Accountability for advocates
September 4, 2011

“The ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.”
— C. Michael Armstrong, former Chairman of AT&T

Everyone knows ed reformers love accountability. 50CAN is no different. Accountability is one of our three core policy principles (flexibility and choices being the others). We believe in setting high standards, assessing our progress towards those goals, being transparent about what worked and what didn’t, and grounding individual and organizational evaluations in these results.

What’s good for schools is good for advocacy groups. If we take our mission seriously (and we do), we need to be just as committed to bringing accountability to our advocacy work as we are to bringing accountability to the public schools we are working to reform.

Below are five different layers of accountability at 50CAN and a description of how we are looking to make the most of them. This post is a bit long but I wanted it to be as complete a guide as possible. Please take a few minutes after you read this post to share your thoughts on how we can strengthen our approach to accountability.

Team Members. We have hired an amazing staff at 50CAN, but that is just step one to fulfilling our mission. To be effective we need to foster an open climate where everyone feels comfortable speaking their mind, holding us to the principles we have set forth and challenging us to do better when we fall short of our goals (as we will inevitably do from time to time).

One thing that makes this kind of staff-led accountability possible is having the right organizational climate. We have tried hard to avoid the trappings of hierarchy that discourage an associate from speaking up when he or she thinks a more senior member is off track. Everyone works in the same size work space (a nice little cube), there are no corner offices to intimidate others or doors to close to avoid candid feedback. We rotate leadership of the weekly staff meeting each week through the entire roster of the staff, so everyone has equal standing to set the agenda. Everyone’s calendars are completely viewable by everyone else. Everyone is required to post what they are working on throughout the day to our internal Yammer feed (more than 10,000 posts in the past six months).

Everyone also creates weekly work plans, which are scored red, yellow and green at the end of each week for everyone to see. We all operate under individual annual goals, which are posted on our office walls and form the basis for quarterly reviews with scores of 1 through 10 for each section (the senior staff anonymously scores my progress once a quarter). This accountability to each other is a critical first step to making sure all the little things we are doing are aligned around our mission. If staff members feel like the issues they are raising with me or the other senior staff aren’t being properly addressed, they are encouraged to take them directly to the board.

Boards. Speaking of the board, as a 501(c)(3) public charity we are required to have an independent board of directors that provides careful oversight over our work.

While the law requires only three board members to start a nonprofit organization, the IRS also advises that “Organizations with very small or very large governing boards may be problematic: small boards generally do not represent a public interest and large boards may be less attentive to oversight duties.” 50CAN currently has eight board members and we are looking to reach a board of 12 members by the end of the year, which we think is right in the sweet spot of what the IRS envisions.

In building the board we have looked for people who not only share a common commitment to our mission and can help us successfully execute our annual goals but also who have the background to provide effective oversight and bring an independent perspective to our work. You can learn about our board members here.

In the December of each year, the 50CAN board debates and approves both our organizational budget (which you can view here) and a set of organizational goals. For 2011, these goals covered five areas: 1) Build a new nonprofit capable of launching and supporting ConnCAN-style state campaigns, 2) Raise at least $8 million in funding, 3) Continue to build up great campaign organizations in Rhode Island and Minnesota and launch at least two new campaign organizations (Maryland and New York), 4) Run campaigns seeking three significant education reform policy victories in both Rhode Island and Minnesota, and 5) Develop at least four viable options for expansion in 2012. These goals will be used to evaluate our performance at the December 2011 board meeting and we will be posting an overview of how we did on this website at the end of the year. We will also post our board meeting schedule on the Board page of this website at the beginning of each calendar year and post a summary of the board meeting on that page within 30 days of each meeting.

A second critical component of this board level of accountability is found in the advisory boards we create in every state in which we operate. Before launching a new state chapter, we recruit a diverse set of 10-20 advisory board members who help in the selection of the state executive director, provide advice and support on the overall campaign, support local fundraising efforts and partner with the executive director to set the policy agenda each year for the state campaign. The central role of these advisory boards in the policy-setting process helps ensure that the issues we work on are grounded in the realities of the states and that there is a long-term commitment to seeing them through from idea to law to results in the classroom. The NYCAN and MarylandCAN advisory boards will be announced later in the fall.

Funders. 50CAN does not take any government funding and we don’t run any income-generating projects, so all of our income is the result of donations. There are two perspectives on this: the point of view of funders who want their donations to have a positive impact and the point of view of other people who want to understand how the funding we raise influences our work.

Some donations have more accountability built in than others. In the first six months of 2011, almost all (99 percent) of our donations were for general operating support. In the case of these donations, we are not committing to support any particular project or policy, but instead providing prospective funders with the kind of material found on this website (our mission, our policy principles, our budget, our track record and our plans for the future) and asking them to trust the staff to make the particular calls about how to best use their money to advance our mission. These grants are usually given for one year, with either an explicit discussion of additional years if we meet the organizational goals we have set for ourselves or the possibility to come back after a year for a renewal.

Since we view these donations as the start of a long-term relationship, securing renewals of these funders by meeting or exceeding our organizational goals is a key form of accountability for us. At the same time, in each of our states we have set a goal of ensuring that the state campaign is 100 percent supported by in-state funders four years after launch. This means once we have launched a state campaign we are particularly focused on emerging as a trustworthy and effective force for good inside that state, which adds a particular emphasis on accountability to local funders.

