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I’ve got nearly 40 years’ experience working with non-profits as a member, officer and board member.  I’m a big fan of non-profits because they promote good in their communities and enable people to come together for a common purpose.  I’ve had a lot of great experiences with non-profits.

I’ve also had a lot of terrible experiences.

Non-profits are a different beast than for-profit organizations.  In a for-profit, the profit motive is usually enough to keep everyone focused on the mission and get the job done.  In non-profits, that motive is replaced with an emotional one (not that greed isn’t an emotion).  People join a non-profit because they believe in the mission – no one gets rich in a non-profit.  (Disclaimer:  There are organizations labelled non-profit which are anything but.  As a former CEO of a “non-profit” once said, “We may be a non-profit but that doesn’t mean we are a for-loss.”)

It’s the emotional motive that causes problems.  Because people invest their time and energies they expect that the organization will reflect their values and that’s the paradox.  You see, non-profit organizations have rules.  These rules are in the form of

  • Laws – Federal, particularly IRS and state, governing formation and activities
  • Parent organizations guidelines/requirements – Many non-profits operate as a chapter of a national organization which means the parent gets to set the rules.
  • Articles of incorporation – Required, if the organization is anything other than an informal get-together, when the organization registers with the state.
  • By-laws – An adjunct to the articles of incorporation. Basically, the rules the organization operates by.

I recently worked with a non-profit that realized that their by-laws were out-of-date and very likely invalid as well.  As I started to rewrite the by-laws, I discovered in my research that the parent organization had a sample set of by-laws for their chapters.  Generally, sample by-laws are well done because the parent organization can recruit lawyers and experienced personnel to compose them.  To use one person’s description, “They’re set in soft concrete.”  You can modify to meet local conditions, but you must keep the general scope the same.

But some member of the board of directors took issue with some of the requirements, particularly the requirement to have a vice-president.  Vice-presidents are generally the organizational equivalent of warm spit – they don’t have any responsibilities except to be present in case the president dies.  There was the comment, “How can the national organization tell us what to do?”

The parent organization can tell you what to do because you agreed to be a chapter of the parent organization.  If you don’t want to do what the parent organization tells you, then split or get them to change their rules.

Interestingly, the State of Washington also requires “one or more vice presidents.”

When it comes time to discuss the proposed by-laws, I’m sure there will be heated arguments – we don’t need a vice-president; the by-laws are too long; too complex; we don’t need surety bonds or conflict of interest clauses.  Once again, I will patiently explain the rules and requirements and state laws.  And once again people won’t like me.  But I know I’m right.

It’s a fight worth fighting.  The arguments now will avoid the fights later that would be costlier and damaging, potentially killing the organization and ruining people’s lives.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.