Bylaws can either be dusty legalese documents with no meaningful impact on your organization, or they can be a living, breathing record of how you and your partners have chosen to work together. They can serve to create separation between your board and staff, lawyers and non-lawyers, and other stakeholders in your organization; or they can unite your organization in a shared framework. They can serve to entrench problematic power dynamics, or they can lay the groundwork for deeply democratic and values-aligned ways of being.
It’s all about how you relate to them.
This guide lays out processes and templates for how you can establish a self-governing organization deeply rooted in your values and politics, whatever those values and politics are. It walks you through important conversations about how you will make decisions, balance power between stakeholders, coordinate work, and manage your organization while also ensuring that you are within the bounds of the law and prepared for the kinds of unforeseen events that can create legal liability.
Many people who start nonprofits get stuck organizing themselves inside the structures and ways of being inherited from the very systems of domination that they are trying to dismantle and transform. This often happens unintentionally when groups feel like they have to follow mainstream “best practices,” become more “professional,” or listen to traditional lawyers in order to fit inside the nonprofit industrial complex.
The truth is that the law leaves plenty of room for you to be creative and radical in the ways you set up the governance of your organization. While there are some specific requirements -- such as having specific roles on your board, conflict of interest policies, and a plan for how to distribute assets in the event you close down your nonprofit -- there are uncountable ways for you to self-organize to set strategy, develop budgets, make key decisions, and get your work done democratically.
Creating bylaws is an opportunity to develop shared agreement around your values and the ways you really want to organize yourselves. Having these agreements articulated in your foundational legal documents can increase your effectiveness and reduce conflict as your organization evolves.
As you work with this toolkit remember: it’s a process.
First of all, you do not need to have your full values-aligned bylaws before incorporating as a nonprofit in your state or applying for tax-exempt status. In fact, it might be better to begin with something like our Starter Bylaws to make the tax-exemption process smooth and easy.
And when you do start to go deeper and use this toolkit to guide the development of more customized bylaws, be intentional about who you include in your conversations and how fast you move. The slide deck will guide you through conversations about purpose, power, stakeholders, decision making, and more. If you deeply engage your board, staff, and community in these combinations, you will develop relationships, trust, and understanding as you go; then your bylaws will become written records of real agreements made between humans. This will make it much easier for them to actually guide the governance of your organization. If you develop them too quickly, or without engaging the people who will be impacted, you risk developing a really clever document that no one actually reads and it will have little impact on the actual workings of your organization.
We hope this toolkit does more than just help you write a legal document. We hope it helps you think critically and creatively about how power and decision making work in your organization. We hope it helps you think deeply about what you are doing, how you are doing it, and how you will stay aligned with your values as you grow and evolve. We hope it supports you as you inquire into what truly liberatory self-governance looks like, and how you will build the world you long to live in.
For one time consultations for your organization, on-the-spot legal advice at our Resilient Communities Legal Cafe, sample documents, and more, check out the Law Center's Worker Self-Directed Nonprofits program.
For support with bylaw process facilitation and drafting, and consultation to create other parts of collaborative organizational structures, please reach out to our partners at Harmonize!