Accountability as a Struggle Between Head and Heart

The media is rife with talk of how today’s donors expect greater accountability. According to an article entitled, “In Giving Now, It’s the Principal” in the newest issue of Linkages from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA), President Melissa Berman claims, “For donors who are putting their principal directly to work in their grantmaking, expectations of accountability are high, and nonprofits are struggling to adjust.”

I’d really like to believe Melissa’s right because I have spent the last ten years of my professional career struggling to operationalize the types of nonprofit performance measurement that would address those expectations.

But the same issue of Linkages features an article entitled “Finding the Balance Between Head and Heart” by RPA’s head of donor services, Chris Page, who says:

Many of the donors we meet at RPA are wary (or weary) of talk about venture philanthropy, logic models and strategic giving…Donors want to use their resources in ways that serve others less fortunate; connect them to a broader community of shared concerns; leave the world a better place. Few are interested in techniques that might diminish the deep personal satisfaction they derive from giving.

Until recently I have assumed that donors at every level would naturally evolve in their desire for greater nonprofit accountability (i.e. from the “heart” Chris describes to the “head” Melissa describes.) I assumed that, given information more easily captured and available because of the Internet, donors would eventually be unable to deny the fact that some dollars are spent more effectively than others, that some leaders are more gifted, that some approaches are more spot-on.

I believed in this Nirvana in which leaders would be chosen to run nonprofits, not because of their fundraising skills, but because of data that would confirm their ability to create change. I longed for the day when precious, limited nonprofit dollars were no longer spent to woo donors with four-color posters and black tie dinners.

I have to admit I’m no longer so sure.

Measuring the things that demonstrate those differences is really hard work. When done well (as it so often is by leaders who are effectively managing the work of their nonprofits) performance data can provide compelling evidence for why individual donors should invest and why program officers should recommend grants.

Yet my experience, with foundations and grantees nationwide, suggests that such measurement won’t happen unless the market (and by this I mean individual donors and foundations) really demands and makes decisions based upon performance metrics.

If Chris is right (and his daily experience with major donors lends credence to his perspectives), only a small portion of donors are likely to let such data substantively influence their giving. If that’s true, the resources required to make such data broadly available, may be better spent elsewhere.

Even so, I haven’t given up on my idea of Nirvana because I believe that this small portion of donors may be disproportionately influential. It includes folks like Gates, Buffet, and Omidyar as well as emerging generations of techno-gazillionaires. I also believe the competitive characteristics which ensured their success in business, will translate into competition regarding who is achieving the most with their dollars.

When I penned the phrase “discerning donors” to describe the audience sought for, I was thinking of folks who bring both head and heart to their giving. We are out there, we are talking amongst ourselves, and we are pressing toward what I believe is a radically different version of today’s Nonprofit Sector. In our brave new world (yes, I understand the double entendre) what you do is more important than who you know. In such a world, transparency is recognized as essential by the giving public as well as those individuals and institutions entrusted with charitable resources.

Some days I have my doubts but, since I can feel my heart racing as I pen these words, I can’t deny I still believe.

This entry on nonprofit performance measurement contributes to a broader discussion on the topic among bloggers facilitated by Tactical Philanthropy. Check it out.

Susan Herr

Posted at 8:15 PM, Mar 26, 2007 in Accountability | Permalink | Comments (1)


I think it is a good point that most donors aren't very interested in "effective giving". I think though, that this is at least partly due to presentation. If you tell a donor they should give to a specific charity and you "prove" it to them by showing them reams of data, I can see why the donor won't get very excited. But if instead, a qualitative presentation is given to a donor that stresses the amazing work of the nonprofit and how well they execute, I think you generate a different response.

Posted by: Sean Stannard-Stockton