Thursday, January 05, 2023

I have really been pondering this notion of boards and their governance responsibility. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the words ‘accountability’ and ‘responsibility’. After reading a couple of dictionary definitions it is clear that they are different, and yet, they are often used synonymously. 

Responsibility includes the things that we do either because they are assigned to us or they are a response to a situation that may need to be handled. Essentially they are tasks, activities and even decisions. However accountability is a recognition that these tasks, actions, or decisions that are made have consequences. They have an impact, intended or unintended, that we are responsible for. Accountability is more than simply doing something. In fact, it requires our impact to be judged. Yep. We are judged about the impact of accomplishing our responsibilities. 


Over the past 32 years, I’ve seen boards do really well with holding an Executive Director/CEO accountable for their responsibilities. I’ve also seen boards fulfill some of their responsibilities. However, no one holds nonprofit boards accountable. In fact, very few boards take the time to ask, “Who are we accountable to?” Even fewer boards ask, “How do we demonstrate our accountability?” This leads to a question about whether boards take their responsibilities seriously if they do not know who they are accountable to and how that accountability is demonstrated. 

At Partners for Impact we have been working with boards and explicitly asking them, “Who are your stakeholders? How do you connect with them?” We talk specifically about how this is the unique value-add that a board can bring to the organization through defining and engaging with stakeholders. This is the first step in governing. If board members are not needed to manage (see my previous blog on management vs governance) the organization, then we have to help them understand their responsibilities to govern. Connecting with stakeholders, understanding the values that they hold dear, and enabling the organization to live into a similar set of values is a crucial role for board governance. It sets the stage for a board in understanding who it is accountable to and what it is accountable for, and my belief is that it helps them understand the importance of their board responsibilities.