Practical Problems with accountability

Guide to Financial Management

Practical problems with accountability

This page describes some of the practical problems that NGOs face in relation to accountability.  The next page looks at some practical ways forward.

1. Being accountable to different stakeholders

NGOs have to be accountable to many different stakeholders, including: beneficiaries, senior managers, trustees, governments and all their different donors.

This creates a lot of work for staff - particularly if many different donors have their own rules about how NGOs should report their work. As a result, the most powerful stakeholders may get more attention (eg donors) and less powerful stakeholders may get less attention (eg beneficiaries).

2. Project reports and budgets

Many senior NGO managers and donors try to achieve accountability by asking field staff to write reports comparing their actual activities to project plans. Reports have an important role to play in describing how funds have been used. But they suffer from three key problems:

  • The initial project plans may be out of date
    They describe people's understanding at the start of an intervention, which may not necessarily be the same as beneficiaries' real needs during the intervention. So initial project plans do not always provide a reliable guide to effective action.
  • Reports are not normally verified
    They are often written by the people whose work is being assessed. Naturally, they may tend to emphasise successes and not draw much attention to problematic areas.
  • People reviewing the reports may be far away from the field
    It is not reasonable to expect them to understand all aspects of the local context in detail. So they may not have the detailed knowledge to judge whether the activities reported are appropriate for local people.

Research has shown that field staff can spend a lot of time writing reports which do not help them do their jobs better.

3. Measuring impact

It is difficult to develop a standard way of measuring the impact of NGOs' activities for a number of reasons, including:

  • Some NGOs' most important results are difficult or expensive to measure - for instance, empowerment, or new skills and confidence, or a specific NGO's contribution to a wider lobbying effort.
  • The impact of each intervention depends on local circumstances which are outside an NGO's control. NGOs are normally small actors, compared to other institutions, like business, culture or government. This makes it hard to attribute specific social changes to specific NGO activities.
  • NGOs have to adapt their work to each different social situation they work in. Their activities are different in each situation and so are their results. This makes it very hard to compare results from one situation to those from another situation or to aggregate them.

Despite many attempts, it has proved impossible to measure NGOs' impact in a single, standard way. Because of the nature of NGOs' work, impact cannot be aggregated; it can rarely be attributed to specific activities; it cannot be compared in quantified terms between different interventions.

Moreover, it is debateable whether spending a lot of time and effort trying to measure impact actually helps field staff work more effectively with local people.

4. Confusion about the goals of accountability

NGOs sometimes try to achieve various different goals at once. For example, an evaluation may be carried out both for 'accountability to donors' and also for 'learning'. But these different goals may need different approaches.

'Accountability to donors' means providing an objective report of successes and failures already achieved. 'Learning' is more likely to mean helping field staff reflect on their experience in a constructive way and decide how to do things differently in the future.

There is a risk that if two goals are confused, then neither goal is achieved to a high standard.

5. Administrative costs

NGOs sometimes present the percentage of money they spend on 'administrative costs' as a measure of their efficiency. But this rarely helps stakeholders to understand much about their work - because 'administrative costs' can be calculated in very many different ways. It is also misleading to present very low 'administrative costs' as always being a good thing. In fact NGOs need to invest a reasonable amount in administration to make sure that they are using funds carefully and that their work is sustainable.


It is important for NGOs to be accountable to a variety of stakeholders. But, at the moment 'upward accountability' seems to dominate and 'downward accountability' does not always get the attention it needs.

Research shows that 'project-based' approaches reinforce this tendency. The sector as a whole is still developing proven, appropriate tools for accountability which meet the needs of all the different stakeholders.

As NGOs tackle these issues, some interesting ways forward are emerging.


Accountability and measuring performance - short notes on a few key books and papers.


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