Time To Review – To Whom Are You Accountable?

During the Covid pandemic there has been a fair bit of introspection and soul searching about arts and culture, the role they should have in people’s lives, and the medium through which the experience should be delivered.

Now that there is some optimism about a transition to a relatively better operational environment for businesses and other organizations,  (Yes, i am indeed taking pains not to use terms like “return to normal”), it is definitely time to think about how those theories will be manifested.

Vu Le linked to an important essay by Hildy Gottlieb addressing the question of to whom non-profits should be accountable. Her primary thesis is that it is illogical to view the organization as accountable to funders & donors. She dissects the illogic of the implications of a funder accountable position. Among her best examples is the following:

If organizations are primarily accountable to donors, and a donor dies, is the organization still accountable to that person? What if it’s been 30 years since they died, and the world has changed dramatically — are you still accountable to that person’s wishes? Or are you accountable to their heirs? What if the heirs don’t care about your mission — perhaps their mother was an animal lover, and they could never understand that part of her. Maybe they even hate your organization. Are you accountable to the second and third generations of a donor who loved you, even if her heirs do not?

Gottlieb says the organizational mission determines to whom you are accountable. If your mission is serving a certain group, but they take a backseat to funders, then you are not fulfilling your mission. She addresses the concept of there being no mission to execute without the money with the following anecdote:

I once found myself in conversation with board members from a federally funded health center, who all listed patient health as their highest priority. However, one board member kept insisting, “We can only prioritize patient care to the extent we have the money to do so.”

So I took a sheet of paper and wrote “Values Statement’ at the top. Then I wrote, “Our primary focus will always be the health of our patients, as long as we have the money to do so.” I asked if that is what they would like to post in their lobby.

Suddenly their sense of accountability shifted.

She also notes that in the United States the organization has tax-exempt status in return for providing a public service. The reason for being and accountability is the public service and not the money. The “good stewardship” of funds that results in underpaid staff who turn over at a high rate doesn’t help the organization to advance it’s mission.

“Focusing their primary accountability on the money, we see board members spend a huge percentage of their time discussing financial matters, and often zero time discussing what success would look like in their community”

Gottlieb also debunks the sense that fundraising is a result of relationship building, the oft voice sentiment “people give to people, not organizations.” She says no one is fooled that the relationship is more than a transactional one:

Here is what “fundraising is about relationships” really tells a donor:

If you give us money, we will be your friend.
If we think you will give us money, we will court you as our friend.
The more money you give us, the more friendly we will be.
If you fail to give us money, we will eventually stop calling you.

If we truly valued donors as people, we would stop categorizing them as LYBUNTs and SYBUNTs.

So much of what she writes can easily be applied to the way arts and cultural organizations approach donors/members/volunteers. While I often say it is worthwhile to read an article, I strongly emphasize the importance of reading this one and thinking about how the opportunity for a fresh start will change the way your organization operates moving forward.

I was considering putting such an emphatic statement at the beginning of this post, but considered that anyone who read this far would be more prepared to make the effort toward this goal.

I strongly suspect being more steadfast in prioritizing mission over money will make accomplishing progress in areas of equity and inclusion suddenly much easier than it was before.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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