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NGO ‘accountability’, or at least performance, under the microscope

NGO accountability is a dance as old as time itself (a phrase used regularly, at least the last part, on the excellent Bugle podcast)

Accountability as a word is a bit like transparency.

Unless we get really quite specific it’s hard to know what it can actually mean that’s any use.

And now there seems (I say seems, who knows, we have kind of been here before) to be a reasonably well-funded effort to try to work out how to measure or at least consider how to measure, NGOs.

As Marc Gunther reports:

“The encouraging news is that efforts are underway by big foundations and independent evaluators to better judge the effectiveness of all nonprofits, including green groups.
Among the leaders in this movement is GuideStar, which harbors ambitions to become a Bloomberg-like information portal about nonprofits, to enable smarter decision-making by donors and NGOs alike. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last year pledged $3 million to help GuideStar bulk up its offerings.
Jacob Harold, the 37-year-old president and CEO of GuideStar, is in the thick of the conversation about nonprofit performance. A Stanford MBA, Harold worked as a climate change campaigner for Rainforest Action Network and as a grant-maker focusing on effective philanthropy at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, so he’s thought a lot about how to measure the impact of environmental groups.
It doesn’t make sense, he says, to try to devise a single metric or set of metrics to compare all green groups. But it might be possible to come up with ways to compare organizations within focus areas such as conservation, education, research or advocacy.”
It all looks like a worth-while and interesting project. 
But there is a bit of a problem here. 
Firstly, comparing say, Greenpeace and WWF, is about as useful as trying to compare Shell and BP. 
That is to say, almost no use at all. Organisations are best compared to their own past performance than with mis-matched peers who operate in very different circumstances for the most part. 
Secondly, no matter what some measurement NGO or rating system says, if campaigners or other NGOs can show performance to supporters and deliver results with companies, that’s where they will see their mandate coming from, not some scoring system. 
I can see elements of this being useful for foundation committees to consider donations in really specific areas, particularly around ‘partnership’ / implementation NGOs, but I can’t see it being any use with campaign groups. Still, it’s likely worth keeping an eye on. 
Bill Gates has put money in, and he does get things done, like him or not.