How to write them
Volunteer by-laws are the skeleton for every volunteer organization. Without well written by-laws no organization can function effectively for a long period of time. When an organization such as a first aid squad is originally formed most of the members have the same ideas and goals. Such an organization can run smoothly for a long time.
As time progresses, some of the original members will drop out and new members will join. New officers will be elected and the original ideas and goals of the organization will be lost to time. Volunteer by-laws set down in writing the overall operating principles for the organization.
I will be using the actual set of by-laws used for the Bogota First Aid Squad.
Click here for Bogota First Aid Squad's web site
The Bogota First Aid Squad was formed in 1947 by 10 men who saw a need to provide emergency services to the town. Unfortunately all of the original founders have since passed away. However, they left their original thoughts and ideas in the volunteer by-laws for the squad.
Click here for a copy of the 2007 Bogota First Aid Squad's by-laws
A well written set of volunteer by-laws need to cover this following concepts:
- Mission Statement
- Who may join?
- What are the qualifications for membership?
- What classes of membership are there and what are their responsibilities and privileges?
- What officers are in the organization and what are their responsibilities?
- How are officers elected?
- How and when are meetings conducted?
- How are members disciplined?
- How are members expelled
- How is money handled?
- What committees are there?
- How are the volunteer by-laws amended?
- What do you do when the by-laws don't cover a topic?
This page will address these issues.
The mission statement of the volunteer by-laws should be simple and direct. It serves as a reminder for new members as to the purpose of the organization. The example by-laws has a mission statement that is direct:
The purpose for which this Squad is formed is to provide volunteer ambulance service for the inhabitants of Bogota, and to assist other cities, towns, boroughs and villages in emergencies.
This is pretty direct. It's good the be reminded of our purpose when we are in a knock-down drag-out fight about some silly thing during a meeting.
Who may Join?
You need to have in writing who may join your organization. This is especially true if your organization receives any public funding. Many municipalities require that a copy of the volunteer by-laws be on file at city hall in case of any legal disputes.
Since this organization provides emergency services the responding members have to live reasonably close to the squad building. We have set a limit of a 5 mile radius from the squad building as one type of restriction. We have also set a minimum age requirement of 16 years of age. We also require that the member pass a criminal background check and be finger printing by the local police be required before we accept them as a member.
We specifically do not mention that we accept anybody regardless of race, creed or religion. This is open to too much interpretation, rather we say you can be a member if you live within the 5 mile radius, over 16 years of age and pass the background check.
Qualifications for Membership
This is very similar to the previous section but it sets down in even more detail what a member needs to have before they are accepted. If they meet the distance, age and criminal background check requirements they also need to have a valid drivers license or county identification (for those who do not drive).
They also must be physically fit and be able to read and write English. We put these requirements in a separate section of the volunteer by-laws since the physical actually costs money that our squad has to pay. We would rather be sure that they can be a member before forking over more than $100 for a physical.
One thing that is unique to New Jersey is that once a prospective member meets the qualifications, they are automatically accepted. Many volunteer organizations still "Vote on" a member. This is illegal in New Jersey for organizations receiving any public funding. Our volunteer by-laws specifically mention that no vote is to take place.
Once the member has been accepted then the volunteer by-laws spell out what additional qualifications they must have. In our case, they must become CPR certified within six months and become either an EMT or First Responder with in twenty-four months.
Classes of Membership
You should have a list of what kinds of membership you have. In our squad we had developed a position of "Driver Only" for members who did not want to keep up their EMT certification. This was not formalized in the volunteer by-laws. Over time we actually had more "Driver Only's" than EMTs. This could not continue. We created several classes of membership as well as types of membership. As a recommendation we came up with the following:
- Full Time - Members who commit to a full duty schedule and have full membership rights
- Part Time - Members who can not commit to a full duty schedule but can spend 4 hours a week in quarters. Part Time members can not hold a line officer position.
- Active Members - Either full or part time members who respond to calls. These members hold the required training certifications of either first responder or emergency medical technician
- Life Members - Members who served as active and full time members for 15 years. They are no longer required to respond to calls or keep current certifications
- Driver Only - Active Members who had been fully certified for 5 years and now only hold CPR. The organization may only have a maximum of 5 Driver Only members.
