Nonprofit boards can benefit from having a manual


January 18, 1993|By LESTER A.PICKER

Far too many boards of nonprofit organizations run on automatic for years at a stretch, simply going through the governance motions, and not attending to the critical issues of developing their own cultures.

But effective boards are the product of hard work, often starting with simple "manual" tasks.

After years of counseling boards of directors, I am convinced that every one should have an orientation manual for each of its members. Some directors disagree with me, believing that the work required to put together a manual is a waste of time, diverting the board from more pressing tasks.

Let me give you my reasons for believing so strongly in a Board Orientation Manual. First, it suggests to someone contemplating joining a board that the work of this particular board is serious business -- serious enough for a committee to have put time and effort into producing one.

The process of putting together a manual is one of the most rewarding tasks a board committee can experience. It forces members to review the organization's history, to decide on what is pertinent for the manual. This alone is a good experience. Production of a manual fosters debate related to content and format. It forces policy issues to the surface for referral and resolution by other committees. Ultimately, it results in a work of great pride.

If the production of the manual is integrated with a broader board orientation and development program, it speaks volumes to the whole notion of board culture. As an example, a new board member might be given her manual immediately upon joining, and assigned an experienced member to go over its basic content. During the first year of membership, she learns about the organization, mentored by a senior board member. This institutionalized mentorship places the board manual in the context of the larger acculturation process.

The existence of a board manual is a wonderful adjunct to the organization's fund-raising efforts. Donors see that the board takes governance seriously. It also shows anyone interested that there are no hidden agendas within the organization.

Finally, a board manual helps members internalize that the board's collective action has far reaching implications. As policies are modified and new ones added, the manual becomes a repository of rich history and precedent which provides greater continuity for the organization.

What should go into a board manual?

That question is akin to someone asking "What car should I buy?" Aside from four wheels, seats, and an engine, individual preferences will dictate the final product. So, too, with a manual. I have seen just about every format, thickness, binding and content selection imaginable. However, here are some basic content areas which should be minimally included.

Every manual should include a copy of the mission and vision statements of the organization, preferably the first pages after the index (be sure to date the index page and include a new index page with every revision). Also include an annotated list of board members, expectations of board members, board committee structure, comprehensive information about the organization and its programs, organization bylaws, board policies, the latest annual report with an audited financial statement, and minutes of the past year or two of meetings.

Finally, some production tips. Development of the manual ideally should involve board members of varied experience, coordinated by an officer. A committee should be charged with updating the manual every year or two. In the absence of other compelling reasons, a loose-leaf format is probably the best bet, at least for the first few years. This will allow for easy corrections, policy revisions, and new sections.

Date every page, so members can tell at a glance whether they have the latest iterations of documents. Encourage appropriate use of the manual at meetings -- that way they won't just gather dust on members' shelves.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md, 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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