Putting it in writing: Getting started with policies and procedures

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The cartoon Calvin and Hobbes occasionally featured a game called Calvinball in which the little boy made up the rules, changing them as it suited him. While it made for humourous reading, playing his game would not make for a fun experience! Likewise, over the last decade, many nonprofits in Canada that formerly were unstructured, relying heavily on the personalities and strengths of their leaders and staff, have realized the need for sound policies, procedures, and job descriptions to make their organizations run more smoothly and efficiently.

As Bonnie Shiell of Communities Foundations Canada says, “Attention to the need for solid policies and practices has evolved over the last decade and momentum is still building.” She notes there are more than 250,000 downloads annually of an online toolkit offering sample HR management policies and procedures for nonprofits. “There is a lot of energy and an increasing recognition in the sector that if we want to attract and keep good people, we need to be more effective.”

Some of this emerging interest in implementing effective policies and procedures is a result of increased turnover and succession. Sharron Batsch, designer of @EASE Fund Development Software, and partner the Batsch Group, which specializes in donor management and data/knowledge management for nonprofits, says that in the absence of policy and procedures, “Individual staff will each come up with their own processes and this may lead to confusion, inefficiency, poor outcomes and less than satisfactory results. Put two or three people in the same job over the course of several years and you wind up with a chaotic environment where information is everywhere and nowhere.”

Awareness about the importance of policy and procedure comes from other corners too. According to Cathy Barr, senior vice-president, Imagine Canada, “There are increasing demands for accountability, transparency and demonstration of impact. Donors and volunteers want to be involved in well-run organizations that make a difference. The media, government and public are also concerned that some organizations are engaging in inappropriate activities, such as fraud.”

Batsch adds, “It is much easier and more efficient for leadership to address these issues before staff turnover or other problems create chaos.”

Policy isn’t sexy

Melanie Laflamme, senior vice-president, human resources and organizational development for the YMCA of Greater Toronto suggests that, “In the hustle and bustle of everyday life in nonprofits, many wonder about the value of spending time on creating policies and procedures but it is well worth it and demonstrates that nonprofits are as professional and well run as the private profit sector.”

But as Vancouver-based nonprofit consultant Gayle Hadfield says, “Usually nonprofits come to me for policy help when there is a problem.”

The palest ink is better than the best memory. (Chinese proverb)

Hadfield tells of an organization where institutional memory was not helpful in a difficult situation. Accounting staff working in cubicles struggled to concentrate because of their neighbours’ continual vibration of cell phones and texts. A policy was developed that guided staff to silence their phones, and check instant messaging and texts while they were on a formal break or during lunch.

While some worry that policies and procedures don’t get used, nonprofit consultant Tom Bartridge says “Policies and procedures link vision to operations.”

Hadfield agrees. “Values come to life through employee actions. Policies help employees adjust their behaviour.” Laflamme also notes that human resource policies are particularly important in small organizations where there is no HR department.

Laflamme describes the “psychological contract” between an employer and employees. “Having policies and practices in place spells out expectations on the part of nonprofits and employees. This prevents conflicts in the future when either party breaks the psychological contract.” She observes this is particularly helpful for nonprofits that attract a demographic who may be new to the workforce and the sector. Hadfield adds that policies and procedures can ensure internal equity and eliminate a perception of favouritism.

Good policy and procedures can also make a more enjoyable workplace. Bartridge suggests that policies allow managers to guide operations without constant intervention, while employees have freedom to make decisions within a certain scope. Batsch believes, “We want to promote free flow and creativity – but you have no creativity if you don’t have a solid base for it.” In Batsch’s newly released book From Chaos to Control, she shows how systems, policies, procedures and detailed job descriptions allow “more time to do the important stuff, more fun in developing creative ways to work, and a wealth of knowledge left behind when you leave.”

It's also important to remember that other stakeholders are affected by internal policy. Barr describes the risk taken by potential funders and donors who invest in a nonprofit, saying they must ask, “Does this organization have the basics in place to do what they are supposed to do?” Batsch concurs: “Donors want to know that the charity they support has good management practices.”