Your organization will have different classes as you see fit. What is important is that you specify the type of membership what what a member needs to do to switch classes. For example, in our organization to become a driver only, they must have served as a active member for 5 years and was fully certified for that time. They request in writing to be transferred to a driver only.
Each class of membership may have different responsibilities and privilege. For example, Active members must maintain their current level of certification and not drop to a lower certification. That means if you are an EMT you can not drop down to a first responder. Active members also receive full LOSAP points and clothing allowance and stipends. A part-time active member who only responds for 4 hours a week (as opposed to an active member who commits to nearly 16 hours per week) only received 25% of the LOSAP points and clothing allowance and stipends.
Officers and Elections
Your volunteer by-laws must outline what officers you need and what are their responsibilities and duties. For example, many emergency services organizations will have a chief, deputies, various captains and lieutenants as well as administrative officers such as secretaries and treasurers. The organizational layout is explained in detail here.
Clear here to read about EMT-Organizations
The election of officers must also be outlined in the volunteer by-laws. For example, when do elections take place. In our organization the election of officers for the next year take place one week after the national elections in November. In other words, the second Tuesday in the month of November.
Prior to the election several steps need to take place. In our organization the chief officer appoints a nominating committee in the month of September. This committee is made up of three past chief's who currently do not hold any office. Sometimes it is hard to find three such individuals so our volunteer by-laws allow for a past president to sit on the committee.
The nominating committee searches through the current membership list and matches potential (and willing) individuals to electable positions. This is not as easy as it sounds. The individuals must have the qualifications for each position for which they are nominated and more importantly they must be convinced to run and hold office. This list of qualified individuals is then presented to the general membership at the October meeting.
At the October meeting, the President reads the list of names and then calls for nominations from the floor. The nominating committee must verify that each floor nominee has the qualifications for office. Once each officer position has a nominee the president closes the nominations.
Our organization wrote its by-laws such that write-in names are not allows on the ballot in November. This was done to prevent non-qualified members holding office. Of course your organization can allow write-in votes. In November, the nominating committee prepares paper ballots according to the by-laws and distributes them to the membership. Our organization allows for absentee ballots and the procedure for distributing them is outlined in the by-laws. Your by-laws have to be clear on absentee ballots so you don't have a member voting more than once.
The by-laws need to spell out when meetings are held, who can call them to order and what happens if a meeting needs to be moved or canceled.
Click here about running volunteer meetings
Our by-laws state that the general business meeting shall be held the first Tuesday of each month unless that day is a national holiday such as the 4th of July. Also the November meeting shall be held the 2nd Tuesday of the month.
The volunteer by-laws also state that we need 30% of the active members to be present to hold a meeting (this is known as a quorum). If a meeting needs to be moved in time or location then notification must be made at least 24 hours prior to the meeting. In our organization we announce meeting changes via E-mail and by pager alerts.
Discipline and Expulsion
No body likes to discipline a member of a volunteer organization but sometimes it is necessary. In a emergency medical services organization one of the must trusted responsibilities is patient privacy. In our organization we have many members of all ages. Some are high school aged members. In one case we had an emergency call to a home for an obstetrical call concerning a 17 year old female. This was a miscarriage and involved both emotional aid and physical aid. This young lady was also in high school along with one member of the responding crew. In fact, they shared the same home room.
Our young member was instructed that none of what he saw or heard was to be repeated outside of the call. Unfortunately he told his mother who then told others. It came back to the traumatized patient's family who filed a law suite.
Our by-laws state clearly that patient confidentiality is of a high priority. Since our young member was in violation of that by-law he was suspended for 6 months.
How do you suspend a member for a violation? Our organization is operated by a municipal government and subject to many of the same laws that a government employee would be. Our volunteer by-laws reflect the fact that the member has some rights that need protecting. Here is a general outline of what happens:
- Charges are brought forth by an officer or member regarding the violation to the president.
- The president investigates the charges to see if they are valid and that the appropriate sections of the by-laws are cited.
- The charged member is informed that charges have been brought against them and that the executive board (or trustees) will review the charges. A copy of the charges is send via registered mail to the member. The member has the right to be present at the executive board.
