Info You Can Use: Good Governance Policies

There is an old adage about the cleanliness of a restaurant restroom being indicative of the care being used in the kitchen for food preparation. There really isn’t an actual relationship between these two facts, but a dirty restroom is enough to give one pause.

The Non-Profit Law blog says the IRS takes a similar stance on whether you check Yes or No on your Form 990 about the presence of policies in the following areas:

* Conflict of Interest Policy (Part VI, Section B)
* Executive compensation approval process (Part VI, Section B)
* Document Retention and Destruction Policy (Part VI, Section B)
* Gift Acceptance Policy (Schedule M)
* Meeting minutes document practices (Part VI, Section A)
* Review process of Form 990 by the Board of Directors (Part VI, Section B)
* Whistleblower Policy (Part VI, Section B)
* Joint Venture Policy, if applicable (Part VI, Section B)
* Policies regarding chapters, affiliates, and branches, if applicable (Part VI, Section B)

It is not illegal to lack these policies, but their absence can be a sign of poor governance and therefore contribute to a decision by the IRS to subject an organization to greater scrutiny.

Emily Chan notes that just because you have policies in these areas doesn’t mean you are covered. It is important to evaluate the policies to ensure they are appropriate for your organization and its ability to adhere to them, comply with the law, are understood and actually practiced.

She supplies the following helpful info: “Note changes to policies are not required to be reported to the IRS unless such polices or procedures are contained within the organizing documents or bylaws and regarding certain subject matter such as conflicts of interests. See Form 990 Instructions.”

If an organization doesn’t have a policy, Chan advises not rushing to formulate them out of a desire to appear to be exercising good governance for public relations reasons (and to perhaps avoid the IRS’ steely gaze). Poor policy being nearly as bad as no policy. Proper policy takes time to formulate so give yourself the time to develop it. In her tips for evaluating existing policies there is an implication that one should avoid adopting the policies of other organizations in any significant degree.

The guidance she provides for creating new policies is:

Thoughtful considerations about how to get to β€œyes” can include questions such as:

* Which policies have a higher priority based on the circumstances of the organization? For example, an organization that frequently accepts non-cash gifts may have a more pressing urgency to adopt a useful gift acceptance policy as opposed to an organization that hardly, if ever, accepts donations from the public.
* What are anticipated governance issues or past governance issues that these policies should address?
* What kind of capacity limitations – staff, financial resources, or otherwise – should we be mindful of in drafting and adopting a new policy?
* What is the projected timeline for drafting such policy and presenting it to the board?
* If anticipating a prolonged delay (due to resources, time, etc.) before formally adopting such policies, what problems might this cause and what can the organization do to help mitigate these risks?
* Is the organization prepared to explain to the IRS, its constituents, or others why it currently does not have a certain policy and articulate its action plan moving forward to adopt one?

Additionally, it is important to note an organization lacking the recommended policies is not without any recourse on the Form 990. For example, Schedule O (2010) allows for supplemental narratives to further explain the policies or processes used at the organization to address these governance concerns.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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