Laying down the law...
December 15, 2009 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Does my grassroots advocacy organization need bylaws? What should they look like?

I'm involved with a new bicycle advocacy organization in my town. We've been meeting for a few months now, and are growing steadily. We've reached out to public officials and will soon be getting a write-up in the local alternative paper. We have lots of energy, and big plans.

Until now things have been very informal, with no clear hierarchy or process for making decisions, but I'm starting to think it's time for some kind of bylaws or constitution. I'm afraid that without some formal organizational plan, it will be hard to keep the group focussed and coherent in a way that is fair and acceptable to all.

But I have no experience with this kind of thing, so I'm looking for guidance from others who have built grassroots advocacy organizations.

First, at what point do bylaws become necessary? We've got an email list of about 75 people, but maybe just a dozen core activists. Do we really need to be thinking about this yet?

Second, if we do create an organizational plan, how formal should it be? I don't know if we're big enough or active enough yet to incorporate as a non-profit (and we don't have any money), so legal articles of incorporation and bylaws might be overkill. I also don't want to dampen the spirit of the group with a rigidly hierarchical plan.

Third, what should our plan include? I'm thinking right now we'll need a steering committee, and sub-committees for the various areas we'd like to be active in. Do we need to select officers? How do we do that? How do we hold elections? What am I missing?

TIA for any advice.
posted by opek to Law & Government (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Things like bylaws generally start to become important when money issues are on the table. Organizational plans start to become important when you start doing things which require organization. Without knowing what it is that you're actually doing, it's hard to make specific recommendations.

Once money and organization start to be issues, what you're going to need to do is consult with a non-profit attorney. You're drafting a legal document to create an entity which is entirely a creature of statute, not a natural person. This isn't something you want to do without talking to someone who knows what they're doing. Fortunately, this isn't likely to be terribly expensive, maybe a couple of hundred bucks at worst. If you can't afford it, you probably don't need it. Once you can afford it, you should do it ASAP.
posted by valkyryn at 10:31 AM on December 15, 2009

I'd start by using Robert's Rules (parliamentary procedure) to run your meetings, so that you're using a known structure for decisionmaking that is familiar to many, and you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Incorporation is way over the top for you right now, but you should have a typical structure (Chair, vice-chair, secretary) to at least run and record your meetings and minutes from them. This also keeps people focused. Let this be your steering committee, and assign responsibility for sub-committees as needed.

If you reach the point of developing an organizational plan and bylaws, you're into incorporation, which, as valkyryn says, you don't need until you're playing with money and/or liability. A mission statement/vision statement would almost certainly serve the same purpose in the short term; this is helpful to keep your organization on track with why it exists.
posted by liquado at 10:59 AM on December 15, 2009

Bylaws are generally only necessary when you incorporate as a non-profit. Until then, I'd advise against imposing too much structure before you need it, as you may get wound up in "sticking to the rules" as opposed to "getting it done".

With that in mind, I'd suggest you get clarity around a few things:

A Mission Statement- Your goal may seem obvious, but it's often helpful to have it in writing so that everything your organization does works to further this goal.

Executive Authority- Someone (with a backup) needs to be the authority to say whether or not an initiative actually happens. This is important to avoid random people in your group doing things in your name that don't, for example, follow the Mission. Basically, you need a President and a VP. You don't need to micromanage details, but someone needs to be the final say on "do this/don't do this initiative".

Communication- You say you anticipate press. Great! Is everyone on the same page as to who can speak as a representative of your organization to the press? Appoint someone to be your "PR Representative" so that anything attached to your org is On Message.

Again, you don't need a lot of formality around these things at this point, but it's important that everyone in the group knows not to just run around and make stuff up.
posted by mkultra at 11:39 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Time's Up! is one of the oldest, most successful environmentalist/bicycle advocacy group in NYC. I'd suggest giving them a call, I'm sure they would be more than welcome to chat with you.
posted by saxamo at 3:31 PM on December 15, 2009

« Older I'd rather not celebrate Christmas at Terminal 5   |   Worst reason ever for getting a PhD? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.