How do you help a nonprofit become more effective? Simplify the bylaws.

Posted in executive director / policy / board of directors / members

How do you help a nonprofit become more effective? Simplify the bylaws.

Do you remember the confusion for voting at an annual general meeting that happened during the pandemic?

Pre-pandemic, annual general meetings were easy. Everyone was in the same room and voting, as was often stated in the bylaws, was conducted by a simple show of hands. Fast forward to pandemic lockdowns and suddenly, non-profits became very aware of the challenges of counting a show of hands vote for a Zoom meeting with 100+ people, simply because the bylaws stated that’s how voting would be handled.

Don’t put it in the bylaws.

Bylaws can’t simply be ignored, so the options were to stumble around and try and change the voting bylaw at the beginning of the AGM, or stumble through counting 100+ hands for each AGM agenda item requiring a vote. Neither solution seemed particularly effective. That’s because there’s another answer – don’t put those sorts of details into the bylaws to begin with.  

Bylaws ARE important. Bylaws are a way for the founding membership to ensure the organization follows some basic rules.

But bylaws are difficult to change. Changing a bylaw will require approval of the membership, and that happens at a meeting of the members. Not only is it a lot of work and expense to plan a members’ meeting and get everyone together with a quorum that allows for changes to be made – the members might not approve those proposed changes.

Put it in the governing policies.

To avoid having the membership approve a multitude of details, especially those that change frequently, a non-profit will develop governing policies to compliment the bylaws. That creates an environment where bylaws are broad, rarely needing revision, and governing policies contain nuances that can be changed as often as every board meeting.

For example, rather than have the bylaws state that the board will meet every other month, the bylaws could instead state that the board will meet a minimum of 6 times during the year. This gives the non-profit the flexibility to decide its own board meeting schedule.

Another example, rather than have the bylaws outline the types of board committees, the bylaws could instead state that the board will determine its own committees. This gives the non-profit the flexibility to add and remove different types of board committees as needed.

Jumping back to our AGM voting scenario, instead of having the bylaws state that voting will be by show of hands, the bylaws could state that voting will use a method to be determined by the current board of directors. If this was your bylaw, your non-profit would have been well prepared to go into a virtual annual meeting using a voting method that worked much better for virtual meetings than show of hands.

Watch for opportunities to make meaningful changes.

Executive directors have a responsibility to watch for opportunities to prioritize simplicity in the bylaws and support the board’s leadership through governing policies. To do that, the executive director doesn’t need to implement a full-scale bylaw revision, rather simply keep an eye out for signs the board is consistently hitting a bylaw barrier and then suggest meaningful changes.

Aim for greater agility for the board.

By prioritizing simplicity in the bylaws and greater detail in the governing policies, a non-profit will set the stage for greater agility and effectiveness for the board/executive director leadership team.  

Your turn.

Your turn. What bylaws does your non-profit have that continually cause frustrations? How did you fix it? Did you re-write the bylaws? Or did you ignore it and just grumble a bit more? Let me know! Please use the form on the side of the page to let me know, ..or send me an email, ..or message me on socials.


Hi, I'm Christie. I help executive directors develop the systems and processes needed to run a non-profit.

I learned early in my career, there is no non-profit school. Browsing the internet for resources from big-city experts doesn’t provide practical solutions to balance the budget, write a work plan, or conduct an employee evaluation. Leadership development tips don’t really resonate when you are also taking out the recycling and cleaning the washroom.

I created so non-profit leaders never need to wonder how to do the job – no matter how big or small that job is.

I have been the executive director of small-team, small-budget, non-profits for 20+ years. My experience isn’t theory. It is the real, operational, and practical solutions I use every day.

I love my work and I want to help you love yours too.

© Christie Saas 2024 All Rights Reserved

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