Challenges around NGO Accountability

Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) could be described as “any non-profit organizations that is independent from Government and they are typically service-based organizations which depend, fully or partially, on charitable donations and voluntary service” (Lehman, 2007, p.64ngos6). NGOs are established as not every society’s problem could be solved by the Government. Currently, there are various NGOs both local and international, for example in the UK there are: British Heart Foundation and Macmillan Cancer Research. In Indonesia we have Posko Keadilan Peduli Umat, Aksi Cepat Tanggap, and Action Relief. Meanwhile in the international level we might heard the Oxfam, Greenpeace, and WWF.

In terms of accountability, Grey et al., 2006, explained that NGOs’ accountability is somewhat complex and different from accountability in profit sector organizations. Firstly, as NGOs are typically a service organization, one who control the fund (donor) is different with one who receive the services. Consequently, it is elusive of to whom NGOs should express the accountability as there is no direct means that the beneficiaries could be put higher than the donor. Secondly, unlike the commercial organizations, NGOs do not have simple “bottom line” which stated in profit or loss, that, hence the NGOs have less obligation to perform financial accountability. Therefore, one might conclude that accountability in NGOs appeared to be under developed compared to the commercial organizations.


PKPU Paramedic in The Mission

Eventhough the notion of NGO’s accountability is reasonably elusive, it does not means that NGOs do not have to perform accountability. NGOs are actually interact with their stakeholders, donors and beneficiaries, that therefore, the NGOs should discharge the accountability for them. Indeed, NGOs accountability is totally and should be different from commercial organizations in many ways and formal accountability might not fit with the Nature of NGO in many ways (Grey et al., 2006). First, NGOs can also be charities while not all countries have rigid charities law about accountability and performance. Second, NGOs are subject to public gaze and media scrutiny, as long as media and public keeping on monitoring NGOs activity, one might consider that NGOs accountability are already performed. Third, the key factor of NGOs accountability lies in the form of engagement with stakeholders, NGOs could performed the accountability through the disseminating of share values. As a result, NGO could be considered performing accountability if there are transparency and closeness with the stakeholders. Transparency could be addressed in answering the question such as: what is the NGO activity? How it is funded? And What the NGO does with the money received?. Meanwhile closeness could be identified as NGO performing its mission. One might consider that PKPU discharging its accountability as they sent the paramedics to earthquake victims, British Heart Foundation has discharge its accountability as it conducting a program involving the heart-attack patient.

The employment of formal accountability in NGO is somewhat improper that thereby might diminished the complex nature of NGOs accountability as NGOs should actively applied the non-formal mode of accountability through stakeholders engagement (Grey et al., 2006). Unerman and O’Dwyer (2008) further divided the type of NGOs accountability into two types. The formal type of accountability is closely related to hierarchical accountability or upward accountability, whereby NGOs are merely performed the accountability to the donor meanwhile the informal type of accountability is closely related to holistic accountability or downward accountability.

Unerman and O’Dwyer (2008) continue that hierarchical accountability is characterized by: narrowly functional, short term orientation, and favor accountability to donor. Agyemang et al., (2009) explain one of the mechanism of hierarchical accountability is through inflexible annual report. This type of accountability could diminish the learning and sharing aspect of NGO’s accountability that thus it has a damaging effect on the characteristic of NGO as agent of social change. The employment of hierarchical accountability also leads to the using of quantitative performance measurement. Apparently, this concept could derail the flexibility of the NGOs. In contrast, holistic accountability, encourage the participation of all stakeholders, including the beneficiaries, in term of performing NGO’s accountability (Agyemang et al., 2009 and Unerman and O’Dwyer, 2008). For instance, in ActionAid, instead of using annual review they use annual participatory review as mechanism of discharging the accountability in various engaging ways, including: story telling, theatre, people’s art and song.

Nevertheless, Grey et al., (2006) demonstrate that in Amnesty Ireland (Human Right NGO) the practice of hierarchical accountability has crowding out the holistic accountability. The competition amongst NGO is plausibly become a reason to retain powerful donor that therefore the accountability performed is mostly to the donor. Moreover, in order to assure that the performance of NGO is effective, the practice of performance measurement through mechanistic approach is also employed. Indeed, the use of mechanistic performance measurement could not assure the actual performance of the NGO. The actual performance of NGO should be visible through the engagement with every stakeholders including donors and beneficiaries. Moreover, although the managers of Amnesty Ireland have the intetion to practice the holistic accountability, It appears that they have no knowledge about practicing such type of accountability.

Dhanani and Conolly (2011) mention another type of NGO’s accountability: strategic accountability, fiduciary accountability, financial accountability, and procedural accountability. Strategic accountability is associated with NGO core purpose: vision, mission, actions, etc. The decision to response specific social issue could also be a form of strategic accountability. Moreover, it would be complete as it follows by the awareness of the impact of NGO’s program. Financial accountability, as it name suggests, account for NGO’s financial position and it is very important for the donors to assess the viability of NGO. Fiduciary accountability relates with how professional NGOs govern their activities. While the procedural accountability means that NGO should account for how they achieve their missions. Evidence suggests that, 75 charities in UK are mainly concern with strategic and fiduciary accountability as these might indicate that the NGOs are professionally achieve the mission that therefore the donors will be satisfied. It also appears that there is a domination of positive image in NGOs annual report indicating that NGOs want to be perceived as legitimate.

Closing Remarks

From the existing evidence, one might conclude that current practice of NGOs accountability are primarily dominated by the desire to retain the donors. This practice is absolutely discourage the role of NGO as an agent for social change. Unerman and O’Dwyer (2008) suggest that NGO should focus to their core mission, which is social change, and try to neglect the pressure from donors. NGO should also be able to balance the tension between upward and downward accountability. Finally, for NGOs, accountability should be used as a mechanism for continous learning rather than only a mechanism as justification and control.


Agemayang, G., Awumbila, M., Unerman, J., & O’Dwyer., B (2009) “NGO Accountability and Aid Delivery”, ACCA.

Dhanani, A., & Conolly, C. (2012). Discharging not-for-profit accountability: UK charities and public discourse. Accounting, Auditing, and Accountability Journal, Vol 25, No.7, p.1140-1169.

Gray, R., Bebbington, J., & Collison., D (2006). NGOs, civil society, and accountability: Making the people accountable to capital. Accounting, Auditing, and Accountability Journal, Vol 19, No.3, p.319-348.

O’Dwyer., B & Unerman., J (2008). The paradox of greater NGO accountability: A case study of Amnesty Ireland. Accounting, Organisation, and Society, Vol. 33, No 7/8, p.801-824