The recent expose by 60 Minutes and other organizations, which challenge the practices and experiences chronicled in Greg Mortenson’s book "Three Cups of Tea," is not only disappointing, but also potentially damaging to the nonprofit sector more generally.

While the facts in this case remain murky, each time a nonprofit misuses funds, overstates its accomplishments, or even has the appearance of impropriety, it understandably shakes donor confidence and calls into question the true efficacy of nonprofit operations. In his “’Three Cups of Tea,’ Spilled” column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof describes Mortenson as “modest, passionate and utterly disorganized”—unfortunately, that is the perception many people have of the nonprofit sector.

Simply put, having passion and a high profile are not enough. Nonprofit leadership requires taking accountability and transparency demands seriously, both for the good of the organization and for the sake of keeping the sector as a whole sustainable.

In a course I teach at NYU Wagner about the foundations of nonprofit management, I include a session on accountability, legitimacy, and performance measurement. I assign a chapter from the book Nonprofit Organizations: Challenges and Collaboration, which lays out four excellent reasons why nonprofit leaders must be dead serious about their responsibility to give accounts, given the unique nature of nonprofits. They are:

  • The ethical imperative to do the right thing and fulfill the social contract
  • The pragmatic necessity of developing a broad social base of support
  • The functional requirement to shift attention to achieving clear results
  • The strategic demand to stay in compliance with the mission

These reasons have to do with legitimacy (the first two) and with effectiveness (the second two). In fact, as the authors argue, legitimacy and effectiveness depend largely on accountability. Taking accountability seriously also means creating organizational mechanisms (such as performance management systems) that assure all pertinent stakeholders (including the general public) that there is good use of resources vis-à-vis organizational performance.

Nurturing a culture that honors these imperatives and creating the systems to support it produces an organizational environment that values integrity and excellence. In writing about the social sector, Jim Collins, author of the best-selling book Good to Great, notes that despite real difficulties in measuring performance, great social organizations are characterized by their commitment to a culture of discipline. Effective leaders settle for consistent and pragmatic measures, acknowledging that even if all indicators are flawed, putting measures in place provides a stepping-stone toward greatness. Social sector evaluation expert Jed Emerson agrees with this approach and suggests that in the absence of metrics that can “prove” effectiveness, responsible nonprofits can at least find ways to demonstrate progress and minimally—but consistently—document their work.

In a culture where donors often want to see large-scale, flashy results, or want to fund the next “new and innovative” approach, nonprofits may understandably feel some pressure to inflate their stories or boost the numbers of people they serve. But people creating and running nonprofits should resist this, both for the sake of their reputation and to safeguard the legitimacy of the nonprofit sector as a whole. It is only through consistent discipline and impeccable standards of accountability that nonprofits will be known as transformative, effective, innovative, and capable of producing long-term impact. Any nonprofit leader—no matter how passionate—who knows that they’re disorganized (like Nicholas Kristof suggests of Mr. Mortenson) is responsible and morally obligated to recruit an alter ego who is equally passionate and well versed in effective management. The sector cannot afford anything less from its leaders.

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