5 Reasons Why You Should Have A Board Handbook

So, for those who may not have heard, bird is no longer the word. Governance is. Or at least in the world of non-profits. From webinars to seminars to newsletters, the new 990″s have prompted everyone to take a second look at not only how their organizations disclose information, but how they run as well. Particularly non-profit boards.

And while its important to have policies and procedures in place, neither does you much good without implementation.  I believe the easiest and quickest way to implement is to create a handbook that not only houses these documents, but allows organizations to make their point of view clear as well. But if this isn”t convincing enough, here are five other reasons why you should have a board handbook:

1. Allows you to clearly explain the expectations and legal obligations of the board members. Within a handbook, organizations are able to put in stone what their expectations for time commitment are. How many meetings must board members attend? Are board members expected to make it to events? If so, how many? You might also make clear what financial commitments are expected. Must money be fundraised or may a board member just cut a check? What type of financial commitment do you expect? Cash or in-kind? Better to put all these things in writing now, so that when term evaluations come around, no one can claim “they didn”t know.”

Additionally, you absolutely should make clear what the legal obligations/duties are for board members under both federal and state law. All to often, board members operate under the misunderstanding that all of their mistakes, omissions, or wrong doing will be forgiven because they are volunteering for a non-profit. Not so. Most state laws place the same legal obligations on non-profit boards as they do for those of for-profits. That means non-profit board members, in some instances, can be held personally liable for the contracts and torts of the organization. This is something that needs to be understood and digested from the start.

2. Quality control and quick dispute resolution. There is nothing more frustrating than sitting in a meeting, for what feels like several hours, while board members argue about what is vs. what should be. If someone believes that a certain resolution requires a 3/4th approval while another believes its 2/3″s, by having the rules and procedures conveniently gathered, you”re able to pull out your handy dandy handbook and solve the issue on the spot. Several hours then becomes a matter of minutes. Another frustration I”ve had is when a board goes about business in a different manner every year; different forms, different templates, different procedures. Make it easy on everyone by providing some quick standards and templates in the handbook, allowing for consistency from year to year.

3. Can clearly detail the history and mission of the organization. Oftentimes, I believe that when a board  makes a decision that was generally bad for the organization, it”s not because they just didn”t care. Rather, I believe its because they sometimes lose sight of the context in which they are voting, or have forgotten what the organizations overall mission is. Why not clearly lay out where you”ve been, where you are, and where you”re headed in the beginning of the handbook? Not only does it make the position of the organization crystal clear, but whenever the Board is making decisions, I would constantly have them refer back to this statement  in order to remember not only their context but priorities as well.

4. Able to clearly illustrate the structure of the organization. This could be particularly important for those boards large enough to staff a small school. I know a couple of boards I”m on have several ad hoc committees in addition to the  several standing commitees that already exist. And don”t get me started on having to figure out who to email about a particular issue. Who is the head of the committee? Who is the  assistant head of the head of the committee? Who is  the head assistant of the assistant of the head? You get it.

Just dedicate one page to clearly mapping out what the respective committees are, who the contacts are, and you might even get snazzy with it and provide contacts.

5. Provides a more comfortable way of providing legal documents and disclosures. I can imagine there is nothing more uncomfortable for some officers than to welcome a new board member, thank them for their kind service and then stick a pile of legal disclosures in their face. Particularly when the position is that of a volunteer. (I say imagine because having graduated from law school I have ABSOLUTELY no problem doing this now, but I empathize). Rather than making the experience like that of a car sale, you can stick legal documents (such as the public disclosure, ethics code, conflicts of interest, etc.) into this nifty packet and have them just bring it back before the first meeting.

Though I think I”ve already provided some pretty good reasons for having one, I”ll also mention that drafting a handbook these days is as simple as making toast. It does not have to be the size of a dictionary, and there are dozens of websites that provide guidance, templates, and even examples used by large non-profit organizations. Now I caution you, I don”t recommend the cut/paste/print approach. There are hundreds of variables that could determine what additions or deletions you might need to make to a template. For example, will you require consents at meetings? Does your state law “suggest” (i.e. require) certain language or disclaimers? All of these things could end up determining what the end product will look like.

(P.S. Be on the the lookout for “Have You: Created Your Board Handbook” where I”ll provide tips, tricks and templates.)


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