Balancing the Mission Checkbook

Accountability turkey

Who needs to be accountable now?

Last December I posted an entry in response to a Wall Street Journal column by Sally Beatty in which I chafed at her observation that charities were not accountable enough about how they used donated funds. She said:

“It’s time to make sure our gifts are being used as intelligently as possible. Instead of showering hard-earned dollars on charities and hoping for the best, we need to demand clear, detailed information on the results of their efforts. We ask the government and public corporations to be transparent and accountable. Charities should meet the same standard.”

It seemed that a lot of business leaders held this same view of nonprofits. It seems like a good time to revisit this notion and ask about whose standards of accountability to use now.

In the past few months we heard about the three page proposal from the Secretary of the Treasury asking for a $700 billion check to intervene in the financial meltdown (that ended up to actually be a blank check). The bailouts have continued, leading columnists like Floyd Norris of the New York Times to shout, Accountability needed with bailouts. Most recently, when executives of the Big Three automakers struck out with a request for their own bailout, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said:

“It’s all about accountability and viability. Until we can see a plan where the auto industry is held accountable and a plan for viability on how they go into the future — until we see the plan, until they show us the plan, we cannot show them the money.”

Ask any nonprofit executive director or grant writer to guess how far they would get with a foundation or government agency if they submitted a three page request, or if they sat down at a site visit without a detailed project plan, budget, and evaluation outcomes. The answer is, not far.

Here’s a suggestion for how the nonprofit sector can contribute to the bailout – we can teach workshops and classes on accountability for government agencies and public corporations. Maybe it’s a new earned income opportunity.


Kate Barr believes that every nonprofit financial question relates to strategy, structure and mission impact. She enjoys interpreting financial information to find stories numbers can tell. She loves writing, teaching, and talking with interesting people.