It's clear that nonprofits need to demonstrate to funders, lawmakers, volunteers, boards of directors and the public that they have policies and procedures in place that comply with health and safety laws, employment standards and other important legislation.

How to create policies

Many organizations are driven by the passion and values of their founders, but as Hadfield says, “at a certain point they need to write down their values and ways of operating so these are not lost.” She notes when this is not done, it can bring down an entire organization. “You have to start – and get it done.”

The process begins with the commitment of the board of directors and the leadership group / team. Imagine Canada’s Standards Program offers charities and nonprofits an opportunity to demonstrate this commitment. Organizations wishing to be accredited are required to have numerous policies and procedures in place. According to Barr, “Organizations seek accreditation for a variety of reasons – some feel it is a good way to improve their organization, a framework to get things in place; some want to demonstrate to funders, volunteers, and the public that they are a solid organization and have been judged to be so by a third party. Others have a desire to be seen as a leader in their area.”

Laflamme notes, “Policies and procedures must be written in clear, straightforward language so that employees can easily understand them.”

Policy formation is typically the responsibility of a board of directors. To establish clear procedures, Batsch suggests each employee write down briefly how they do tasks specific to their role. This then becomes a "shareable asset” for the organization. Hadfield also recommends involving each employee in updating job descriptions.

Job descriptions

Batsch points out, “You can’t assume people know the elements of a job well done. It might be different at every place. You foster accountability through clear job descriptions that include actual everyday duties.” Without this, she adds, “Staff may be forced to make decisions they may not be qualified to make; assessing their performance becomes more difficult because it may be tied to structural problems within the organization and not simply the employee's capabilities.” Job descriptions need to include behavioural competencies that show how an organization’s values are applied on a daily basis. Hadfield says, “Everyone says they are a team player, but an organization needs to say, ‘here’s what teamwork means in our organization.’”

Laflamme adds that job descriptions are “also important for compliance with pay equity legislation. They form the foundation to use in performance evaluation, performance improvement or the development of plans for future training and development.”

Putting policies into action

Batsch emphasizes the importance of including this information in your orientation sessions with new staff. “When new people come in, be sure they understand and adopt your policies and procedures. This is not to say you aren’t open to new ideas or improvements, but to say, ‘This is how we do it here.’”

The YMCA of Greater Toronto discusses key policies at the point of hire, with new employees signing off that they have read and understood the policies. All new employees and volunteers are provided with an employee workbook that identifies key policies. During performance reviews, the YMCA reviews policies and ensures staff are aware of new policies. The YMCA is also in the process of developing an e-learning policy module.

Policies aren't just essential for helping orient new staff - they also play an important role in the performance management of existing employees. Hadfield says, “When you have a challenge, you can refer to a policy to adjust behaviour.”

Revamping policies and procedures

While policies provide a solid foundation, they should not be entirely static. Changes in technology, legislation and societal standards can result in a need for updates. Hadfield says, for instance, that some organizations are phasing out mandatory coffee breaks and are instead allowing staff to use social media to take a break as they need to. Bartridge points to inconsistencies in performance, complaints, employee stress, failures and even accidents as signs that it is time to update your existing policies and procedures.

“Clearly, an organization can have great policies in writing and still not be effective – but it’s the foundation. If you have policies and procedures in place, you are less likely to get in trouble," says Barr. "We think of it as a way to set your organization up for success. If your human resource practices are a mess, you will get sidetracked from your mission. Get your policies in place and then you can focus on your work.”

What kinds of policies should you have?

Nonprofit consultant Heather Carpenter suggests that every nonprofit needs:

  • an accounting manual;
  • an employment manual (could include conditions of employment, benefits, sick days, leave, etc.); and,
  • a general operations manual (includes organization information and operating procedures, could include dress code or file saving procedure).

To view a variety of sample policies, visit the HR Council or Sector Source. Looking for more information? Check out the CharityVillage eLearning course, Policies and Procedures.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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