Crafting 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 of 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 a 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 screenshots. 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.

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