There is something fundamentally wholesome about the idea of ACCOUNTABILITY in philanthropy, and many of its uses are welcome and deadly serious. When grantmakers and nonprofits talk about their own accountability — to the public, to the people they are trying to benefit, and to one another — they are on to an important topic, one that deserves plenty of careful thought.

Unfortunately, the word accountability has acquired, by its sheer overuse, the kind of solemn grandeur that often substitutes for thought, rather than encouraging it. Look at the example on teacher quality quoted earlier: The foundation was calling for more use of data on “America’s teacher workforce … for greater ACCOUNTABILITY and smarter decisionmaking.” Sounds responsible, scientific, and reasonable, no?

Now answer this: Accountable for what, to whom, with what consequences? Should teachers be called to account for their students’ test scores? For the teachers’ own mastery of pedagogy or the subjects they teach? For the academic and professional training they’ve completed (what another author calls “hoops and hurdles”), or only for their knowledge and achievements in the classroom? And most of all, who should publish, read, and act on these accounts? The sweet purr of ACCOUNTABILITY makes it easy for writers to tiptoe right past all those nettlesome questions. The word seems to speak volumes, yet it is actually little more than articulate silence.

The beauty of ACCOUNTABILITY in many (not all) of its philanthropic uses is that it seems to discharge a heavy fiduciary duty without breaking a sweat. That is not, to be sure, a foible unique to philanthropy. Business and government have made an art of publishing reams of data, using a few of the numbers to aggrandize their accomplishments, and then pirouetting around any unflattering information so that an ordinary reader is unlikely to make heads or tails of it. When corporations do this in their “accountability” to stockholders, analysts, and securities regulators, prosecutors get interested and people can lose their life savings. When civic and nonprofit groups do it, the losses are harder to calculate. But among the losers is democracy.

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