On-line systems documentation for non-profits

When I begin work on a management consulting engagement for a new client – government, business or non-profit – I invariably ask for the client’s operating documentation such as systems descriptions, job descriptions, organisation charts and operations manuals so I can find my way around.  Sometimes I get a response such as “OK, but they are a few years out of date” or “they are on our to-do list but we never seem to get round to them”.  Or maybe “yes, but they were written before the new director came and he/she changed things around”.  Occasionally I am met with a blank stare.  So they are not as much use to me as they might be.

More importantly, they are not much use to their staff either!

A non-profit has a particular problem – many of its responsible people are volunteers and they tend to change more frequently than the professional staff.  Some of them will have totally different backgrounds and experience from that of their predecessors.  So there is a constant need for volunteer training and familiarisation.  One of the best sources for this is comprehensive and current process documents.

W. Edwards Deming put it quite bluntly “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing”.  To be effective and valuable an organisation’s operating procedure documents must be accurate, accessible, complete and up to date so that the work they describe is logical, consistent, transferable, replicable and, above all, usable.

The survivability of franchised businesses, such as McDonald’s, Starbucks and many auto dealerships, tends to be higher than that of independent businesses, especially in difficult times.  One of the reasons is the excellence and currency of the systems and documentation their franchise gives them.  All the franchises are run in just the same way and superb process documentation is often the reason for their uniqueness – why they are better at what they do than their competitors.  Their absence is sometimes cited as a major cause of failure.

Assuming that non-profits want to be just as successful in their own way, why don’t they all document their systems properly?  Firstly, they don’t recognise that documenting their business operations can be a business advantage; secondly, they don’t think it is important enough; and thirdly, it can be expensive.  It won’t allow you to spend more money on your client services this year but it might just ensure your long term survival!

The web has brought us all kinds of neat and inexpensive business tools over the past few years.  These days you can develop your systems documentation and automatically update your job descriptions and operations manuals online and link them all together – just as well as a Wal-Mart or a McDonald’s can.  Your system is maintained online and it is accessible to any employee or volunteer who needs it.  It’s easy, cheap and even cheerful.  How cheap?  Let’s say between $50 and $150 per month.  Is that a reasonable price for your organisation’s very survival?

But isn’t it expensive to write up all your processes in the first place?  No.  You might not even have to do this al all because your systems are likely to be very similar to those of other non-profits.  One of the online systems we like has a wide array of models and templates which you can use, of modify for your own use, just as you wish.

I would love to think that non-profits could all be as efficient in this respect as the best businesses.  With the inexpensive online solutions now available there is little reason why not.

StrategyLink Consulting

Author Chris Jones MBA, CMC FCMC is a Certified Management Consultant and an Associate Faculty member at Royal Roads University where he teaches management consulting and non-profits management to mid-career MBAs and MAs. He is a Community Advisor with the Victoria Foundation and a member of the Greater Victoria Advisory Board of the Salvation Army. He welcomes comments and questions either by email chris@strategylinkconsulting.com or on the blog.