Creating an Operating Manual for Your Organization

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As your organization grows, you will develop the best ways to carry out certain tasks. Sometimes these are best practices in a nonprofit, other times they are simply the way your bookkeeper or funder wants you to do things. The more of these procedures you develop, the more important it is to document them.

In addition, as your organization grows, more staff will be taking care of different duties, and no one person will know how to do everything. It’s important for everyone to document their work.

This documentation has a wide range of uses. First, if you take a vacation, it makes it much easier for others to cover for you. Imagine how much easier it would be to prepare to leave for a two week trip if you have all your day-to-day tasks already documented. Second, if you do leave your position, it will be much easier to hand things off, and know that the organization will be in good hands moving forward. Third, documenting this information will allow you to see where you can delegate tasks. If you can train someone on a task now, why not have them take it on permanently? Finally, having this documentation will help you be more efficient. In creating the manual, you’ll be able to think through your regular tasks and find ways to do your job more efficiently and effectively. You’ll also have all the information you need documented in one place. For example, you’ll have instructions on how to fill out that complicated form you have to fill out only once a year.

There are a wide range of methods to document your position and organizational tasks. A consistent organization-wide method will be simpler for everyone. Create a template that every staff member will use, so that all of the information is stored in the same place and using the same format.

These procedure manuals should be computer documents that are easy to update and access. You may want a printed version for some uses, but make sure any updates are added to the computer version. Organizations use a wide range of software to create these documents. You can start with a word processor or Google Doc and then become more sophisticated. Additional options include using a Wiki format, or project management software.

The advantages to creating these documents are tremendous. It means that staff have a first place to look for answers to questions without bothering others. It makes for more consistent workflow, and helps everyone be more efficient. In addition, it makes it harder for staff to say they didn’t know how to do a task. Finally, everyone will eventually leave their position. It is critical to the smooth operations of any organization to retain their knowledge for the future success of the organization.

Note, a procedures manual is separate from other important documents an organization should have. An employee manual details the organization’s requirements to its employees. A policy manual consists of board policies–actions taken by the board to codify certain rules the organization will follow. Policies will create the need for procedures to implement those policies, but they should be separate documents.

Best practices for creating a procedure manual:

  • Start with an outline – break the position down into sections. This could be by time period (day, week, month, quarter, year) or by type of task. You may want to try it both ways. Some tasks make more sense divided up by date, others by task category.
  • Not sure what you should include? Start with an activity log and write down everything you do for a few weeks. That will give you a good starting place for your operations manual. Or take a look at your job description and start writing out procedures for each duty listed there.
  • Use position titles instead of names in your manual, so it stays up to date.
  • Include the date the manual was originally written, and the date of the most recent update.
  • Ask a coworker to carefully read through the manual and validate it. Can they follow the instructions? Do they have all of the information they need?
  • Schedule a time to update the manual. Ideally this will happen throughout the year, but also plan an annual update to review the document in its entirety.
  • When possible, include how much time a task will take, so that whoever is following the instructions has guidance
  • Describe the reasons that something is done if it isn’t clear.
  • If you are describing computer tasks especially, include screen shots. Showing instead of telling will make it easier for someone else to understand. You can also create short videos to explain more detailed tasks.
  • Checklists are a great way to help yourself and others not miss important steps in complex tasks. You’ll find a checklist to be helpful as much as your successor will.
  • Keep passwords separate from the main document, but don’t forget to develop a system to track them as well. The best instructions are useless without login information. Choose a secure way to track passwords, such as an online password manager or a list stored off site with a trusted board member.
  • Don’t recreate sources that already exist. If you have a manual for your copier, reference that instead of putting all the details in your operations manual.

Here are some good resources:

Need help with getting your operations manual in place? Contact me at and I’d be happy to help.

Successful Transitions – a program that works

The possibility of a long-term, trusted and high performing executive director leaving their position is a scary prospect for most boards. It can be made more manageable by intentional planning and open discussions. In addition, taking the time to explore succession planning and leadership development now will benefit the organization immediately through reduced workloads, better trained staff, and the opportunity for future growth.

Through a new program called Successful Transitions, Lincoln organizations developed their plans and prepared for the future. The first Successful Transitions cohort consisted of six nonprofit organizations. One has an executive director who had a firm retirement date less than a year away. Two others have founding executive directors considering retirement some day in the future, but knew they needed to put plans in place for a smooth transition. The other three have no departure plans, but understood that succession planning would benefit the entire organization now and in the future. There was also a wide range of organizations size (staff sizes between 1 and 75) and executive director tenure (2 to 40+ years).

I designed the program to fit this variety of organization situations. During the three group sessions, I presented the core concepts of succession planning, but also allowed time for in depth discussion. Despite their varying backgrounds, the executive directors and board representatives supported each other and had many insights to share.

