Accounting for impact: Switching between hope and disappointment
Keywords:impact accounting, distance, switching, incompeteless, hope, disappointment, NGO, NPO, management accounting, primary traces, non-profit
This paper explores why individuals remain enthusiastically invested in accounting’s potential, despite being continuously disappointed by its limitations. Empirically, this paper draws on a qualitative case study of a non-profit organization’s attempt to measure the impact of a social program for reducing child poverty. Our study highlights the multiple and shifting dispositions of individual actors towards accounting, as well as numerous disruptions of complementing work. To better understand these unruly modes of engaging with accounting, we focus on the underlying dynamics of distancing: processes in which accounting expands and collapses relations between accounts and the objects they aim to represent. Our analysis contributes to prior works in three ways. First, we challenge the notion that actors develop a stable disposition towards accounting, showing instead how they are constantly re-configured by fluctuating distances. Second, we show how the on-going modification or repair of incomplete accounting infrastructures is subject to various disruptions and re-starts, which condition how accounting expands and stabilizes itself. Third, we show how objects multiple, such as impact, produce an ambivalent dispositional mode – a hopeful skepticism – which becomes a core element of domains where accounting is deployed to achieve a broader social purpose.