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heart in pages of book

Welcome to the newest post in the 25 Days of Giving series. Have questions or a topic related to charitable giving you want covered as a part of the series? Contact me!

You want your favorite charity to be wildly successful. Whether you’re working for the nonprofit as staff, serving on the board of directors, or assisting as a donor or volunteer, you want your nonprofit to have every chance to reach its goals and objectives. 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) strongly encourages nonprofits to adopt specific governance policies to limit potential abuse, protect against vulnerabilities, and prevent activities that would go beyond permitted nonprofit activities. The IRS also audits nonprofits, just as it audits companies and individuals, and having these policies in place can only help you should you be audited. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, having solid policies and procedures in place will provide a foundation for soliciting, accepting, and facilitating charitable donations. 

Each nonprofit is unique, and accordingly policies and procedures needed will vary for each. For instance, a non-operating private foundation will likely need a different set of documents than a public charity. However, most nonprofits will want, at the very least, to consider having the following policies in place. 

Articles of Incorporation

Articles of incorporation are necessary to even form a nonprofit corporation; the document is filed with the state and accompanied by a filing fee. This policy can be known by other monikers as “certificate of incorporation,” “articles of organization,” or “charter document.” Think of this as the constitution of the organization. While it can be fairly short, there are some necessary elements in the articles that are required for federal tax-exempt status. Those elements include a statement of purpose, legal address, emphasis on not-for-profit activities, duration, names and address of director(s), and a dissolution clause, among others. You may want to check out the IRS’ sample charter.

Board Roles and Responsibilities

Nonprofit board members are generally tasked with two major responsibilities of support and governance. A board’s rules and responsibilities document should outline the requirements and responsibilities of board members. Some examples of basic components include fundraising participation, determining the organization’s mission and direction, selecting and regularly evaluating the nonprofit director/CEO, and protection of public interest. A policy regarding board roles and responsibilities should encourage nothing short of ethical and legal integrity within board members.

boardroom chairs

Bylaws

If you’ve ever been part of any board or committee, you’ve definitely heard reference to the bylaws and received a copy upon joining the organization. Nonprofit bylaws serve as the internal operating methods and rules that specify things like the election process of directors, employee roles within the nonprofit, and operational manners of meetings. Specific language in the bylaws is not required by federal tax law, but some states may require nonprofits to have written bylaws to be considered tax-exempt. This document can most often be used to resolve uncertainty between board members and takes the guesswork out of operations.

Code of Ethics

Just as it sounds, a code of ethics document puts in place a set of guiding principles for behavior, decision making, and activities of those involved in the nonprofit, including board members, employees, and volunteers. While principles innate to your organization such as honesty, equity, integrity, and transparency may be understood by all involved, this formal adoption allows those involved to make a formal commitment to ethical actions and decisions. Sometimes this document is known as a “statement of values,” or “code of conduct.” Many organizations post their code on their website to demonstrate accountability and transparency.

Compensation Policy

Competitive compensation is just as important for employees of nonprofits as it is for for-profit employees. Having a set policy in place that objectively establishes salary ranges for positions, updated job descriptions, relevant salary administration, and performance management is used to establish equality and equity in compensation practices. A statement of compensation philosophy and strategy which explains to current and potential employees and board members how compensation supports the organization’s mission can be included in the compensation policy.

Confidentiality

A nonprofit’s board members have a duty of confidentiality due to their fiduciary obligation to the organization. This duty is there regardless of any written policy or not, but it’s certainly a best practice to clarify and explain why and how confidentiality is important to the specific organization. A confidentiality policy can include elements such as the following:

  • definitions of what matters are considered confidential
  • determination to whom the policy applies
  • a statement that board members do not make any public statements to the press without authorization
  • a process by which confidential material may be authorized for disclosure

secret mouth

Conflict of Interest

This is arguably one of the more essential policies a nonprofit board should adopt. A conflict of interest policy should do two important things:

  • require board members with a conflict (or a potential conflict) to disclose it, and
  • exclude individual board members from voting on matters in which there is a conflict.

Note the IRS Form 990 asks whether the nonprofit has such a policy as well as how the organization manages and determines board members who have a conflict of interest. This policy is all too important as conflicts of interest that are not successfully and ethically managed can result in “intermediate sanctions” against both the organization and the individual with the conflicts.

