For Nonprofits: Idea to Policy 

By Katie Wright – 

So you want to make the world a better place? To achieve meaningful change, it is often helpful to examine how decisions are made. By understandingadapting, and reimagining the policies that govern a nonprofit organization we can create institutional-level change. This is the type of change that lasts! What follows is a guide to enacting or evolving policies at your nonprofit organization. It’s never linear – so make this process your own. 

Think strategically. How does your idea fit into existing organization values and priorities? Where is there alignment? What are potential barriers? It is easier to run a marathon with the wind at your back. If your idea complements or furthers work already committed to, it is more likely to succeed and probably won’t take as long. Perhaps your next step is to find sample policies from other institutions and share them with a board member. If your idea is new and outside general practice, it might take longer to build the understanding and support you need to make the change. Perhaps your next step is to participate in some webinars, find relevant articles, and share them with colleagues and board members. Your short-term goal might be to work with a relevant committee to determine how it fits in their goals – or can be a part of future goals. 

Do your homework. Some of this work is external: One of the joys of being a part of the nonprofit field is that we rarely need to create something from scratch. Reach out to your colleagues and ask for samples of their policies. Additionally, tap into the philanthropy news space to find recent and relative articles about the policy or idea you want to pursue. Call other local nonprofits and see what they’re doing.   

Some of the work is internal: How does your idea fit into your organization’s legal constraints? Do you have an existing policy that addresses the idea that needs to adapt or do you need a brand-new policy? Does this need to be a policy at all or just a change in practice with buy-in? What committee is best suited to address your idea? You’ll want to understand the full impact of the policy change on the whole organization and be prepared to address concerns from financial to legal to reputational. Remember – it is OK (and good!) if you don’t have all the answers. By enlisting the help and advice of others with more expertise, you begin to build your stakeholder base. Which brings us to… 

Find champions. The enthusiasm and support of just one board member can be incredibly powerful. The concern and hesitancy of just one board member can be very noisy. Take the time to invest in gathering input from a variety of people. Reach out not just to the people who will be in favor, but also to those that might have concerns. Share stories that demonstrate WHY the change is necessary and important and ask people to help share that story.   

Institutionalize it. It’s now time to get tactical. If you haven’t already, engage the chair of the committee that should lead on the policy. Often it is governance or executive committee, but not always. Draft or redline the policy and ask the chair for input. Put the change on the next meeting agenda and be clear you are hoping the committee will vote to recommend to the Board of Directors a vote for approval. Then put the vote on the next board meeting’s agenda – again, be explicit that the committee is recommending a vote for approval. Provide the high-level information people need to be informed but be wary of overwhelming them with too many details – leave that to committee level or even chair level discussions. Once approved, celebrate! You’ve made a change that will last.  

What if our practice is one way and our policy is another? Let’s be honest, sometimes our policies are behind our practice. This is not uncommon, especially with a culture that values adaptability and learning. If the practice/policy disconnect puts your organization at risk, I would recommend addressing it immediately – put a stop to the practice until policy and practice can be aligned. If the practice/policy disconnect is not a risk, but is causing confusion, it’s time to make a change. Take the time to make a thoughtful change versus a quick fix. This is a good time to engage the Governance Chair or another appropriate advisor.  

 A few more quick tips: 

  • Be wary of any policy that is too specific or exact. You want to give current and future staff some flexibility and adaptability in implementation.  
  • Don’t be dismayed if not everyone sees your idea in all its glory and genius the first time around. Sometimes people need time, education, and even friendly peer pressure to change the way things are done. Continue to build your case and find champions.  
  • Pilots are powerful. By calling something a pilot, you set the tone that you’re ‘trying stuff’. The stories and learning from a pilot can inform policy, identify champions, and build your storytelling. 
  • Remember… as Vu Le says, you are a nonprofit unicorn! 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *