“Sometimes boards are the last to acknowledge that policy making is the environment in which they operate,” says Rebekah Burch Basinger in a Spring 2010 In Trust article. Nevertheless, boards rely on policies to govern their own work, as well as the work of their administration and organization. As such, having clearly defined, well-organized policies is essential for any board to function successfully.

Basinger stresses the importance of compiling a defined policy manual. Boards that don’t do this -- those that continually sift through old minutes for policy directives, for example -- waste valuable time. It’s much easier, and much more efficient, to organize policies into one document for quick access. This policy manual can be in the form of a traditional print book or in a password-protected website (an increasingly popular option).

While Basinger insists on the need for a policy manual, she also cautions boards not to be too reliant on policy. Boards that dogmatically adhere to policies without ever examining them critically can be just as inefficient as boards that have no established policies. In other words, doing things a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been done is a dangerous game.

Similarly, boards must realize that policy is a means to good governance, not the end result. It’s the responsibility of the board to establish policies, but adopting a policy manual doesn’t mean that the board's work is complete. Rather, policies are put in place so that the board can effectively tend to other responsibilities. Policies are guidance for their other work.

Basinger warns against vague or overly limiting language within policies. Boards should strike a balance between these two extremes so that they have the freedom to operate effectively while not violating any of their own policies.  Basinger also offers steps on building a policy manual, as outlined in The Nonprofit Board Answer Book, and provides a list of further reading on the subject of board policies. 

A policy manual might be part of a larger board handbook. For more about creating a board handbook, see the In Trust Center's "Guide to Developing Your Board Handbook."

If you’re a board member, what type of policies does your board have in place, and are they organized in a single place? What have your experiences been with developing policies?

If you have an online In Trust account, you can read Basinger’s full article on policy creation.