Document Retention

A document retention policy doesn’t mean that EVERY piece of paper and digital report should be kept for a specific duration. But, consider if a document is unknowingly tossed by a nonprofit employee and is later needed in a legal matter. That can cause irrevocable damage. So, ensure all board members, staffers, and volunteers are trained and have a copy of the document retention policy, which should clarify what types of documents should be retained, how they should be filed, and for what duration. This policy should also outline proper deletion/destruction techniques.

Employee Handbook

An employee handbook is another one of the more common nonprofit documents. A quality handbook should clearly communicate employment policies and enforce at-will provisions to all employees. Employment laws are complicated and complex. An employee handbook written/reviewed by a licensed attorney is a good legal step toward avoiding employment disputes. (Yes, just as you need a lawyer to write your estate plan, you’ll need a lawyer to craft/review your employee handbook.) Review your employee handbook regularly, as an out-of-date or poorly written handbook can leave the organization open to employment ambiguity and conflicts.

Financial Policies and Procedures

This document specifically addresses guidelines for making financial decisions, reporting the financial status of the organization, managing funds, and developing financial goals. The financial management policies and procedures should also outline the budgeting process, investment reporting, what accounts may be maintained by the nonprofit, and when scheduled auditing will take place.

Endowment

This resolution concerns funds (and the interest from these funds) that are kept long term. It generally aids the organization’s overall operations. An endowment policy should consider the purpose of the endowment, how the endowment will benefit the mission of the nonprofit, management practices of the endowment, disbursement policies, and investment strategy. (This blog post from GuideStar offers five steps to starting an endowment.)

Gift Acceptance

Gift acceptance is yet another policy the IRS considers to be a best practice for any tax-exempt nonprofit, and the gift acceptance policy can help set acceptance policies for both donors and the board/staffers. There is no federal legal requirement, but this policy does allow you to check “Yes” on Form 990. If well-written and applied across the organization, the policy can help the organization to kindly reject a non-cash gift that can carry extraneous liabilities and obligations the organization is not readily able to manage.

Outstretched hand

Investments

One way a Board of Directors can fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to the organization is through investing assets to further the nonprofit’s goals. But, before investment vehicles are invested in, the organization should have an investment policy in place to define who is accountable for the investment decisions. The policy should also offer guidance on activities of growing/protecting the investments, earning interest, and maintaining access to cash if necessary. Many organizations hire a professional financial advisor or investment manager to implement investments and offer advice. This person’s role can be accounted for in the investment policy.

Whistleblower

Nonprofits, along with all corporations, are prohibited from retaliating against employees who call out, draw attention to, or “blow the whistle” against employer practices. A whistleblower policy should set a process for complaints to be addressed and include protection for whistleblowers. Ultimately this policy can help insulate your organization from the risk of state and federal law violation and encourage sound, swift responses of investigation and solutions to complaints. Don’t just take it from me, the IRS also considers this an incredibly helpful policy:

“A whistleblower policy encourages staff and volunteers to come forward with credible information on illegal practices or violations of adopted policies of the organization, specifies that the organization will protect the individual from retaliation, and identifies those staff or board members or outside parties to whom such information can be reported. (Instructions to Form 990)

Policies = Powerful

While these documents may sound like a lot of work, the time and energy you place into ensuring your nonprofit is set up for success will pay off in the long run by saving you legal and IRS fees, internal conflict, violations, and compliance issues. Plus, you can enlist a qualified nonprofit attorney to do the leg work for you! 

You may say, “My organization already has a great set of policies in place!” Which is great. But, you should continuously update them as needed/wanted. A policy from 2002 may have been perfect at the time but could be in dire need of updates.

I’d advise making policies the main subject of a board meeting to review what policies have been adopted, which policies need revisions, and which policies you’re missing altogether. If you’re not sure where to start, or how policies should be drafted, read, or enacted, I would be happy to offer you a free one-hour consultation. You can also take me up on my 10 for 990 policy special.

I’m here to assist in drafting or revising your set of nonprofit policies, so don’t hesitate to contact me via email or phone (515-371-6077). We’ll schedule your free one-hour consultation and make a plan to set your organization up for success!

(Note this article is provided for general information only and not intended as legal advice for your specific nonprofit organization. Again, please contact me to discuss your organization’s unique needs.)

board meeting with materials on table

I love the opportunity to speak with nonprofit boards of all sizes to help them govern the charitable organization in mission fulfillment in the utmost ethical and legal manner possible.

