How can nonprofit organizations improve accountability to the populations they serve?


charity accountability

As organizations serving public interests, nonprofits answer to the voices of multiple stakeholders. The complex accountability relationships facing nonprofit organizations include responsibilities to donors, clients, community partners, staff members and volunteers. Under pressure from multiple stakeholders, nonprofits tend to prioritize accountability to donors, foundations and governments over accountability to clients and the populations served by the organization (Ebrahim, 2003). However, by seeking out the voices of the people they serve, nonprofit organizations can embrace their responsibilities and improve their organizations.

By improving downward accountability, defined as accountability to the populations nonprofits serve, organizations can meet their obligations to clients and others affected by the services and programs of a nonprofit (Ebrahim, 2003). Nonprofit organizations have a responsibility to embrace client perspectives, as serving clients often represents a primary purpose for many nonprofits (Twersky, Buchanan, & Threlfall, 2013). Improving downward accountability benefits nonprofits by empowering the individuals they serve, improving the legitimacy of the organization, and enhancing organizational effectiveness (Mercelis, Wellens & Jegers, 2016; Twersky et al., 2013). Even as different stakeholders demand their share of responsiveness from the organization, improving organizational effectiveness should appeal to most nonprofit stakeholders.

New efforts to prioritize downward accountability in the midst of multiple stakeholder demands indicates the importance of downward accountability as a critical issue facing the nonprofit sector. In 2014, the Center for Effective Philanthropy conducted a survey of 235 nonprofit leaders to identify the main practices used by nonprofit organizations to engage clients (Buteau, Gopal, & Buchanan, 2014). Among those surveyed, almost all of the nonprofit leaders indicated their organizations gathered client feedback (Buteau et al., 2014). However, while many nonprofit organizations employ mechanisms to improve downward accountability, the types of mechanisms used varies widely between nonprofit organizations.

Most nonprofit organizations engage in feedback mechanisms such as surveys, interviews or focus groups in order to gather perspectives from the people they serve to address downward accountability (Buteau et al., 2014). Some nonprofits, invested in the importance of accountability to clients, have moved beyond client feedback and embraced involving clients directly in organizational decision-making (Mercelis et al., 2016). Nonprofit organizations seeking to amplify the voices of clients face decisions about selecting the right combination of mechanisms as they aim to implement tools and processes conducive to the local operating environment of the nonprofit.

Prioritizing downward accountability, especially over other accountability relationships, offers some challenges for nonprofit organizations. The Center for Effective Philanthropy study reported 51percent of those surveyed do not have sufficient resources or capacity to invest in new mechanisms to improve downward accountability (Buteau et al., 2014; Twersky et al., 2013). Even with adequate resources, some nonprofit organizations may be hesitant to receive negative feedback (Twersky et al., 2013). Nonprofit organizations seeking to streamline decision-making or cautious about ceding control of programming to external forces may also be less willing to embrace authentic mechanisms of accountability (Mercelis et al., 2016).

Despite the challenges associated with addressing downward accountability, nonprofit leaders seeking to improve accountability to the populations they serve must first address how mechanisms align with the organization’s mission and values (Mercelis et al., 2016). Nonprofit leaders should also establish a procedure to allow clients to provide complaints, recognizing even negative perspectives could be relevant to organizational improvement (Mercelis et al., 2016).

When developing mechanisms to improve downward accountability, informal mechanisms provide opportunities for unexpected communication with nonprofit staff and empower clients to provide perspectives relevant to their experiences (Wellens & Jegers, 2016). Adopting formal mechanisms can also be useful by signaling to the larger public the organization’s commitment to downward accountability.  Embracing a balanced approach between informal and formal mechanisms offers the best method for collecting useful client perspectives. By using both tools and processes to improve downward accountability, nonprofit organizations are able to implement cost saving and easy to replicate tools while investing in the long-term processes needed to gather in-depth information from clients (Ebrahim, 2003).

Implementing mechanisms to transfer power to clients provides the greatest opportunity to improve downward accountability (Benjamin, 2013). Mechanisms that encourage clients to be involved in organizational decision-making or support the development of client-led initiatives increase the depth of client control and participation (Ebrahim, 2003; Mercelis et al., 2016). Overcoming symbolic downward accountability also requires nonprofit leaders move beyond simply listening to clients and, instead, develop systems to communicate client perspectives to a wider audience and adjust services as needed (Benjamin, 2013).

Improving mechanisms for downward accountability offers the people served by nonprofits both choice and voice in the services they receive (Benjamin, 2013). By strengthening downward accountability, nonprofit leaders can improve their organizations and ensure they meet their responsibilities to those they serve.


Benjamin, L. M. (2013). The potential of outcome measurement for strengthening nonprofits’ accountability to beneficiaries. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 42(6), 1224-1244. doi:10.1177/0899764012454684

Buteau, E., Gopal, R., & Buchanan, P. (2014). Hearing from those we seek to help: Nonprofit practices and perspectives in beneficiary feedback (Rep.). Retrieved from The Center for Effective Philanthropy website: 08/CEP-Hearing-from-Those-We-Seek-to-Help.pdf

Ebrahim, A. (2003). Accountability in practice: Mechanisms for NGOs. World Development, 31(5), 813-829. doi:10.1016/S0305-750X(03)00014-7

Mercelis, F., Wellens, L., & Jegers, M. (2016). Beneficiary participation in non-governmental development organizations: A case study in Vietnam. The Journal of Development Studies, 52(10), 1446-1462. doi:10.1080/00220388.2016.1166209

Twersky, F., Buchanan, P., & Threlfall, V. (2013). Listening to those who matter most, the beneficiaries. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 11(2), 41.

Wellens, L., & Jegers, M. (2016). From consultation to participation. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 26(3), 295-312. doi:10.1002/nml.21191

Natalia Winberry completed her undergraduate studies at Beloit College in 2007 and started her career in 2008 as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Phoenix, Arizona. After completing her AmeriCorps VISTA term, Natalia served in a variety of roles at the International Rescue Committee working on refugee resettlement programs. For the past year, Natalia has worked at the ASU Lodestar Center as the Project Specialist for Public Allies Arizona, an AmeriCorps program dedicated to supporting emerging leaders in the local community. Natalia graduated in May 2017 with a Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management from Arizona State University.

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Author: gicinga