Reclaiming the value of leading with a conscience: accountable leadership in the non-profit sector

By Chandran Nair

This article by Chandran Nair appears in the AccountAbility Forum Issue 12, Winter 2006/07.

Accountability rests on the stakes being high. It is the same for leaders in Asia as anywhere, and there is never a clearer need to recapture that urgency than in the non-profit sector, says Chandran Nair.

For me this has crystallised over a career spanning aid work as an idealistic volunteer, running a successful pan-Asia Pacific business, and starting a not-for-profit hybrid organisation – the Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT) – at the confluence of the non-profit, the government and the business sectors.

Its work has allowed me an insider’s access to the contrasting, otherwise internalised realities of day-to-day accountability from the highest levels of corporate and government leadership to the heads of those five-person NGOs operating in the remotest communities in developing economies.

Many commentators have pressed NGOs to practise what they preach to business and government and tighten their own governance. Here, civil society’s particular importance should be emphasised. It is a conduit through which wider societal concerns may influence policy, while hands-on agencies operate where governments and businesses find themselves ineffective. This only deepens the responsibility to deliver.

Though business has been forced to come to grips with the essential nature of accountability, many NGOs, frustratingly, remain convinced they operate under different rules because they “care”, and their critical work is untainted by profit.

This, the essence of the NGO challenge, struck me in 1982-86 while volunteering in Southern Africa. I witnessed dedicated, driven people, who relied on each other for their lives. But these were not the aid workers I was working with to bring vital clean drinking water and sanitation to rural villagers. This lesson came from African National Congress (ANC) exiles in Swaziland working against South African apartheid.

By contrast, in the United Nations’ International Decade for Water Supply and Sanitation, I saw aid money squandered by weak and corrupt African governments, donor agencies and NGOs alike. High-paid aid workers, even volunteers, embodied the worst of this enduring criticism, believing their work placed them beyond reproach, their apparent good intentions relieving them from delivering results. Never in the many development meetings and forums I attended in Africa was the notion of accountability raised.

But for the ANC exiles the stakes could be no higher – accountability was essential to staying alive, the code by which they were able to continue their fight. By contrast, the NGOs neutralised the stakes by taking the moral high ground.

NGOs struggle with this at a very basic level, because building strong management based on accountability and governance is not their core focus, and only recently demanded of them. Little is practised; it is poorly understood beyond a naïve ideal involving profit making, transparency, disclosure, and how companies operate and are run.

This is evident even with NGOs GIFT has worked with, exceptional though they are technically.

For corporations, especially since the 1990s in Asia and the revelation of outsourced sweatshops, accountability increasingly is essential to survive in the scrutiny and regulatory pressure surrounding business. The stakes are high individually too: employment rides on success; failure must be reckoned with shareholders. Moreover there is a growing demand for companies to conduct themselves sustainably.

Be that as it may, a rapid growth of corporate philanthropic investment in non-profits has brought its own problems, as illustrated by this project I came across in advisory work.

An international NGO accepted significant funding from a global business to create a strategic environmental management plan for an ecologically sensitive area. But after three years the projected ended disappointingly with little to show.

As is common, neither NGO nor donor fully understood each other: the donor was not specific, its senior management signed off on something they had delegated – seduced by the PR and goodwill that association with a global NGO would bring. They neither scrutinised the project nor demanded actions when progress reports showed there was no real accountability for results. For the NGO’s leaders’ part, they delegated the project to field workers lacking project management skills and experience with such sums and who had never been held accountable. They fired no one, held no one accountable for the poor use of the funds or the inability to meet the agreement’s requirements. What is more, there was no sense that anyone should be.

Then the donor poured more funds in to the NGO and similar projects. Maybe the PR is too good, or it is a tax write-off.

Recapturing the urgency, like the high-stakes commitment that drove those ANC exiles, needs the non-profit sector to overcome institutionalised attitudes. The challenges for its leaders – and workers – are to: abandon the moral high ground; be tested to deliver on their objectives; and use an “outsourced” solution to community needs, as appropriate where organizations do not have the internal capacity. The point is to find more effective and competent ways to execute solutions to meet community needs. Very often you cannot campaign and also deliver since the skill sets are so very different. Such outsourcing requires non-profits to plan for success, and even have an exit strategy: projects cannot simply continue rolling over.

Thus, institutionalised accountability acknowledges that most people can easily cross a given ethical line, depending on our organisational situation and the incentives it provides we can. That is why we have institutionalised rules to make people accountable for their actions. Its daily practise rests with the individual, corporate chief executive or NGO team leader alike, who exercises a strong sense of integrity and pride in a framework of intellectual honesty that remains loyal to the understanding that all actions are accountable.

Chandran Nair is the founder and chief executive of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, a pan-Asia organisation working with government, business and civil society to meet the challenges of globalisation in Asia. See:

He has long advocated the need for accountability and transparency in leadership and a more sustainable approach to development in Asia, helping governments and corporations instil these principles into their key decision-making process.

Among other things, he advises corporations on leadership development, ethics, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility and runs a course, “Leading in Asia for the Future”, with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s School of Business, and is a Fellow of the RSA.

This article draws on personal experiences gained through decades of business and advisory work.