Why Relevance = Accountability

Each of us wants our work and efforts in community and public life to be relevant. It’s something I hear everywhere I go. Last week, when hosting the Hands On Network LEAD Summit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., I found myself saying: to be relevant requires that you are accountable.

This notion of “relevance” is critical nowadays. It goes to the heart of whether people in communities and in our larger society view what we’re doing as important, meaningful and useful. Funders also want to know that what we’re doing is relevant; it is one gauge they use – either explicitly or implicitly – to determine who and what gets supported. But what does it to say that to be relevant one must be accountable?

To be relevant means that we’re accountable for knowing the context of our communities – to clearly understand people’s aspirations, their issues of concern, and the kind of change they seek. Otherwise, how can we be relevant?

To be relevant means that we’re accountable for producing impact. The key here is to be clear on the kind of impact our own particular efforts seek to create. This means that we cannot hedge or hide from what we say we are doing, or hype what we have done. Rather, to be relevant in this way means we must account for our own role in generating impact.

To be relevant means that we’re accountable for being authentic. Maya Enista, fromMobilize.org, said a number of times at the LEAD Summit that we must be authentic in how we engage people – that our efforts must be meaningful to people, not just to our own organizations; and that the work people do must be real, not mere plug-and-play volunteer efforts. I couldn’t agree with her more. In this way, we must be accountable for how we design and structure our efforts – that is, in this instance, that engagement efforts are truly relevant to people.

To be relevant means that we’re accountable for focusing on people – after all, isn’t our work first and foremost about the lives and aspirations and concerns of people? And yet, it is so easy to get sidetracked into activities, plans and inwardness that focus more on our organizations and programs, and where people themselves become a mere input.

There are many other elements to this discussion, but for now I simply ask you to consider these four points. Simply talking about relevance isn’t enough; we must account for it.