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The call for non-profits organizations (NPOs) to be accountable has for a long time prioritized the responsibility they have to donors and governments with little attention paid to the responsibility they have towards the communities which they serve. The emphasis has been on accountability to donors and governments rather than for long-term impact (Murtaza, 2012; Gent, Crescenzi, Menning & Reid, 2013). Accountability to communities, who are directly and indirectly affected by the actions of the organizations and who legitimize their operations were seldom considered, as a result, “accountability is weakest to the communities” (Murtaza, 2012). There has however been a gradual shift towards the recognition of the importance of accountability to communities. This has been driven by efficiency and ethical arguments for greater NPO accountability to clients and communities. The emergence of the ‘rights-based approach’ has also helped the to elevate communities from passive recipients of, to the rightful and legitimate claimants of development (Gaventa, 2002).
In this paper, we add to the discussion about the role of communities in service organizations. To begin, guided by agency theory and 'rights-based approach' we explain the role of ‘communities as principals’ of NPOs, and why it has received less importance relative to the principal role of more powerful NPO stakeholders. We then move to examine the reports of participation practices of NPOs in two South African provinces. Using our unique data set, which includes survey data collected from NPOs and structured focus groups with community members we investigate the congruence between what NPOs say they do and communities’ reports of NPO actions.
The preliminary findings show differences between NPOs’ and communities’ reports of what the NPO does. For example, organizations’ reports of their use of participation mechanisms and their responsiveness to community inputs were sometimes partially or not at all aligned to what communities reported about the NPO. The findings suggest that there is a risk of missing important information about the operations and outcomes of development initiatives if the role of communities as principals is not taken seriously.