I highly recommend organizations of all sizes host training for their board members regarding their 10 basic responsibilities, individually and collectively, within the broader context of modern best practices. I provide a two-hour training/orientation on these ten basic responsibilities, and the information below is intended as a brief summary of this training!

Tailored Presentations

My live training session can be tailored to the nonprofit’s specific size, needs, and experience. The training includes an engaging visual presentation, handouts, and plenty of time for questions and discussion. Slides will also be sent out to attendees following the training. The following is a brief outline of the information I would present to the board.

10 Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Board Members

The ten basic responsibilities of nonprofit board members are as follows:

  1. Determine the organization’s mission, vision, objectives, and goals, and then advocate for them.
  • The board is responsible for ensuring’s mission, vision, objectives, and goals are plainly stated, embraced by all, and enthusiastically supported.
  1. Hire successful staff.
  • The board’s ability to recruit, support, reasonably compensate, and retain effective staff, especially the executive director, will be a crucial factor in the nonprofit’s success.
  • No matter how talented and experienced, employees need to clearly know their rights and responsibilities, through written policies and procedures, such as an employee handbook, employee agreement(s), and regular, formal performance review(s).
  1. Adopt “best practice” policies and procedures.
  • The IRS requires certain information from your organization be submitted annually via Form 990 “Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax.” To that point, the 990 asks nonprofits about policies and procedures that help ensure the nonprofit is conducting business in a transparent way that’s consistent with their exempt purposes. Specific governance policies encouraged by the IRS limit potential abuse, protect against vulnerabilities and prevent activities that would go beyond permitted nonprofit activities.
  1. Ensure effective planning.
  • Through planning, the board and staff translate the nonprofit’s mission into objectives and goals to be used to focus resources and energy.
  • The board is responsible for actively participating in and approving decisions that set the nonprofit’s strategic direction.
  1. Monitor and strengthen programs and services.
  • Given limited funds, but unlimited demands on those funds, the board ultimately must decide among competing priorities.
  • What the nonprofit actually does, and how well it does it, should guide all board inquiries.
  1. Ensure adequate financial resources.
  • A nonprofit can only be as effective as its financial resources.
  • Although much can and should be expected of the staff, the board is chiefly responsible for ensuring it has the funds it needs and that the organization does not spend beyond its means.

board training at wood table

  1. Provide financial oversight.
  • Safeguarding organizational assets is one of the most important board functions.
  1. Build and sustain a competent board.
  • A major issue the board and executive director need to answer is: How should we define the ideal mix and number of professional skills, backgrounds, experience, demographics, and other characteristics we should seek in our board members?
  • Board members must set and persistently articulate the level of expectation that they will hold themselves and the organization to.
  1. Ensure legal and ethical integrity.
  • The organization’s reputation and public standing require everyone to take three watchwords seriously: compliance, transparency, and accountability.

Compliance

The term “compliance” is simply shorthand for the regulatory and legal requirements imposed by government and regulatory bodies at local, state, and federal levels that are considered part of a board’s fiduciary responsibility.

Transparency

Nonprofit organizations are expected to routinely and openly share more, and more complete, information to the media and the public about their financial condition, major activities, and staff compensation. A charitable nonprofit should make certain information about its operations, including its governance, finances, programs, and activities, widely available to the public.

Accountability

Although the board sets and periodically assesses the adequacy of major organizational policy, accountability measures ordinarily and appropriately fall to management. But the board needs to consistently ensure the organization is accountable to those who it serves, those who support it, and to the greater community.

  1. Enhance the organization’s public standing.
  • Board members serve as a link – the vital link – between the nonprofit and its board members, donors, potential donors, employees, volunteers, other stakeholders, and the community at large.
  • Board members should think of themselves as the nonprofit’s foremost advocates and ambassadors, hopefully, even after they leave the board!

Training Beneficial for New and Continuing Members

The 10 basics as set forth above tends to be an important training I recommend all nonprofit boards of both new and continuing members attend. However, if your board is in need of a different, specific training related to a specific aspect of organizational governance, do not hesitate to propose an idea or two. Most importantly, the training needs to be related to your board.

Let’s Discuss What Your Organization Needs

Interested in hosting a two-hour training containing content individualized to your organization? That’s great! Generally, I charge a flat fee and this fee means no surprises for you or your budget. It also includes as many conferences as needed in preparation, materials during and following the training, and an active Q&A session throughout the training. To discuss further, please don’t hesitate to contact me via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell phone (515-371-6077).

never settle ethics picture

Acting ethically as a charitable organization is paramount to success. Even the illusion of unethical operations can cause lasting damage to your organization. (Case in point: Look at what happened to the Donald J. Trump Foundation and, by association, Eric Trump’s foundation.)

