Some readers may have heard about what is going on over at AccountAbility, the former NGO standards setter around some areas of CSR.
The organisation is currently mired in controversy and suffering an identity and funding crisis.
(The AA1000 Standards Board collectively resigned on January 11, 2011, citing organisational direction in a thinly veiled public attack via open letter. The letter is here) Comments from former employees and stakeholders are here.
Without going into all the detail (we’ll be publishing an in-depth article soon) of the mess that today’s AccountAbility finds itself in, the upshot is major change for the organisation.
(There is no mention of this change on their website, despite a request from the now-ex board to disclose what has happened)
That may not matter too much to some: AccountAbility has become steadily less relevant for many in the field in the last five or so years, driven as it was by the whims of poor leadership and the positive evolution in practice amongst large companies which overtook its work.
But what may matter is the turning of previously ‘open source’ style standards, around stakeholder engagement and reporting assurance, into a profit making venture for AccountAbility’s new directors.
This is what I hear is happening.
If that’s right, (and it is) it begs the question of whether this is morally right.
If a pure consultancy develops proprietary ‘standards’ they are largely ignored, seen as a marketing tool for services and/or a methodology.
If a multi-stakeholder driven NGO (as AccountAbility once was) does the same, and they are accepted by many, what right do later directors of the organisation, having made it for-profit, have to the cash generated by these standards in future?
It strikes me as quite wrong that the new bosses of the organisation can make financial hay from standards developed by others, to the benefit only of themselves.
What value will a for-profit AccountAbility create for anyone except private clients who will pay for those services?
That would not be a problem normally, but to be clear: The intellectual property and all of the reputation/database of the firm was created on a non-profit basis by others.
I’m no standards expert (thankfully), but sure this is not how it’s supposed to be, is it?
This does not pass the ethical ‘smell test’ that usually serves most of us well.
From what I hear, AccountAbility’s ‘evolution’ sounds like a group of new bosses trying to cash in from the shell of a once-useful organisation, with no moral right, even if they have wangled a legal right, to do so.
UPDATE 14/01/11: I’ve had an email from AccountAbility about this post. They sent me a letter they have put out to stakeholders. Here’s a copy of it.
AccountAbility, in the note to me, say that the firm is indeed still a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee.
But they also, disingenuously, suggested that my post is about the resignation of the standards board. It is not.
My question is a much more fundamental one: Who owns the assets, and who will profit from them, and how.
I sent the following questions in response and will post any answers I get:
1) What is your strategic plan for the organisation? To be a not for profit US-based and led consultancy? In which case, could I ask how the directors are paid, will the profits be paid to them, for example? Or used for another purpose? Will the directors take salaries much higher than in the past? ( I know of some ‘not for profit’ groups where all the profits are simply paid as high salaries to a few directors to retain that status, hence my question)
2) Who now owns the organisation? Ie who are the shareholders? And who are the actual legal directors? And how did they come to ‘own’ a not-for-profit company having not set it up themselves? Was it purchased? If so, can we know from whom, and when?
3) As a not for profit limited by guarantee, what kind of public reporting and accounting will be offered to interested parties?