You can review our full list of funders here. We are proud of the diversity of funding we have received in our first eight months and in particular the support from in-state funders for our work (20 of our first 23 funders giving $1,000 or more are in-state funders). Any commitments to funders beyond a general commitment to tackle the mission outlined on this website is explained next to the funder’s name on our funders page.

Beyond this commitment to transparency, we also are drawing a few lines in the sand about who we won’t take money from. As mentioned above, we don’t take money from any governmental source because we often are working to influence what they do. We also don’t attempt to raise money by selling services to anyone (for example, schools or districts) because we feel this would undermine our independent voice. Last but not least, we do not accept donations from corporations, corporate foundations or corporate leaders who sell anything or attempt to generate a profit from working with schools, districts or state departments of education. We don’t think there is anything wrong with businesses attempting to make a profit selling things to schools, we just don’t think they should be using those profits to fund advocacy campaigns that might benefit their businesses.

Finally, we are very careful in committing to advance a particular policy or type of education reform in exchange for funding. We explicitly do not do that in our national grants, even though it would obviously be easier to raise money if we did since so many donors have a particular policy that motivates them to give. We feel strongly that policy decisions must always be left to the state executive directors and state advisory boards. We will only write specific policy work into a local grant if the state executive director and advisory board have already decided to advance that issue and an independent research review supports that conclusion.

Governments. As a nonprofit organization that works on policy issues, we need to strictly follow federal and state rules and regulations.

The process of securing nonprofit 501(c)(3) status has become fairly intense as questions have arisen about the growth of the sector and assorted abuses have emerged from people leading nonprofits (political activities, excessive compensation, etc.). It took us eight months to receive our letter of determination from the IRS, a process that involved not only an in-depth application but multiple rounds of review, including a careful reading of the grants we had submitted, the e-communications we had sent, the issue briefs we had published, etc. Given the attention our application received, we were very pleased when it was granted by the IRS.

Going forward, we will be responsible for regular filings with the IRS (as we have done at ConnCAN since 2005). For example, in the upcoming 990 form we must provide a detailed breakdown of our revenues and expenditures, a complete list of board members, the compensation for our top five highest paid staff members, a description of how compensation is set, a description of our conflict of interest policy, etc. These forms are then made available to the public on websites such as Guidestar with a lag of six to 12 months, but we will provide ours on our website within 30 days of its submission to the IRS.

In addition, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that takes the “H election” so that we can engage in grassroots and direct lobbying, we must carefully track our lobbying hours and the money spent on lobbying activities to ensure they stay within IRS guidelines. This report is included in our annual 990 filing.

Last but not least, all of the states we currently operate in have lobbying rules that require regular filings on our activities. Some in-state staff also must register as lobbyists if they cross specific guidelines for direct lobbying activities (for example, more than $3,000 worth of staff time per year in Minnesota).

The Public. When it comes to accountability, perhaps the most important role is played by the public. This is a movement to “put the public back in public schools.” Our success will be determined in large part based on our ability to serve as a catalyst for a broader push from citizens across the country to emerge as effective advocates for change. That means bringing you inside our organization and giving you the information you need to hold us to the highest possible standard.

Here is what we are doing to provide you with the information you need to play an important accountability role for 50CAN:

    • Staffing and Boards: Please take some time to visit our staffing and board pages, as they will be guiding 50CAN and our work as we move forward with this ambitious mission. If you have any questions, send me an email at with “public question” in the subject line and I will get back to you in 48 hours or less.
    • Funding: Every donation above $1,000 is posted to the website within 30 days with a description of what we promised the donor in exchange for the gift. If for any reason you have a question about the donation and its influence on our mission, please email VP of Development Margaret Jacobs at with “public question” in the subject line and she will get back to you in 48 hours or less.
    • Budget, Ethical and Legal: We are committing to publishing our annual operating budget within 30 days of approval by our board and maintaining the highest possible ethical and legal standards. If you have any questions about our budget, please email VP of Operations Ingrid Reynoso at with “public question” in the subject line and she will get back to you with an answer in 48 hours or less.
    • Research and Policy: We strive to build our policy campaigns on a foundation of solid research. We never take a policy position without doing our homework on what the research tells us about what works. We then publish the results in the form of issue briefs. If you have questions about the research foundations of our work, please email Gretchen Guffy at with “public question” in the subject line and she will get back to you with an answer in 48 hours or less.
    • Results: We exist to help local leaders build statewide movements to fulfill the promise of our public schools. All our states will be up-front about what they are trying to do and forthright when they fall short. We publish our policy goals before each campaign and a scorecard of wins and losses after each campaign. We will strive to never take more credit than we deserve but also celebrate the victories we accomplish together. If you have questions about the results of these campaigns, please email at with “public question” in the subject line and I will get back to you with an answer in 48 hours or less.

As we launch 50CAN to the public, this post is my virtual “standing under the arch.” I am extremely excited about what we are building together and looking to you to hold us to the highest possible standards in the ambitious mission we have set for ourselves.

Tags: Advocate
More of From 50CAN Leaders
Share This