Smart nonprofit boards adopt, in writing, crucial values such as honesty, integrity, transparency, confidentiality, and equity. Sure a policy or two cannot “create” a certain culture or ethical operations by itself. But, well-drafted policies CAN actively promote and reinforce ethics in conduct and decision-making to all involved within the organization.

Major Benefits of Promoting Ethics

The realities of modern communication and social media mean that just about anyone can be a publishing “journalist.” This also means that organizations, especially nonprofits, can be subject to intense scrutiny. Because of tax-exempt status and dependence on charitable donations, nonprofits tend to be held to a higher standard than their for-profit counterparts.

An ethical issue—even the illusion of one—can split boards, cause stakeholders to pull back, snap donors’ wallets shut, and even result in expensive litigation. Fortunately, there are policies and procedures that can prevent your hardworking organization from having to deal with such controversy, by deterring unethical situations from every occurring. These policies include:

Code of Ethics

Every nonprofit should adopt a set of ethical principles to guide its decisions and conduct of its board members, officers, employees, independent contractors, volunteers, and other stakeholders. These ethical principles are typically called a “code of ethics,” “statement of values,” or “code of conduct.” Regardless of the title, the purpose of formally adopting a set of ethical principles is to provide guidelines for making ethical choices and to ensure that there is accountability for those choices. When board members adopt a code of ethics, they are actively expressing their deep commitment to ethical behavior. Making such a commitment can help earn and maintain the public’s trust.

 Confidentiality

Respecting the privacy of donors, prospective donors, employees, and volunteers, as well the nonprofit itself, must be a paramount value. For example, financial information of a donor must be treated as highly confidential, and not be disclosed or discussed with anyone without the express, explicit permission.

Care should also be taken to ensure that unauthorized individuals do not overhear any discussion of confidential information and that documents containing confidential information are not left in the open or inadvertently shared. In short, it is critical to adopt a confidentiality policy regarding identity, financial institution accounts, credit card numbers, and all such information about finances.

 Ethical Fundraising

Federal and state law significantly impact nonprofit fundraising. Beyond merely meeting what the law requires, nonprofits can demonstrate a first-class commitment to legal compliance by adopting an ethical fundraising policy. This would codify, for example, that all communications to donors and potential donors are honest and accurate. Another example: requirements to provide attributions for marketing imagery and never include information with minors that could be considered personal identifying information.

 Financial Management

Nonprofit board members, both individually and collectively, owe a fiduciary duty to ensure the organization’s assets are used in accordance with donors’ intent and the charitable mission. To ensure prudent financial management, nonprofits should adopt financial management policies.

Financial management policies clarify the roles, authority, and responsibilities for essential activities and decisions. Examples of nonprofit financial policies commonly used include a description of how cash is handled; whether and how travel expenses will be reimbursed; and the board’s role in reviewing executive compensation. 

Financial Transparency

Nonprofits also should adopt a financial transparency policy. An example of a fundamental financial transparency practice is to make information accessible to interested individuals regarding the nonprofit’s budget, sources of revenue, and information about board composition, programs, outcomes/impact, and staffing.

Basic “Good Governance” Practices

There are several basic practices every nonprofit should engage in to maintain “good governance”:

  1. Maintain corporate minutes
  2. Annual review of “conflicts of interest”
  3. Annual review of compensation
  4. Self-assessment process
  5. Diversity
  6. Board orientation/training

Updating Ethics Policies

If you already have some (or all) of the above-listed policies in place, seriously consider the last time they were updated. How has the organization changed since they were written? Have new legislative policies impacted these policies at all? It may be time for a new set of ethics policies for your organization.

Additional Policies Need

Note nonprofits also need additional policies for optimal compliance. In addition to the ten major policies and procedures that support the best possible IRS Form 990 (such as public disclosure, gift acceptance, and whistleblower) nonprofits should have documents in place covering the topics of employment; grantors and grantees; endowment management; and legal training for directors.

Questions? Please don’t hesitate to contact me via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell phone (515-371-6077). I’d be happy to discuss your nonprofit’s specific needs and policies promoting ethics, with you at your convenience.