One fall evening in the Grand Tetons, during a presentation on local wildlife, the ranger pleaded with the audience to observe and enjoy the elk feeding nearby, but to avoid disturbing them. “Their response to you,” the ranger explained, “might cause them to miss a feeding opportunity. And that loss, in turn, might result in their not making it through the winter.” Little things with elk mean a lot.
Likewise at your nonprofit little things, when it comes to creating accountability, mean a lot. Someone who follows through on a task means the difference between achieving an outcome or not. Getting your thank-you notes to donors on time or, great joy, even immediately, means a lot. Meetings starting and ending on time and completing their agenda, mean a lot.
The difference between your organization eking out its survival vs. thriving is built, in part, on little things. Consider a spaceship seeking to return to earth from the moon. One degree of difference in the craft’s direction creates the difference between a successful arrival or careening into outer space. You can create an atmosphere of accountability. This article shares how.
What Is Accountability?
Accountability has different nuances of meanings. In this case, we'll use Roger Connors and Tom Smith’s definition: “A personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results; to see it, own it, solve it and do it.” Accountability, therefore, is about leadership and choice. As a leader you set the tone. What happens in your organization when someone follows-through on his or her commitment? Is it noticed and appreciated? What happens when you fail to follow-through? Does anyone mention it? In the high-accountability organizations they do—and they are affirmed for their support.
Three Accountability Credos to Adopt and Live
To enhance accountability adopt these philosophies:
Working with us means you will be asked (like all of us) to be accountable. This credo includes staff, board members, volunteers and the people you serve. Ask everyone to be accountable. Make your organization a place where someone’s word equals the task being done. Tips to put this credo into action follow.
We reward those who complete tasks. Don’t underestimate small rewards to reinforce any official gratitude. Approach encouraging successful task completion in a fun way, like offering a prize, the best parking spot or another insider reward. For the next month, create a drawing of donated theater tickets for two. Everyone who arrives early or on time to meetings adds his or her name to a drawing that takes place at month’s end. Avoid spending time waiting for latecomers and chasing down unfinished work; instead invest time recognizing early arrivals and task completion.
Everything we do matters. In late fall, the elk’s goal is to eat enough food to survive the winter. Your goal is to change lives. Seek to help people understand how their tasks fit into your organization’s activities. (Likewise, continually monitor your efforts to ensure you produce the outcomes your mission requires. If tasks don’t help, eliminate them.) Make no compromises when it comes to fulfilling your mission. The greater your accountability the more lives you will change.
Nine Action Steps
Since some people believe that “accountability-lite” is woven into the nonprofit sector’s skeletal system, your nonprofit can standout as one where “accountability might” rules. Embrace the following action steps.
1. Create Accountability Enhancing Tools.
Year Up, a one-year, intensive training program for urban young adults 18-24, uses a student handbook with a detailed set of expectations that students sign. Would it behoove your organization to create similar written guidelines for your clients? How about volunteers and staff? If yes, start simply with a one-page statement. Expand it as you clarify new expectations.
2. Begin With Three Laps Instead of Twenty.
No matter how much you are in shape, the first swim of the season is likely to be an exertion. Your muscles aren’t used to moving in the water. So for the first day, you make the goal to start swimming rather than to meet the endurance record you established last fall. Likewise, at the start of any major task, begin with small assignments “to get used to the water.” Aristotle reminds us, “Well begun is half done.” When you delegate tasks, help the assignee to identify the initial laps. Offer the same courtesy to yourself.
3. Right Size.
Encourage people to “bite off only as much as they can chew at one time.” For yourself and others, translate “Call ten people” into “Call two people a night this week for five nights.” Unless you face a time crunch, no one writes his or her annual report in one afternoon. You start with sub-tasks, like reviewing your last report and creating an outline of narratives, pictures and the charts needed. Help people to divide tasks into chunks to complete in one sitting.
4. Establish Deadlines Before the Deadline.
Your board meeting is on Tuesday evening. Make it a “rule” that all meeting preparations are completed before you leave on Friday—rather than on Tuesday afternoon. While unforeseen events will continue to create chaos and annihilate plans, establishing early deadlines for routine tasks, even grants, increases your outputs, reduces stress and almost always improves your products.
5. Establish Standards, Boundaries and Other Guidelines.
State expectations clearly. For example, I developed the Fifteen-Minute Rule for materials to develop case statements. This rule was created after a staff member checked over 200 files to create a statistic. The Fifteen Minute Rule states that if I request information which takes more than fifteen minutes to collect, to contact me so we can identify an alternative statistic to use.
6. Flex with Reality.
Having just advised setting standards, I now advise you to use them with flexibility. By their nature, things take longer and are more complex than we prefer. Holidays and vacations frequently intervene. If you need County Commission sign-off on an item, you must have the item to county staff two weeks in advance. Balance standards with appropriate flexibility, to accommodate reality.
7. Take Time to Organize.
The busier you are, the more you need organization. David McCoy, Pastor at River's Edge Community Church shared, “I used to be uninterested in organization, but I realized that I could get more done when I was organized.” Being organized isn’t a genetic gift that either you possess or don’t; it is skill based. If you pursue it, you will improve over time. For help organizing, see David Allen’s books including Getting Things Done and Making it All Work.
8. What Gets Measured Gets Done.
Last year, my child brought home an 85 in Spanish complaining about the class’ difficulty. Each night, his father began asking about it. Within two weeks, the child reported that his average was almost 100. The teacher had always offered bonus points for class participation. Until the nightly inquisition began, the child hadn’t been motivated to collect them. When your organization faces challenges getting a task done, consider how to measure even micro improvements. Simple tools, like asking about the task at staff meetings improve performance. A sign-in sheet ostensibly for safety and data gathering, also creates peer affirmation and lets people know their involvement is noticed. Accountability measures are musts in all staff, board, volunteer and client evaluations. The key is that you must measure what matters. See Credo 3.
9. Establish Next Steps, and Check-in Procedures.
Too many things take weeks to complete because no one specified who would take the next step. When you hear, “Oh, I thought you were going to…” it’s a sign that its time to improve your next step procedures by identifying the follow-up process you will use. Assign follow-up to the individual with the most investment in the outcome and if its most important to you—take it on.
Developing accountability in your organization is an ongoing process, one that you can jump-start and move forward with the nine action steps and three credos shared here. Use these big credos and nine actions to generate more of your mission.