Accountability is expensive – the cost(s) of being small & accountable

Jean Scrimgeour

Growth & Operations Director, Accountability Lab

Originally written for and published on the Accountability Lab website. Read the original article here

As a small non-profit with accountability in our name, we strive to institute mechanisms, policies and processes that demonstrate the highest norms and standards. However, with limited budgets and an expansive footprint across the globe – including many remote places – this is not always easy.


We all know that accountability is much more than procedures – registration, compliance and financial management. It is also about justice and equality; centering communities at the heart of our work; values-based decision-making; responsible leadership and much more. It is about everything from paying for child care and ensuring shared parental leave; to supporting learning opportunities for our partners; to ensuring security- physical, mental and emotional- of our staff.


The challenges are multi-faceted and numerous and often, ensuring the most basic accountability measures can be extremely difficult with dozens of tasks competing for staff members’ time. First, knowing what best practice accountability looks like; second, finding the time to develop and operationalize these accountability practices; and finally, how to pay for these, because let’s face it – accountability is expensive.


As a seven-year-old, multi-country and rapidly growing non-profit, the Accountability Lab is both a start-up and old enough to have had time to think about, develop and build accountability processes which support all our labs across the world.  We have also established strategic partnerships with leading organisations that are thinking about these challenges and developing creative ways to overcome them.

First, in terms of understanding best practice- we find the Global Standard for CSO Accountability a critical guiding document. It lays out 12 Accountability Commitments which provide a shared understanding of accountability and put in place a dynamic approach to these issues through continual dialogue with stakeholders. The focus is on people at the center, with commitments that cover both internal and external accountability and the larger goals that civil society organizations might be trying to achieve.


In order to operationalize all of this, we are working with Accountable Now, who have created a comprehensive self-assessment framework which CSO’s can use to determine and measure their own accountability. As we work to integrate this framework across all of our Labs globally, we have committed to sharing and open sourcing all our policies, procedures and documentation to take the guesswork out of the process for others. We have also found useful content through Social Value – who provide accredited training around related topics.


Finally, the issue of paying for accountability. This is more difficult. The biggest challenge for us has been how to budget for the kind of changes we would like to make. With capped overheads, small grants and limited indirect cost budget lines, it is often impossible to live our values or support others to do so. While recent pronouncements by foundations (see here for example) are welcome, we’re also thinking about how this can be achieved by moving beyond philanthropic support.


For example, our friends at Global Press have identified “duty of care” as a particularly expensive, yet unfunded, accountability need. By adding a non-negotiable 3% to each one of their grants, they have been able to establish a duty of care fund which provides in-person training, day-to-day protocols and crisis response training to each and every one of their local staff around the world. In addition, their staff have access to a specialized workplace wellness programs such as PTSD-screenings and a team of 18 culturally-appropriate, on call counselors. We are now partnering with Global Press to do the same with our teams globally.


At the Lab, we have worked with the Tecovas Foundation to establish a Safety and Security Fund. Although we employ a variety of physical and procedural techniques designed to mitigate security threats against our staff, where these threats cannot be mitigated, the Safety and Security Fund is deployed- for everything from disease outbreaks to natural disasters to political persecution. The Fund is held in a standing, high-interest account and can be accessed at any time as the rules permit. There are also defined “refill” parameters designed to utilize earned revenue and general operating funds to ensure that the fund is replenished after every $1,000 of use.


These are some of the ways that small organisations are finding creative ideas for addressing and financing big accountability challenges. Going forward we need to work with one another, our funders and the communities in which we work to mainstream a much broader conception of accountability in our work. Accountability is expensive, but a lack of accountability is even more costly.

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