Reframing Accountability as an Act of Humanity

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

A Message from Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

As a parent, I have often echoed a tired refrain – “say you’re sorry to your brother.” The “sorry” that followed was usually a grunt, delivered hastily and begrudgingly. It felt unfulfilling —- a superficial performance given without any real thought or feeling. I’ve recently tried a different approach in the wake of these tense family moments: requesting a conversation that goes beyond the obligatory declaration of “I’m sorry.” I’ve asked my kids to pause and reflect, acknowledge how the other person feels, and pledge to do something differently going forward. In other words, this new approach focuses on prioritizing and restoring relationships through accountability. As we’ve navigated this change in approach, my family has found that the most challenging part isn’t the commitment to do something different moving forward but rather the initial acknowledgment of the other person’s feelings and the painful impact of our words or actions. It requires us to accept that we are capable of inflicting harm and can rattle a core belief we have in ourselves – that we are good humans. 

Poet and activist Mia Mingus offers a path for accepting the role of accountability in our human experience when she asks, “What if we embraced accountability as a reflection of our undeniable, incredible, tender humanity? As a magnificent example of what it means to be human and flawed and in relationship with one another?” How often have I conflated accountability with punishment? Instead of focusing on how to repair harm, our society often reacts to a rupture by demanding biblical justice — an eye for an eye — an equal hurt to the perpetrator. Mingus, on the other hand, invites us into a different conversation — one centered on repair and relationship.   

The Nature and Complexity of Accountability at Philanthropy New York

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about accountability in an organizational context as Philanthropy New York finishes our Strategic Direction – a blueprint to guide this organization’s practice for the next five years, which will be shared with the PNY community this fall. We have included a specific section on our approach to accountability in the forthcoming Strategic Direction and have defined the essential elements we believe must be present for real accountability. These include: 

•    Relationships built on trust and consent;
•    Transparency in both process and outcomes;
•    Action in the face of discomfort;
•    An orientation toward repair and away from punishment;
•    Commitment of time and financial resources.

While we are firm in our belief that accountability is key to fulfilling Philanthropy New York’s vision, we are still grappling with how a membership association can approximate the same difficult practice of responsibility and repair that I’m asking of myself and my family. This matters because the work of our entire sector requires building, maintaining, and deepening relationships. In a sector with little oversight, what does it look like to be accountable in a way that centers relationships? This question is not new. The calls have been loud and clear for philanthropic organizations to have accountability mechanisms in place that orient our actions and decisions toward visions of change long called for by directly impacted communities and grantee partners. 

Philanthropy New York’s staff and board have agreed that accountability as a practice is both individual and collective, and it requires different superpowers from each of us based on our racialized identity and proximity to structural power. With quite a few Marvel fans on staff, we often talk about the special powers we bring to our work — many of which will be required to fulfill our promise of accountability. I’ve often heard staff mention the Bravery that gets activated when a group of staff members asks senior leadership for a more emboldened approach to align our practices with our values. Curiosity underlies the ability to hear feedback without defensiveness — a continuous growth area for me as a CEO. And, we all need the Empathy Gauntlet to acknowledge the emotional impact of our actions, regardless of our intent. 

At the board level, we are teasing apart the conflation of accountability and compliance. For example, in addition to cybersecurity and financial risk assessments, the board can collectively ask what structures we have in place to help Philanthropy New York staff heal from the multiple and compounding traumas of an ongoing pandemic, relentless racialized assaults, and Supreme Court rulings that strip away fundamental human rights and threaten the work that many entered this field to accomplish. Additionally, if we are to be accountable to relationships, board members will spend more time thinking about how they show up with each other. Individually, board members can listen for and disrupt microaggressions in their committee meetings, peer networks or working groups along the lines of identity in which they hold privilege. For example, white board members can disrupt racist microaggressions and male board members can disrupt sexist microaggressions. 

We recognize that our superpower as an institution is rooted in the trust of our members. This trust is nurtured in accountability and the foundation for the relationships at the heart of our accountability journey. As we embark on a new Strategic Direction that centers on anti-racist practice, we understand the importance of being more intentional in inviting feedback. We must enhance existing accountability processes and build new ones that listen to the wisdom and input of those often furthest from structural power. We must work to follow the lead of those whose identities afford them lived wisdom but are often outside the center of our designs and at the greatest risk from harmful practices.

Mingus beckons us to embrace our undeniable, incredible, tender humanity. I love this phrase because in Philanthropy New York’s Philanthropy 101 course, we frequently remind those new to the field that the word philanthropy means “a love of humanity.” And while our shift toward deeper accountability in our equity practice is nascent, the team at PNY is excited about the possibilities. From creating more consistent and institutionalized staff feedback processes that inform management practices to ensuring that staff members and working group co-chairs at PNY have the skills and the power to disrupt behaviors that can cause racialized harm, the opportunities for building this practice are only limited by imagination. I hope we can think big and that you, our members, will share how you would like to experience an accountable community at PNY.

I invite your reflections and conversation around a practice that centers on the goal of repair, restoration, and trust. I believe that in doing so, we can create a sector that reflects a genuine love of humanity.

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