In July 2022, Public Allies, a national nonprofit committed to “advancing social justice and equity by engaging and activating the leadership of all people” (para. 1), laid off 30 employees and closed nine of its 22 sites without notice (Rodriguez, 2022).

Ninety-two percent of those employees were people of color; 58% were Black women, according to alumni (Woods, 2002). Ironically, months earlier, Public Allies received a $10 million gift from MacKenzie Scott to support the organization’s Racial Equity Fundraising Campaign (Woods, 2022). Then-CEO Jaime Ernesto Uzeta cited restructuring in an announcement of the changes, but Public Allies program alumni claimed that those laid off were targeted for openly voicing concerns about Uzeta’s negligent oversight of operations and programs (Woods, 2022).

Public Allies supporters and alumni quickly rallied against the changes, creating a website to support affected Public Allies sites and staff. Among other things, they demanded accountability for the CEO’s perceived inability to align with Public Allies’ stated core values and mission. Uzeta resigned a few weeks later (Save Public Allies, 2022).

Public accountability is woven into the fabric of many social structures. Public officials in government are directly accountable to their constituents and must be elected and reelected by those they serve. In the nonprofit sector, organizations are meant to be accountable to their boards, donors, community partners, staff members, grantees, and volunteers. However, the methods for holding a nonprofit organization accountable — for their actions, fiscal choices, community relationships, etc. — have not always been so clear, accessible, or publicized.

That seems to be changing now.

Nonprofits may never be influenced by such direct public accountability measures as elections, but public pressure can be powerful. There are an increasing number of examples — like Public Allies — where nonprofit organizations and their executive staff have failed to reflect their mission in their work, and that misalignment has garnered national media attention.

Other stories have arguably happier endings; “accountability” is not inherently meant to be punitive. It is intended to lead to improvements and growth. At the beginning of 2018, for example, the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities publicly advocated for a national paid family leave program — but offered their employees only two weeks of paid parental leave. By the end of the year, CBPP’s staff had formed a union and won a new contract guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid family leave (Rosenberg, 2020). In this case, organizational leadership was ultimately seen as supportive of staff and willing to change.

Further, many nonprofit boards already hold themselves accountable by including community representatives in their decision-making — as staff, volunteers, advisors, and as board members themselves. As more nonprofits and foundations open up their operations to all their stakeholders — embracing greater inclusion, strategies like participatory grantmaking, or changing how they monitor and evaluate their programs — more people will come to expect and wield opportunities for accountability. Whether and how these efforts lead to more significant mission impact has yet to be seen.

Read the full article about nonprofit accountabiity by Julie Couturier and Angie Vuyst at Johnson Center.