Debunking "Accountability to Donors"

Nothing gets my teeth gnashing like the discussion of Donor Rights and Donor Accountability. It is such a dangerous sidetrack from where organizations must aim their primary accountability if we are to create an amazing future for our communities. And yet, the notion that organizations are primarily accountable to their donors prevails, and it is growing daily.

The essence of Donor Rights / Accountability is that organizations are primarily accountable to their donors, as the donors (according to this theory) are the organization’s investors – the ones that make everything possible. Therefore, organizations owe their primary accountability to those donors, for spending the donors’ money wisely.

It sounds good at face value, but it is a logic that goes beyond being just seriously flawed (which it is). It is a concept that is hazardous to the ability of community organizations to create visionary improvement to the quality of life in our communities.

(To get a glimpse of where accountability must focus if we are to create an extraordinary future for our communities, this post is a start. And this article goes deeper.)

And so, over the next few weeks, I will be debunking, one by one, the illogical constructs that lie at the heart of the Donor Accountability movement.

To open the discussion, let’s start with an easy one.

Consider that rare animal – the fully funded, fully endowed organization.

If organizations are primarily accountable to their donors and funders, and an organization has no donors to be accountable to, to whom is the organization accountable?

And if the logic works for that organization, why is the logic different if someone has given a donation?

Does accountability really relate to the level of organizational financial security? If an organization starts out with many donors, and over the years grows an endowment to the point where it needs to do virtually no fundraising resulting in very few, if any donors – to whom is the organization accountable?

And does true accountability really change over time if an organization’s purpose does not change over that time?

The questions “To whom are we accountable? And for what?” are about more than just dollars and donors. These questions are at the heart of everything community organizations are able to accomplish. And the reason for that is simple: We accomplish what we hold ourselves accountable for.

If we hold ourselves accountable for creating an amazing future for our communities, our donors will be happy, because our communities will be healthy, vibrant, resilient, humane places to live. And we will provide those results by being fiscally prudent and gracious to our donors, simply because it is impossible to produce incredible results if we do our work in any other way.

Head to the next post in this series.

4 thoughts on “Debunking "Accountability to Donors"”

  1. Great blog — I got to it via’s Give & Take blog. I posted some comments there, but wanted to share some similar thoughts that I had on this issue in one of my previous blogs.

    Apologies for the long URL, but here it is:

    Look forward to reading more of your blog, which I added to my RSS reader. Thanks!

    Jeremy Gregg, Editor
    The Raiser’s Razor

  2. Thanks, Jeremy – and welcome! I appreciate the very practical nature of the points you raised at the linked blog entry. It is indeed a lot of work to nurture a large number of supporters. But it’s also a lot of work to do everything organizations do! Is that work worth it, when the end result is a ton of supporters – not just donors, but real friends, who will help in every way possible? (But then, you can guess my bias there!)

    Again, thanks for being here with us!

  3. Hildy,
    I also got here via Give and Take, where I posted this comment:
    One of the biggest blunders of the nonprofit world in the past 50 years is the excessive emphasis donating gifts that are restriced to “program” dollars. The nonprofit sector has trained donors to not give them unrestricted funds, and now they complain incessently about how hard it is to get unrestricted funds.

    Give to the charities you think have a chance, and let the visionaries be visionaries. Is this “market driven?” – I don’t know and I don’t care — there’s a quote by Henry Ford that is appropriate – “If I had given the people what they wanted – I would have invented a faster horse.”

    If the charity does not meet your expectations, do not continue to give to them in the future. That part of the equation is “market” driven.

    Bill Huddleston
    CFC Expert:

  4. Thanks, Bill. I am reminded of Renata Rafferty’s terrific book, Don’t Just Give It Away, where she shows donors how to do all the due diligence in the world BEFORE they give their gift. The thought of having control AFTER the gift is given – well I appreciated Put Barber’s comments at Give and Take, where he said (I’m paraphrasing), “Once you’ve given a gift, it’s no longer yours!”

    And I always love that Henry Ford quote – thanks for reminding me of it!


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