We all write policies, lots of them. It’s one of the services I provide to my clients. But what purpose do policies serve? Should they serve? Do your current policies meet these purposes?
My hypothesis is we have too many documents called “policies” that are really procedures, rules and guidelines, not policies. For example, personnel manuals contain “employee policies” but most are rules (with a few guidelines) such as office hours, leave/time off, electronic communications, workplace environment, and benefits. Even your social media policy isn’t a policy but guidelines on how employees should behave while online.
Many “policies” are written as a knee-jerk reaction to an incident such as a dress code because someone wore inappropriate attire to work. An employee spends too much time on personal phone calls so we write a “policy” to restrict personal use of office equipment. As many associations still struggle with social media, under the guise of a policy, they implement rules to restrict access to social sites during office hours and limit employees’ participation during non-work time.
So what is a policy? A policy documents an association’s guiding principle(s) on a specific subject or issue. A well-written policy is aspirational and supports our various strategies (see discussion below). Policies are the “what” we plan to do to meet our vision, mission and corporate culture. Through policies we clarify who and what we want to be as an organization.
Essentially, policies are the guidelines, intentions and plans for WHAT an organization proposes to do while procedures are an outline for HOW these wishes and intentions are to be carried out. (p. 9)
Policies help people make better decisions; offer guidance on how the organization wants us to behave. Well-written, strategic policies enable the decision to be intuitive to the employee, member or volunteer as a reflection of the association’s mission and reason for being.
One challenge in drafting policies is that the document needs to be flexible but written clearly enough to be applied to unanticipated circumstances. No policy can take into account or address all of the possible situations the decision maker might encounter but offers insight into how to solve the problem.
Rules and Procedures
Most, if not all, policies need to be supported by rules, procedures and guidelines which document how we will carry out the “wishes and intentions” of the policy. For example, a personnel policy may say that all employees are valued human beings, to be treated with respect. From this premise of respect an association then develops its personnel rules, procedures, guidelines and benefits. Any tasks related to a policy should be standardized, such as finance and accounting procedures. There are also regulations and compliance requirements that have to be addressed via procedures, rules and guidelines.
We can’t discuss policies without considering their strategic role. Strategy comes from the Greek word “strategia” meaning “office of general, command, generalship” reflecting its military roots. The business world adopted this military concept using it as a plan of action designed to achieve a vision. Through strategies associations determine where it wants to go and what it wants to accomplish as an organization. Association strategies include marketing, social media, membership, finance, fundraising, human resources, advocacy and so on. Policies develop and evolve from these strategies.
In game theory, strategy refers to one of the options that a player can choose. That is, every player in a non-cooperative game (chess) has a set of possible strategies, and must choose one of the choices. Therefore strategy setting involves evaluating numerous options and choosing one that best meets your vision and mission.
Think Before You Write
The association industry continues to discuss the future of associations. Some believe the social revolution has made associations unneeded, superfluous. Others think that association must undergo a massive shift with a new business model. And some believe associations are just as vital today as years ago. The best aspect of this discussion is that associations are questioning their existence and purpose.
I believe that most associations (and businesses including mine) are fuzzy on what they want to be, why they exist and how they make the world a better place. This lack of focus lets us try a little bit of everything – try to be all things to all people.
Policy writing when done strategically helps an association clarify who and what it is (or wants to be) for its members and other stakeholders. We often establish rules and procedures often under the guise of being a policy without asking why. What do we want to do to be a better association? How will this strategy and subsequent policies make us better? When you answer these questions you can write a strategic policy that will serve you well.