The first topic was how succession planning looks at far more than just the current executive director. It needs to focus on the entire organization, and how leadership is being developed among staff and board alike. Additional discussion covered how succession planning creates conditions for current ED to succeed, and ensures a sound infrastructure is in place for an emergency, vacation, or a search for a new executive. Each attendee shared stories of how a lack of succession planning had led to a crisis situation for an organization.

In the individual coaching sessions, we explored each executive director’s specific questions. The individual session topics ranged from dealing with a challenging board chair, to exploring the concept of co-executive directors. During the individual sessions, I also answered questions about developing the actual succession plan.

The final piece of the program is a customized training for the board of directors on succession planning. For the founding executive director who is retiring soon, I led a discussion with the board on how they could best support the incoming executive director. For a director who has no plans to leave, the board presentation focused on how succession planning was really about leadership development and sustainability for the organization, which would benefit them now.

Successful Transitions was funded by four local foundations, Cooper Foundation, Woods Charitable Fund, Lincoln Community Foundation and the Community Health Endowment. The program was sponsored by Cause Collective, which strengthens nonprofits in Lincoln through collaboration, education and advocacy.

Melissa Filipi, executive director for Community Services Fund, is one of the directors who has no plans to leave her organization, but saw succession planning as important. She said, ““While we are not facing a transition in the foreseeable future, I felt that having a solid plan in place that captured best practices and common steps would be valuable for Community Services Fund. I want to ensure that when I leave, we have set a solid framework for a smooth transition and future success. We approached this as more than a plan for the Executive Director’s departure by incorporating sustainability and strategic planning into the discussions. Any transition whether staff or board will involve clear discussions about the skills and attributes needed to move CSF’s strategic plan forward.”

Nancy Rosenow, Executive Director at Dimensions, said, “The Successful Transitions program was an exceptionally valuable experience that helped Dimensions Foundation begin thoughtful planning toward a future transition for a long-time executive director. As we learned, it’s so helpful to begin this process years in advance of the actual transition. Ingrid Kirst is an excellent facilitator who ran the program well and shared a wealth of valuable resources. We very much appreciated the opportunity.”

A second round of Successful Transitions will begin in April 2020, with registration beginning in February. I am also available to customize this training for organizations. Please contact me for more information.

Change is Hard

Change is Hard! How to Make It Easier for Everyone

We all deal with changes in different ways. What significantly affects one person is no big deal to another. The same event has various impacts on different people. For example, someone leaving a job will be thrilled at the new opportunities coming, while a co-worker is devastated to lose a fantastic colleague. At an organization with a new executive director starting, one of her program managers could be excited at the chance to work with someone new, while another manager is afraid of someone coming in and demanding to run programs in a new way.
Change is especially evident when an executive director leaves their position. This transition will affect everyone’s work load and level of comfort, but often people expect that a change is affecting others the same way as it does them. I often see this when a board has known about an upcoming departure for a month or longer, and staff don’t. When the staff are told, board members expect them to be ready to move on to the next step right away, forgetting that they also needed time to process this change.
William Bridges, in his book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, provides a good framework for thinking about change and how we can manage transitions better. We often want to get through a change quickly and move on, but Bridges explains why that doesn’t lead to the best results. If we take the time to plan for a good transition, the results will be much better for everyone involved.
Change is an external event that happens. A change in jobs, a move to a new home, the birth of a child. You can usually define when the change happened. The transition related to that change is what takes time. The transition is internal, as we process through the change and what it means for us. It’s a psychological process of accepting the change, considering the opportunities, and then welcoming the new situation.
There are three premises to the model that Bridges presents. First, there can’t be a beginning until there is an ending. Something has to change, and that change has to be processed internally, before the new thing can happen. Second, there’s a neutral zone between the ending and the beginning, and it is important to give it time, but not too much time. Finally, we all go through transitions at varying speeds and need to recognize this in each other.
Every transition starts with an ending. What are you losing? What will you keep? It is important to take the time to communicate in the ending stage, especially to encourage people to talk about their feelings. There can be feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and uncertainty about a big change. If those feelings aren’t expressed, they can linger, and make the new beginning a struggle. It’s important to think about how to communicate a change. You won’t be able to give out all the details, but keeping everyone in the loop as much as possible is critical for helping them feel comfortable with the change. You should also think about how to create a good ending. What rituals and events will make it easier to end this stage. A going away party? A chance for a discussion about what working together has meant to each person?
After the ending, there needs to be time for a neutral zone. This is the in between time, when you are beginning to create new processes, but don’t know what they will be yet. It doesn’t yet feel comfortable. Confusion, uncertainty, and impatience characterize the neutral zone. Everyone has anxiety about their new role or identity as it relates to the change. Remind them of the organizational goals to help them stay grounded. The neutral zone can also can be time of great creativity, and encourage new ways of thinking. It’s a time for brainstorming and bringing up ideas that have been percolating. Setting some short term goals in the neutral zone will allow for quick wins, and help everyone feel like progress is being made. When an executive director resigns, it is important for the board to spend time here before starting hiring process. They can take stock of current situation, and then explore new opportunities, or ways to make a better impact. What is best for the organization long term? Should it continue as it has been, or should it change in some way? Again, communication is key for helping everyone move through this stage.
For some organizations, having an interim executive director during the neutral zone is important. When a long term leader, or an unsuccessful leader leaves, everyone needs time to process the past and their hopes for the future. An interim director will be a steward of the organization and the transition process. They can provide leadership and allow the board the time to conduct a quality search and hiring process. They can make small improvements in the organization’s structure and operations that will benefit everyone. Finally, they can help everyone discuss their emotions and concerns so that board and staff are ready to welcome the new executive director.
The final stage is the beginning. People have accepted the change and are ready to move forward. They are seeing the impact of the small changes they’ve already made. There’s excitement about the future and new possibilities. People are open to learning and new ideas. When the new executive director starts, staff are ready for fresh ideas and improvements.
It is important to remember, that even if the change has happened and most people are at the beginning stage, not everyone is. Checking in with individuals and helping them continue to process the transition is still beneficial, rather than assuming they are ready.
Take some time to create a good pathway for change and the results will be worth that investment.

