Tips for developing and using policies

Along with the rules and bylaws that govern their operations, not-for-profit organisations should also have a set of policy documents to help guide members, volunteers, the board and staff in their conduct and decision-making.

Policies establish in clear language what the organisation wants to achieve – and provide boundaries for how it wants to get there, helping to ensure consistency and accountability.

Some policies will be specific to the board (e.g. conflict of interest policy, attendance policy – falling under the heading of governance policies), others will have organisation-wide implications (e.g. ethics policy, diversity policy). The latter category includes operational policies, which will usually be overseen by management (if the organisation has staff).

Procedures are slightly different again. While policies focus on principles, procedures deal with the "how to" end of the equation.

Our Community recommends that policies be adopted at a board level, while procedures be developed and signed off by the organisation's head staff member (e.g. the CEO). All of our sample policies follow this format.

The number and type of policies and procedures (and their contents) will differ from organisation to organisation, but some of the more common ones include:

  • Mission and vision – detailing the purpose and directions of the organisation and what it hopes to achieve.
  • Ethics/conduct policy – designed to set expectations for and guide the behaviour of board members, staff members and volunteers, including disciplinary measures for non-compliance.
  • Conflict of interest policy – designed to provide guidelines for identifying and dealing with potential or real conflicts of interest.
  • Grievance policy – outlining procedures for dealing with internal and/or external complaints.
  • Board self-evaluation policy – detailing performance standards for the board and outlining measures for ensuring evaluation and improvement of performance.
  • Board-staff relationship policy – outlining the various responsibilities of board and staff members.
  • Volunteer policy – outlining how and under what circumstances volunteers can be recruited and their place within the organisation.
  • Financial management practices – detailing minimum standards and practices for management and reporting of finances.
  • Accountability policy – outlining standards for reporting of board information and to whom the board will be accountable.

Putting your policies to work

While it can be quite a job to develop the full range of policies your organisation and board needs (a job made enormously easier by our sample policies), the real challenge lies in ensuring that they are used.

In writing or reviewing your organisation's policies, keep in mind the following points:

  • Policies are unlikely to be supported and adhered to unless people feel they have ownership of them. Consult widely on each policy you are considering, taking into account all of those people in your organisation who will be affected by the new or revised document.
  • Board members are responsible for setting the tone for the entire organisation. It is therefore of utmost importance that all board members are aware of all relevant governance and operational policies. Develop an organisational policy manual and ensure a copy is given to each new board member as part of their induction. Give new staff members and volunteers a copy too, or make sure they know where they can access one.
  • Policies should never be set in stone; rather, they should be living documents designed to serve the organisation, not the other way around. Set aside some time (perhaps during your staff/board/volunteer development day) to carry out a review. This will also help to ensure people are reminded of their existence and content.
  • Alternatively, appoint a committee to undertake an annual review of all organisational policies and procedures and make recommendations for changes. Circulate draft changes before decisions are made final.
  • It is vitally important that policies are easily accessible. Ensure a printed copy is available in an appropriate spot (not in a locked cabinet or in the CEO's library). Make sure policies are on hand at every board meeting.
  • Your policies should also be very easy to understand. Ensure they are written in clear language that is free of jargon and acronyms. Keep them as short as possible.
  • Weak or inconsistent policies are worse than having no policies at all. If you find flaws – fix them.

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