Tools for nonprofit leaders: Using templates

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As we build our inventory of tools for leaders of nonprofit organizations, we devote this month’s article to templates. A template is document or file having a preset format, used as a starting point for a particular application so that the format does not have to be recreated each time it is used. Templates are outlines that organizations can adopt to standardize the way they communicate and record, store and disseminate information.  Examples of typical templates include:

  • Meeting agenda & minutes
  • Newsletters
  • Faxes & E-bulletins
  • Power Point presentations
  • Web site offerings
  • E-mail signatures
  • Event announcements
  • Registration forms.

Adopting templates can provide a series of benefits:

  • Readers of the information recognize the style and the sender
  • Familiarity of information format contributes to ease of access
  • Using a standardized format can reduce the likelihood of error
  • Templates can support a branding strategy.

Effective templates share common characteristics:

  • They tell the recipient “who, what, when, where and how”
  • They support a discipline on staff and volunteers alike to adopt a standard approach
  • They reinforce “recognition” of your materials and promote ease to get to the parts readers care most about

Let’s look more closely at how to create and use templates.

1. Meeting agenda & minutes

A typical meeting agenda template would require the author to provide perquisite information such as:

  • Meeting title
  • Meeting date
  • Meeting location
  • Meeting contact phone number
  • Name of meeting Chair
  • Standard agenda items (e.g. approval of agenda; approval of the last meeting minutes dated …; business arising from the last meeting; new/other business; date and location of the next meeting; adjournment (time).

High performance organizations incorporate their three or four strategic objectives into their agenda template so that each meeting is directed to categorize its business against their strategic goals.  If an agenda item does not support a strategic objective or goal, then it compels the leaders to ask themselves why the item deserves discussion.  Often the answer directs the leadership to amend the goals or substitute the new subject for a less supportive one.

Meeting minutes also lend themselves well to templates.  In addition to recording discussion details and decisions/agreements, the minute template can provide columns that establish “action” steps and “accountable” individuals as well as “timeframe”, “budget item coverage” and other reference points tailored to the organization. This quick reference approach to minutes is one way of addressing time constraint problems sited by most volunteers today.

2. Newsletters

Whether your newsletters are print or electronic, readers will learn to look for subject matter or treatment that meets their interest if you follow a standardized template.  For example, your newsletter could offer regular features such as:

  • Breaking news
  • Top 3 issues and steps your organization is or has taken
  • Learning/networking opportunities calendar
  • Strategic plan delivery updates.

Given the popularity of websites, it is advisable to link information offered on your website in articles in your newsletter.

Editorials are most effective when they are topical - OK I’ll say it – controversial.  This doesn’t mean the author has to be “against” everything; au contraire – it can be equally controversial to speak in favour of something.

3. E-bulletins and faxes

The suggestions for newsletters above can be extended to e-bulletins and faxes.  However, given the gifts of electronic format, the most successful e-bulletins summarize the key points of information per topic, and then hyperlink to more detail on the website. It is advisable to keep e-bulletins to one page (one screen page).

4. Power Point presentations

Anyone who has attempted to create a Power Point presentation knows that it can turn into writing that novel in our soul.  It is so easy to fall prey to tangents.  A template that girdles what your message is, why it is so, how it impacts your audience, the call to action and a summary of the key points can help not only the presenter but the audience too.

5. Web site offerings

Our work with a wide range of nonprofit organizations has repeatedly identified a common complaint about websites:  “not easy enough to navigate”.  The “one click from the home page” rule is a worthy goal though not always possible.  While this subject is an article unto itself, suffice to suggest that your website visitors will appreciate your using a “familiar” template so that they can easily navigate their way to the information that they need.

6. E-mail signatures

If you are the type of person who enjoys observing behaviour, notice the variation in the style and information provided in e-mail signatures.  Some use logos, some use stylized fonts, some repeat their e-mail address, some exclude mailing addresses or fax numbers (subtle).  Each organization needs to establish what information their primary constituents would value; the menu to choose from includes:

  • Name (obviously)
  • Title
  • Organization
  • Address
  • Mailing address
  • E-Mail address
  • Phone number (general and/or direct)
  • Fax number
  • Cell number
  • Assistant’s coordinates.

Often, e-signatures include “promotional” messages about upcoming events.  By standardizing your e-signatures, recipients will more easily recognize correspondence from your organization.

7. Event announcements

By using an event announcement template, you ensure that salient information is not inadvertently omitted.  The information provided should include:

  • Name of event
  • Date and time
  • Location and directions
  • Person in charge and contact phone numbers
  • Content/program with time schedule
  • Registration costs and instructions (see details in next section of this article)
  • Cancellation policy
  • Sponsor recognition

8. Registration forms

Registration forms are popular templates in the nonprofit world.  Organizations who ask for membership numbers need not require the registrant to complete all their coordinate details since that information is on file however this approach is not often used.  Typically a registration form template includes:

  • Registration event information (Event description, data, location, etc.)
  • Name, title, organization, address, phone, fax and e-mail address of registrant including boxes to tick for (  ) Mr.  ( ) Ms. and if appropriate boxes to tick for designations (e.g.  Dr. or CAE)
  • Box to tick for cost acknowledgement followed by listing of applicable taxes or other fees; box to record total cost
  • Cancellation policy information

It is advisable to schedule a review of your templates to ensure they are the best they can be.  Surfing other organizations’ websites will offer you many examples to consider.

We hope this article has been useful and invite your suggestions or comments.

Paulette in President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the nonprofit association community. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or

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