Steps of an Executive Director Search

For many small nonprofit boards, hiring a search firm to find their next executive director simply isn’t an option financially. Organizations can do the search themselves, but should involve people in the process who have experience in searches, and to follow best practices. What follows is an overview of the process that will result in the best possible hire on a budget.

Read moreSteps of an Executive Director Search

The Art of Gathering – book review

The Art of Gathering

How We Meet and Why It Matters

By Priya Parker

After reading this excellent book, I understand much better why some gatherings work, and some don’t. Why a too large room changes the atmosphere of a meeting. Why just allowing people to wander off at the end of a three day retreat feels like such a let down. Whether you are organizing a small get together of friends, or a large conference, this book will help you connect people with each other better.

Priya Parker has organized her share of gatherings and has many lessons to share. She starts by having you think about the true purpose of your gathering. Why do you want to have a birthday party? How can a networking event be more than just that? Can people be encouraged to ask for help with a vexing problem? Have a defined outcome, not just an event because you feel you should have an event.

She then walks through each step of the event. Who you invite to your meeting matters. It is OK to keep the guest list limited, because more people doesn’t necessarily make the gathering better. Think about the location and how it is set up. How can you make a contained space for your gathering? Even a picnic blanket sets a boundary. Net, she talks through being a host and how to have gentle control over the group. You aren’t bossing them around, but you are setting ground rules to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable time. Parker includes much more on creating a good gathering from the opening to the closing.

I’ve certainly been to my share of gatherings where there was no official start or end, and you were left wondering what you should do. At one event I was at recently, the organizers got on the microphone to yell at guests who went back for seconds and tell them they couldn’t do that. It isn’t an event I would return to! On the other hand, at a wedding I attended, the family got most of the guests involved in a fun and easy group dance that connected the broad group of friends and relatives with each other and got everyone up and moving.

I’ll be using techniques from the book to create better gatherings in the future. I highly encourage you to read it yourself. It’s available at Lincoln City Libraries and many other locations.

Thanking a Retiring Executive Director

There are a million posts out there on how to thank someone who is retiring by buying them a gift. But how meaningful is a plaque or clock after someone has spent decades serving their community as a nonprofit leader? How can you thank someone in a way that really connects to their work and reminds them that they are valued?

Read moreThanking a Retiring Executive Director

Creating a Great Board Manual

Here’s a selection of items to include in your board manual. Many of these documents you already have. If you find you need to create documents, your current board members will appreciate having them as well, so be sure to share them with everyone. Keep everything brief, but informative.

Consider whether it makes more sense to have these as printed documents, or if you would rather create a shared online area to store them. Every board and board member is different in how they prefer to receive information. Google Drive is a low cost solution that nonprofits often use for sharing documents.

Read moreCreating a Great Board Manual

How to be the Volunteer Organizations Need

After decades of being a volunteer, and supervising volunteers, I have seen a lot of fantastic volunteers, and a few that just left me baffled. The ones that show up every week consistently and help with whatever needs to be done were awesome. The board members who jumped in and helped at events in so many ways. I’m currently volunteering on a political campaign and the staff are excited to see me every time I come in, and they always check in to find out when I’m coming back. That motivates me to keep helping.

Read moreHow to be the Volunteer Organizations Need