Accountability, Affinity Fraud, and the Nonprofit Organization

As I work with executive leadership teams and boards of nonprofit organizations, one of the recurring challenges I encounter is a reticence to engage the difficult, accountability conversations. A short story might be helpful to illustrate the point.

I had a conversation recently with a friend who is employed as a fraud investigator with a securities commission. We were talking about a particular case that had been in the news where he was the lead investigator and was testifying in court. He told me how the accused had played on the trust of people within a nonprofit organization he was a part of and had bilked them of millions of dollars. When investigators attempted to interview victims of this scam many were reluctant to talk, feeling they were in some way betraying the organization and the individuals in it. It had little bearing that they had been victims of a criminal act! Their loyalty to the individual and the organization trumped the request for information. This friend went on to say, “Affinity fraud is rampant and it is the worst kind of fraud.”

Nonprofits are prone to affinity fraud. Not in the sense of being bilked out of money, although that is definitely a possibility, but in the sense that they make assumptions about people and activities, without ever asking the difficult accountability questions that might provide information to substantiate or validate those assumptions. If they were to ask the accountability questions, what they would discover is that sometimes those assumptions are based more in fantasy and good will, than they are in fact.

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The Trust Factor - When It’s Problematic

Most nonprofits tend to operate with a high level of trust. “He’s a good person. e cares so much about the organization and the people we serve.” Because “he’s a good person” they take what he says at face value, assuming that they have the whole story.

Occasionally I meet a person who willfully sets out to misrepresent reality or the facts. They are purposefully deceptive. Most often, however, I encounter individuals who are “less than forthcoming” with the facts. They’re not overtly malicious or deceptive. They operate by the mantra, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In other words, “if you don’t ask me, I’m not going to tell you.”

This comes into play with job performance, reporting the facts on the ground, reality as it is, not as it is being portrayed. Well meaning board members and executive members offer a patronizing, “thank you for your report” and naively move on as if they have the whole story, as if they have a realistic grasp on reality. That’s not to in any way call into question whether or not the person offering the report is in fact a good person. That’s not to question the individual’s passion for the cause or the organization! But it is to say that accountability questions could have served to drill down to uncover more of the facts, more of the story, and in the process provide a more complete portrait of reality.

I wish the scenario I’m laying out for you wasn’t true, but if I was paid for every nonprofit context where I encountered this scenario, I could go on an extended exotic vacation at a five-star resort in a warm climate! While we might not want to call it “affinity fraud” I’m suggesting that’s exactly what it is. It’s not a criminal act, no one’s life or life savings have likely been endangered or squandered, but the trust of the rest of the executive team, board and ultimately donors has been taken advantage of. I would go so far to suggest abused.


Accountability and Trust - Not Mutually Exclusive

Perhaps one of the significant hurdles to cross is the accountability/trust duality. Often, accountability is seen as a lack of trust, and yet, for trust to be substantive and genuine, accountability has to be a part of the dynamic. In fact where good accountability structures are in place AND functioning well, they actually serve to enhance trust, not diminish it!

In a day and age where people occupying positions of public trust have been exposed for less than accountable behavior, can a serious nonprofit ignore the accountability factor? Don’t donors deserve the assurance that there are good accountability processes in place, functioning well, ensuring maximum impact in the use of the donor’s dollars? I would suggest that as a minimum threshold!

Accountability - Board Responsibility

The onus for ensuring these accountability structures are not only in place but also functioning well rests squarely on the shoulders of the Board of Directors. It is their fiduciary duty to ask the accountability questions, and to do so not in a mean spirited way, but in a manner that truly does hold staff accountable to deliver on the promise of the nonprofit in a way that accurately reflects reality on the front lines.

Accountability - A Two-Way Street

But, if the Board is going to hold the executive leadership team accountable, they also need to model accountability in their working relationships as a board! A willingness to hold themselves accountable will increase the level of trust with staff, volunteers, and donors alike. In the end, everybody wins! And quite likely the world will be better for it!

The bottom line? A dose of healthy skepticism isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it may be the first step in circumventing affinity fraud in its many forms in your nonprofit!