in the required resources to be able to monitor all the NGOs registered in a given country. Moreover, too often politics, or the suspicion of political pressure or political agenda, would taint any attempted clarification of definitions, the issuance of Standards of Integrity and Accountability, and the monitoring of the sector against those Standards. Even in the case of random sampling and auditing as performed by the government revenue agencies of individual tax returns, there would be no assurance that all NPOs or NGOs are in compliance with Standards.

The second is how often a small minority of individuals or groups can influence culture institutionally well beyond their numerical numbers and weight. So often we see across history and geography, that small groups or individuals, maybe ethnic minorities, individuals in certain professions, whether in the university, in the arts, in finance and banking, law, medicine, or sports, for example, do much to shape the direction of a country, a profession, or sector, and its larger role in society generally.

In the NPO sector, for example, the national media and government authorities frequently consult leaders in organizations, such as BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, on matters relating to charity transparency, accountability, governance, fundraising, etc. This is the case even though a small percentage of NGOs are accredited, analyzed, or rated by any or all of these three organizations. BBB Wise Giving Alliance has approximately 250 charities in its seal program, and has issued charity evaluation reports on more than 1200 charities. ECFA has approximately 1440 accredited charities in its membership. Charity Navigator, which claims that it is the largest independent charity evaluator, has evaluated and rated more than 5,500 charities.

It is important to realize that there is substantial overlap here, where all three monitoring organizations have evaluated, accredited, or rated many of the same charities. While these numbers may seem large, when compared to the total of more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the US, it is obvious that a only a very small minority of charitable organizations are required to comply with Standards of Accountability and are monitored for compliance with those Standards. Admittedly, there are several state organizations that provide similar monitoring of charities against promulgated Standards of Accountability. Nevertheless, the growth of numbers of charities seeking accreditation or ratings by these groups is testimony to the influence these three monitoring organizations wield.

The third is how through modeling excellence and integrity, monitoring organizations and their accredited and rated NPOs have set the standards against which all NGOs are evaluated by the donor public and the media. It is often the case that national and state legislators or legislative committee, and the news media address questions of transparency and accountability regarding particularly NGOs or segments of the sector when there is a scandal or failure of some kind. When there are failures on the part of an NPO, especially those that are covered in the news media, ICFO member organizations are frequently called by the news media or investigative bodies to provide advice concerning the applicable standards of integrity and accountability and the meaning and nature of the failure to comply with such standards on the part of the NPO. This also provides an educational opportunity or teaching moment to address the larger issue, and perhaps to vindicate the NPO where there have been no violations of standards. Incidentally, in an era of radical doubt and skepticism where there is distrust of the sector and the emphasis on finding ethical failures or even possible criminal conduct, vindication of the clean and innocent NPO is an important role for the monitoring organization.

Fourth, with the continuing growth of the sector and the growing importance of CSOs throughout the world, it is my view that there will be increasing need for monitoring organizations, such as those which are members of ICFO. Such organizations not only articulate standards of integrity, transparency, and accountability, through their monitoring and compliance process, contribute to the public trust of the sector, and of particular organizations within the sector.

If NPOs and NGOs are to be effective, both in terms of obtaining private support in the form of donations and volunteer services, there must be a bond of trust between the public and the sector, and between specific donors and specific NPOs. Monitoring organizations contribute to a certain level of trust, and to the potential stability of the sector within civil society, as Burkhard Wilke put it, “bridges of trust.”

I believe that there is potential for reasonable and effective growth of monitoring organizations, not only in countries around the world, but also for multiple monitoring groups, cooperating and networking within a country without some fear of competition between such organizations. Although there maybe different philosophies regarding the nature of monitoring of charities, and whether or not ratings are good and useful, or maybe misleading and subject to misinterpretation. Nevertheless,. this model of multiple charity monitoring organizations in a country might work best where the monitoring is done within the various types of NGOs.