The difference between operational and governance policy...

Posted in executive director / policy

The difference between operational and governance policy...

Non-profits rely on policies to guide everything from the number of board members needed for a meeting, to how to write a receipt. Policies are very helpful to guide board and staff in their jobs, but policies for the board are very different from policies for the workers.

Don’t blur the governance-operations line.

For smaller non-profits, especially those without a paid staff team, there is a desire to lump all the policies together into one document, simply because they are called policies. While having everything in a single document can make it administratively easier to search for information, the combination blurs the line between governing and operations.

The jobs are different.

Whether a non-profit has a paid staff team or a team of volunteer workers, someone must do the actual front-line work, and that work is very different from the job of governing the organization. Having separate governance and operational policies helps a non-profit be more organized and a little more forward thinking.

The right rule book for the right person.

Being more organized starts by making sure no one is overloaded with information that doesn’t apply to them. A summer student hired to sell tickets to the museum doesn’t need to know about individual expectations for board members. Similarly, a board member wondering about quorum, doesn’t need to know how to run the front office cash register.

Keeping governing and operating policies separate, ensures the right set of instructions are given to the right person.

Plan for future success.

As a non-profit grows, permanent employees might join the team, and the division between governing and operations needs to be even more clearly defined. This is especially critical for an executive director, often hired to handle all management tasks.

A non-profit can prepare for future success by creating stand alone operating policies that the ED will take over when first hired. There will be no need for lengthy board meetings trying to figure out which policy applies to whom. The work will be done, ready, and waiting for that first permanent position.

One thing.

Does your non-profit have two separate sets of policies? Time to dig through the files and find out. Start with the governing policies. Do they incorporate operational details in with board governance?

Does your non-profit have paid employees or is all the work done by volunteers? Would a new worker be able to easily understand their job, by reading through the policies?

Easy win.

When a non-profit is smaller and people hold multiple roles, clear policies are necessary to prevent confusion. We know sometimes, the person doing the work can forget to take off their board hat. We know sometimes, the person governing can forget to take off their worker hat.

Yes, everyone is on the same team, but the team is much more successful when roles are defined. Policies are a great way to get started.

What questions do you have?

Governing policies! Operating policies! It can be a lot to consider. If you have questions or comments, I want to know! Please use the form on the side of the page to let me know.


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 2023 All Rights Reserved

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