When Organizational Policies Become Leaks in the Basement

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.



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1 Comment
  • Chris Bunch
    Posted at 05:42h, 16 April

    All well and good in theory, as are all the accreditation standards, developed as ideals, absent the reality of actually operating a conservancy day to day, in the face of boards that are at best 75% engaged in actual physical participation (showing up), let alone developing the understanding of the depth of knowledge necessary to understand, triage and implement practices in the face of the demands of actually doing the work, particularity given that they are volunteers with other demands in their lives. The REAL organizational controls are created in the IRS and the state and federal laws, rules and regulations that we must abide by. If we engage with every layer of control at depth, including accreditation, we would be so bloated with bureaucracy and paralyzed with analysis that we would spend all of our time in administration and engaged in rabbinical arguments- with people who, while well intended, do not have the knowledge and experience base to engage productively in the issue being debated. The law of unintended consequences says the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    Operating an organization, and a board, is messy. Especially if you are actually trying to accomplish mission derived outcomes, which usually means you are engaged in acquisition projects with a public agency with multiple parties, players, interests, personalities and lawyers. Or partnership in any one of your areas of operation, again with all the variables listed above. Or trying to raise money from entities that are trying to shift your mission rather than fund your vision. Or a hike full of children running amok who can’t sign deeds or checks….

    Board members need to be passionate about the mission, committed to seeing tangible, measurable outcomes, and understand and be committed to ethical behavior. To drive a car you don’t need to understand internal combustion- or electrical engineering. You need to understand the rules of the road, and enough about physics to apply the brakes in time to avoid a crash- or if you are truly experienced (rare), that in many cases it is the accelerator or the steering wheel that will avoid the crash. Those skills arise from driving the car, not pouring over the shop manuals…

    Accreditation is overly complicated, bloated, extraneous. When the objective was to provide training and guidance at digestible levels and give board and staff members the skills needed to accomplish the task at hand, it had value. Standards and practices were good guide posts. Accreditation is stifling.