The trustee handbook—or board manual—is an essential document for the sustainable nonprofit. After a brief description of its contents, we’ll take a glance at the role it plays in each of the five fundamental responsibilities of a nonprofit board (fundraising, strategic planning, hiring and evaluation of the chief executive, fiduciary responsibility, and self-perpetuation).
A generic outline for a trustee handbook might look like this:
- Board documents
- Board responsibilities (job descriptions for board officers and committees; committee and task force protocols and policies; description of oversight of chief executive)
- Trustees (job description; individual service plan description and form, list of current and past trustees)
- Board policies
- Board meetings (pre-meeting preparation; meeting protocol; meeting calendar)
- Board development (processes for recruitment and nomination; orientation; ongoing education and training; leadership development)
- Board self assessment process
- Current information (list of current trustees with terms and capsule biographies; minutes of board meetings; recent reports, including those from the chief executive)
- Organizational strategy
- Mission statement and related documents
- Strategic plan with updates
- Organizational context
- Brief written history and fact sheet
- Organizational chart and staff directory
- Annual calendar
- Legal documents (articles of incorporation, bylaws, IRS determination letter, insurance and risk management information, conflict of interest policy)
- Operations (descriptions, policies, procedures for functional areas, such as advancement, finance, human resources, programs)
- Fundraising and finance
- Prior-year annual report
- Current annual budget and financial statements
- Current fundraising plan
- Most recent audit report
This collected and organized information is useful for giving trustees context for discussions of fundraising. Your trustees need to be effective ambassadors and solicitors. The trustee handbook serves as a briefing book so that even new trustees can have a sound and comprehensive basic knowledge of the organization.
The handbook is even more central to informed evaluation of the organization’s strategy and the performance of its chief executive. Nonprofit boards often fall short in these areas because trustees are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the organization to engage the judgment that made them attractive to the board in the first place. Hence the definition of a nonprofit board as an ineffective group of effective people.
However, it is in the other two responsibilities of the board that the trustee handbook serves its most critical purpose.
It is difficult to understand how a board can exercise its fiduciary responsibility (stewardship of the mission and of the financial and legal obligations of the organization) without easy and organized access to documentation of the situation, strategy, policies, compliance, and history of the organization. Yet many boards simply don’t pull this information together. Trustees who would have much to offer to deliberative discussions actually tune out for lack of knowledge of the background of the issues.
Finally, to sustain a nonprofit over time, a board has to attend to its own strength and renewal. While this is a subject that could easily take us into a much larger discussion, suffice it to say that the fundamental document for effective recruitment and orientation of new trustees, and development of the capacity of existing ones, is a comprehensive trustee handbook.
The irony of the rarity of comprehensive, current and accessible trustee handbooks is that much of the material already exists. Sometimes even in the files of trustees. It’s just not organized and maintained in a way that makes it accessible. Ideally the handbook will be accessible online so that it can be updated easily and always at hand for trustee use.
This post is one of several follow-ups to Critical Issues #4: On Boards.