Read the Instructions First: The importance of a Board Manual

by Valerie Ferreira on July 07, 2014

Note: Fio Partners is excited to get back into blogging this summer!  We will be featuring Anne, Jane, and our newest Fio Partners affiliate consultants, Valerie Ferreira and Devon Dabbs. This first post is from Valerie with guidance on why your Board operations manual is critical for your Board’s success!

Since we were children, we’ve been told repeatedly to “read through all of the instructions first.”  And it seems to be one of those pieces of advice that really crosses into all areas of life whether you’re learning how to operate the latest and greatest cellphone, building a piece of IKEA furniture, or taking on a new responsibility at the office.  One particular memory from childhood that really drives home the point always sits, semi-present, in my mind.  It was third grade and a particularly tough year for me.  I was a bit of a chatterbox – and drove my teacher crazy – so this memory likely sticks out because it was one of the few times that school year that I stopped talking long enough to actually hear (not just listen to) the task at hand.  Our whole class was handed a sheet of paper and specifically told to read through all of the instructions first.  Then instruction number one specifically said to read through all of the instructions first; clearly they were trying to make a point.  The rest of the instructions included things like cutting off a piece of the paper, jumping up and down on one leg, shouting silly things, and so on.  The final instructions said, “Ignore all previous instructions and write your name in the bottom right corner of this page.”

So while I and one other student sat there with our names written in the corner of the paper watching the bedlam our classmates were creating by shouting and jumping and tearing things up, the lesson really sunk in.  Read all the instructions first!  How else can you understand what’s expected of you?  How can you know if you’re heading the wrong way without knowing where you’re supposed to end up?  How can you know if you even want to get there if you don’t know what’s required to do so?  All these years later those questions are no less relevant in my life and the life of my clients.  Some people call it well-organized, others call it being type A, but the sentiment rings true regardless; to achieve success, all parties involved need to share an understanding of what that success should look like and what is expected of them to get there. 

A board manual is your organization’s “instructions.”  It codifies your nonprofit’s history and vision; it identifies and introduces all relevant people and relationships; it provides the information board members are both legally and ethically responsible for monitoring; it clarifies expectations and procedures that keep your board chugging along in philanthropic bliss.  If you have a good board manual (and everyone on your board has read it!) than congratulations, you have taken a tedious but crucial step in proper board management.  If you don’t have one, or need a better/updated one, creating it is a wonderful exercise in articulating where the organization has been, where it is now and where it hopes to go. 

Too often boards push on through the “business” of board operations without taking the time to be thoughtful about how that business relates to the greater picture, or more importantly, ensuring that everyone shares the same greater picture.  The process of creating the manual can be a great way to build social cohesion within your nonprofit as well.  Reach out to the staff for input on the organization’s programs and operations and in turn help them to understand the board’s role and responsibilities.  Engage less involved board members by collecting biographical data on each member of the board and evaluating and clarifying the current committee structure.  Review your board policies and procedures.  Do you follow them as written?  If not, would it serve the mission better to begin doing so or to create new policies and procedures that fit the current environment?  Organizations and their boards evolve over time; their policies and procedures should evolve with them. 

Each step in this process is an opportunity for the board to reflect on the organization, its mission, and board functioning.  It provides a platform for asking the questions and having the conversations that create that shared understanding of what success will look like and how to get there. 

A good board manual can also be an effective tool in board development.  It is just as important for current board members to have the full instructions of the organization as it is for those considering joining the board.  A common mistake in board member recruitment is miscommunication about board member responsibilities.  Sharing your board manual with potential board members at some point during the recruitment process ensures a clear understanding of your expectations once they’ve committed.  Moreover, it aids the onboarding process of those new members.  They may be less inclined to participate when they don’t understand the board’s lingo and feel as if they don’t yet understand how all the pieces fit together.  A board manual will provide immediate background knowledge for their reference, a shared picture of the organizational goals, and “instructions” on how the board plans to achieve them. 

Imagine how much better your board meetings will be without all that paper tearing, hopping around, and silly shouting. 

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