Stone cold soup


Did you ever hear the story of ‘Stone Soup’? How a charismatic fellow walks into a village carrying nothing but an empty pot. Filling it with water, he drops in a large stone and starts to heat and stir the water, telling anyone who will listen that he is making the most delicious soup. He keeps tasting it and telling them it is nearly ready – it just needs a little garnish, perhaps a carrot, then a potato, then a ham bone – until, little by little the villagers bring together all the ingredients they need for a pot of soup to share.

Organisations are a bit like stone soup. They start off as nothing more than an idea, dropped into the bottom of a readymade pot of governance boundaries. What transforms water into dinner is the ability of the stirrer to gain the confidence of people – the stakeholders, in the jargon, and to get them to drop their contributions – of ideas, of investment, of endorsement, of hard work, and of custom into the bubbling stock.

OK, enough of Fairy Tales. I am thinking of a particular organisation here; AccountAbility.

It was a small organisation but one that has made a lot of soup over the years – setting standards for sustainability assurance, and for quality in stakeholder engagement, researching and championing the idea of national responsible competitiveness and investigating what works in the governance of multi-stakeholder partnerships.

Simon Zadek was the Soup-Stirrer-in-Chief, since he first dropped the stone into the pot in 1995. As the founding chair, and later CEO of the organisation he helped to drive forward the leading edge of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda.

Many others have contributed to the soup. Amongst them Anita Roddick, David Wheeler, Ed Mayo, Maria Sillanpaa, Chris Tuppen, John Elkington, John Pearce, Alan Parker,  Simone de Colle, Gavin Anderson, Edwin Richken, Jane Nelson, Harry Hummels, Lise Kingo, Paul Monaghan, Mark Lee, Richard Evans, Peter Pruzan, Coro Strandberg, Claudia Gonella, Katherine Howard, Peter Raynard (Reader, I married him..), Robert McGregor, Mike Pierce , Jeanette Oleschlagel, Vicky McAllister, John Sabapathy, Claire Nacamuli, Els Reynaert, Mira Merme, Mirav Joseph, Nicole Dando Jonathon Cohen, Aneen Blackmore, Claudette John, Guy Morgan, Sasha Radovich, Alan Knight, Alex Macgillivray, Thomas Krick, Phillip Monaghan, Kelly Yu, Yi Shi, Fernanda Polacow, Geoff Lane, Kumi Naidoo, Aris Vrettos, Tania Gobena, Joe Sellwood, Miriam Neale, David Bonbright, Jenifer Iansen Rogers, Maggie Burns, Rob Cameron, David Simpson, Vernon Jennings, Ingrid Srinath, Isabel Hilton, Adrian HenriquesMairead Cahill, Margaret Flaherty, Paul Kapelus, Danielle Cohen, Erika Collinson, Giulia Cosilich, James Farrar, Sam Huddle, Maneto, Anita Househam, Alejandro Litofsky, Tim Kitchin, Jeremy Nichols, Daniela Nordmeyer, Fabian Pattberg, , Hannah Thornem, Anna Tyrell, Elena Zayakova, Ricardo Melendez, Joshua Wickerham and Nina Inahmahoro. (Plus many more I’ve failed to mention).

Like me they contributed to AccountAbility’s work because they thought it was on to something, in the business of change.

Some pretty serious institutions also invested their trust and confidence in AccountAbility, from the big auditors to China’s Development Research Center, from Oxfam to Nike and from the World Bank to CIVICUS. Anwar Ibrahim, Al Gore, Nick Stern and Pacal Lamy recognised and contributed to AccountAbility’s work.
Whatever success and influence AccountAbility had, depended on its ability to support and catalyze action amongst a web of stakeholders. This recognition was built into its governance structure through a multi-stakeholder Board, which later developed into a Governing Council and a separate Standards Board, and through the annual publication of AccountAbility Accounts.

This week, AccountAbility’s Standards Board resigned. Their letter cited loss of trust, lack of responsiveness and concerns about the governance, credibility and independence of the AA1000 Standards (you can read their letter here). Their resignation follows on from a year of departures, starting with Simon Zadek’s ousting, followed by the departure of all of the Governing Council members and most of the international Country Representatives. Some of the staff, and long-term collaborators with the organisation (myself included) quit, most of the others were moved on.

