Accountability and responsibility are often used synonymously but responsibility is marked by two fundamental differences – emotion and depth of commitment. These differences can have a profound impact when it comes to making change. The way I see it, and the way we think about it in our Catalyst program, is that to be accountable is to understand all the facts of the matter but to be responsible is to feel and engage our emotions and our moral truth.
To understand these ideas separately means that we can begin to understand how someone can be accountable to the truth without feeling the emotional weight of the responsibility to act based on the truth. Perhaps this compartmentalizing of accountability and responsibility has found itself at the center of very heated conversations about wearing a face mask in public. For many people it seems they can make the distinction between being accountable to the fact – masks save lives, or it is the law – and feeling the personal responsibility for donning a mask. Unfortunately, this distinction is infuriating to many who enter the debate with the emotional commitment that comes with responsibility already in place. The chasm is wide between these groups and there is little that a rant on Facebook or a clever meme will solve. Those in public health have seen this schism play out their entire careers whether it was about the use of seat belts, or condoms, or clean needles, or car seats. The facts are simply different from the emotions to make the changes we need to keep ourselves and everyone else safe.
We are also seeing the difference between accountability and responsibility play out as we talk about how nonprofit boards and staff leaders should be more diverse to more accurately reflect the people at the center of each mission. Plenty of facts point to why diversity matters. Many groups don’t dispute them and even express accountability – but action? change? Well, that requires the emotional commitment to change, because let’s face it – it will be hard work. And herein lies so many of our challenges.
We talk about injustices in our landscape whether they are built into our systems or are created along the way. But too often we talk about them without an avenue to feel personally accountable to the truth and responsible for changing it. The chasm between accountability and responsibility is deep and wide. If we are not careful, we fall into an abyss of blame, defensiveness, and obfuscation rendering ourselves stuck exactly where we started. Trust me, I get it. Change is hard. No one does it perfectly. No one gets it right all the time or even most of the time. If we really want the change we talk about, then we need to hold ourselves and each other responsible to take the next step, and then the next, and then the next. Action is the fuel in responsibility. And it is long past time to fill up our tanks.
So in the name of bridging the gap and accessing not just the facts but the emotional fortitude to effect change, I offer a few areas where we can focus together. These are areas long-discussed but still in need of wholesale change. Every one of you and your missions are at a different point of the journey between accountability and responsibility for action – some just beginning and others leading the way. Judgment and blame are useless distractions. Start where you are and move from there. Make no mistake, it will take all of us not just the ones leading the way to hold the truth and support the emotional weight of making systemic changes to better our missions, our sector, and our communities. We are in this together.
Which one will you pick of these topics? One, some, all? You choose – they all need you.
As the first step of many, below are three areas to move from accountability to responsibility. This first step is really about the accountability phase – the understanding of the truth. From there we move to the personal and organizational work it will take to own the action steps of responsibility. We are ready when you are.
Maybe you are moved to action by all these issues, or maybe just one. In each, we must strive to get to both accountability and responsibility. The intent is not option paralysis – it is action. Know that you can count on us at Foraker to continue offering opportunities to stay both accountable to the facts and responsible in your next steps. After that – the steps are yours to take.