13 Apr When Organizational Policies Become Leaks in the Basement
13 April 2021
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
Dear Board Director:
Does your organization have a Conflict-of-Interest Policy?
Do you – specifically you – know what it says and how to use it?
Could you provide evidence that it is being used?
How about a Gift Acceptance Policy, an Investment Policy, or an Internal Controls Policy?
How about an Easement Defense Policy, a Human Resources Policy, a Whistle-Blowers Policy, or a Records Retention Policy?
The truth is that many Board directors are substantially unaware of how their organizations are supposed to work, and therefore effectively incapable of exercising their role in Governance. Like slow leaks in your organizational basement, they’re probably not a big deal if they are caught and corrected. But if they go on and on for years, they have the potential for becoming major organizational headaches for someone someday.
If you find that this shoe fits you, or perhaps others on your board, I have a suggestion:
Introduce a substantive discussion about Board governance into the agenda at a Board meeting at least every quarter. Don’t wait for staff, either. This is a Board level responsibility and the initiative should be led by Board members.
Here’s one idea:
The Land Trust Alliance publishes a set of Land Trust Standards and Practices to serve as guidelines for the land trust community nationwide. There are twelve Standards that are considered minimal performance expectations of land trusts, and documented adherence to them is required for consideration as an “accredited” land trust. The first seven of the Standards are generally applicable for any non-profit organization, whereas the last five are specific to land trusts and land trust business. (If you are not representing a land trust, there are almost certainly similar, mission-specific standards you could adopt for your particular non-profit.)
Delegate each Standard to one of the Board directors as a “Standard-Bearer.” That person would be responsible for researching and “auditing” the details of the Standard and formally reporting back to the Board on the current status of the organization’s compliance.
Each designated Board director might begin by reading carefully through the specific Standard and its subordinate Practices. S/he might also read through the by-laws, all the relevant organizational policies, and current strategic and operational plans, looking for vertical consistency.
Effectively s/he becomes the Board “expert” for that Standard. And s/he explicitly seeks unambiguous examples of organizational compliance with all policies. (It’s not enough to simply have a policy – it must be used, and its use should be documented.)
Note that staff are going to need to be patient here. This is not a referendum on staff performance. It’s important that Board members know that there is an Internal Controls policy and how it is supposed to work. And that it actually DOES work that way. SHOW them.
At a designated Board meeting, the Board director reports formally on the Standard, noting all the practices and policies underneath it, and offering an opinion as to the degree to which the organization is currently compliant. S/he offers recommendations for improvement or wording changes as appropriate. Any specific discrepancies are noted and recommended action brought to the Board’s attention.
Imagine her saying something like this:
Without reservation, I believe this organization is compliant with both the letter and the spirit of the standard. The By-Laws, mission, plans, and policies are all internally consistent, and we apply them consistently as needs and opportunities present themselves.
Now imagine a similar report delivered at a Board meeting at least one per calendar quarter, each on a different Standard. Land Trusts would cycle through these Standards reports every three years. (Other organizations could cycle through the first seven Standards every two years.)
Consider it a sort of organizational hygiene – a quarterly practice that generally serves to maintain organizational health.
Consider that this might be a terrific role for first-year board members. They benefit from knowing the organization that much more intimately, and the organization benefits from having a fresh set of eyes looking critically at the way it does its business every couple of years or so.
And if there are leaks in the basement….
As an added bonus, when the Accreditation Commission (or anyone else) asks whether your land trust is compliant with its Conflict-of-Interest policy, you’ll know!
Cheers, and Have a great week!
PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.
Photo by Matt Bango courtesy of Stocksnap.