What is left is an organisation with second hand set of tools and reputational capital, built up by Simon, by all the people I’ve name checked, and by many others. But this is the same organisation in name only. They may have the pot and the stone, but they aren’t making any soup.

I’m not usually one for big gestures, and as a consultant I didn’t write a public letter of resignation. This I regret, not because I think my leaving was so important in the grand scheme of things, but because it became part of a pattern in which people left quietly and without a trace. This allowed others to be fooled, or perhaps to fool themselves, that this was still the same organisation, that it was still motivated by the public good, and that they could be a part of it in good conscience.

So this belatedly, is my letter of resignation as a stakeholder of AccountAbility. If anyone else feels proud of what they contributed through working with AccountAbility, and ashamed of where the organisation is heading please feel free to write your own.

9 Responses to “Stone cold soup”

  1. Hi Maya

    I only ever contributed articles to the AccountAbility Forum and attended its conferences, but followed it from the start and saw how it played a key role in not just CSR but also new approaches to good organisational governance (and in turn, had the potential for promoting good governance in general).

    What changed in the organisational governance structure in the past years that allowed this apparent hijacking? The reason I ask is that although the people are the ones who animate an organisation, the rules of incorporation and procedure should stop an organisation from changing direction so completely even if all people changed. As AA is about org goverance, this is a question I think you and your former colleagues, yet current friends and husband, will all have some useful insights on for us to hear.

    Cheers, Jem

  2. With heavy heart and great sadness I have to agree with Maya. I’ve been anxiously watching the developments in and around AccountAbility for some time now and with shaky hands opened the email telling me about the Standards Board resignation. Now that the last vestige of the multi-stakeholder governance structure, so central to AcccountAbility’s founding ethos, is gone, I have to do the same as Maya and resign as a stakeholder, not of AA1000 series of standards, but as a stakeholder of the organisation that was expected to be the guardian of these standards. Not the owner – but the *guardian* of something that was always meant to be open source.

    AA1000, I strongly believe, is live and kicking and I’ve been encouraged by the immediate energy and action that has emerged from the users and supporters. A clear sign of this is the newly established AA1000 User Group on LinkedIn. Now couple of days old and already hitting 100 members. Check it out if you want to stay connected and contribute to keeping the spirit and practice of AA1000 alive.

    Onwards and upwards and here’s to lots more soup stirrers!

  3. Thank you for sharing this so others can know and learn. Are there any particular ‘lessons’ that you feel might be warning signs other organisations can look for to avoid a similar situation?

  4. 4 Judy Kuszewski

    ‘Stone soup’ was one of the metaphors we used in the earliest days of cooking up the GRI. It is certainly equally apt in reference to the AccountAbility of yore. I, too, have followed the changes of the past year with concern and trepidation – but always the hope that the organization’s new stewards would, with time and care, learn their stewardship and, hopefully, start making new and valuable contributions once again. The latest news isn’t a great surprise, but is still a shame.

    On the other hand, my hope now is that all of us who were AA’s stakeholders can now continue where things left off a year ago – perhaps initially via the ‘breakaway republic’ that is the LinkedIn group – and maybe over the longer term through a proper, formal platform for harnessing all of those formidable talents.

  5. 5 Maya

    Some updates, for those who are following this…

    I made James Farrar cry:!/jamesfarrar/status/25569983580872705

    Simon Zadek gives some history:

    AccountAbility responds to the Standards Board’s resignation:

    Toby Webb asks some good questions:
    And some more good questions:

    Yes you are right Jem and Bonnie, there are lessons to be learned. Partly I wanted to put that list of people up, because there are many views and perspectives…I will collect my thoughts and come back with mine.

  6. 6 Maya

    As promised, if a little slow…I have written a second post on why it happened and what we can learn:

  1. 1 The week that rocked AccountAbility |
  2. 2 Scaling Pains at AccountAbility | The Murninghan Post
  3. 3 AccountAbility…so what happened? and what can we learn? « Hiya Maya

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