- If the executive board feels that the charges have merit then a second letter is send to the member (via registered mail) that the charges have merit and that the member has 30 days to respond to the charges in writing or in person at a special executive board meeting dated in the letter.
- At the special meeting the executive board can take several actions
- Dismiss the charges
- Ask for the member to take voluntary actions (this is what happened with our junior member)
- Bring forth the charges to the membership with recommendations for punishment
- If necessary the charges are brought forth to the membership for a vote. The president presents the charges and the decision of the executive board. The members can then vote if they agree or disagree with the executive board. If they disagree the charges are dismissed. If they agree then a second vote is taken on the recommended discipline.
This rather convoluted procedure is to protect both the organization and the member from rash decisions.
Our organization has one more step to take if we decide to expel a member (which we have done only once in 61 years). We need to go before our mayor and council and present our case. Our by-laws indicate that we must follow the municipal ordinances regarding employment (even volunteer). Part of this is to get council approval.
The handling of money in a volunteer organization can be tricky. Some volunteer organizations have extremely large amounts of money. Our organization, unfortunately, is not one of them so we must keep an eye on what we spend. Volunteer organizations of all kinds have a trouble with embezzlement. A fire company in my town lost over $20,000 in 10 years to embezzlement. Thus our by-laws are very specific on how to handle money.
The first thing our volunteer by-laws state is that we have a dedicated treasurer. Neither the Chief or President will actually handle any money. Another item our by-laws mention is that no check is written for "Cash" nor is written without an accompanying receipt. This is so we just don't hand out money to members for any reason.
Our by-laws also state that no blank checks are ever issued. We also do not permit any checks to be written outside of a general business meeting unless it is for a pre-approved purpose. Also, each check requires two signatures.
All of this helps keep the books straight but we have added several other layers of protection. Our volunteer by-laws have provided for an audit committee. This committee oversees each transaction and makes a quarterly report. The audit committee consists of past treasurers and presidents. The final item that our by-laws require is a monthly balance sheet. This becomes part of the monthly meeting minutes.
The balance sheet looks similar to this example:
Month: December 2008
Opening Balance: $5319.27
Annual donation from Knights of Columbus: $100.00
Memorial Donation for George Kennedy,Jr. (Schwab Family) $250
Christmas Fundraiser $ 750
Total Credits: $1100
Check # 1122 Monthly Meeting Refreshments (Scott Hanley) $50.00
Check # 1123 Christmas decorations (Anna Ferris) $35.00
Check # 1124 Postage (Jim Berthold) $4.80
Total Debits: $89.50
Ending Balance: $6329.77
The balance sheet shows each months starting and ending balances. Also, if money was received, the amount and from what source is listed. Finally, any debits are also listed for what purpose and who received the money. This way we can keep track of where our money comes from and where it goes.
Standing committees need to be outlined in you volunteer by-laws. These need to be appointed each year and have the purpose of each committee explained. An example of the standing committees in our organization are:
Good and Welfare
Your organization will have more or less than these. Your by-laws should also detail who may serve on these committees and when you need to appoint ad hoc committees.
Amending your Volunteer By-laws
From time to time you will need to amend your by-laws. Once common reason is that training requirements set by your state have changed and you need to update your rules. Another reason is that you have come up with a situation that has never occurred before. What happened to our organization is that we ran out of qualified officers due to term limits. We had our chief who was as the end of her term limit of two years and no body qualified to take her position (we had a rash of members move out of town that year). We modified the by-laws to allow a sitting officer to stay until a qualified member was presented.
A problem that some organizations have is that they change their by-laws to force a situation. For example, a member has become undesirable so the by-laws are quickly changed to force that person from office or from the organization. A dear friend of mine (on another organization) discovered that some misappropriation of funds had occurred. Her squad quickly changed their by-laws to move their meeting night to Mondays (instead of Tuesdays) because she had to work on Mondays. She missed three meetings and they kicked her off. This is unacceptable.
Our by-laws are very clear on how to modify the volunteer by-laws. It is a several step process.
- Any member may present a change to the by-laws. Each change must be presented in written form and given to the by-law committee.
- At the next regular meeting the by-law committee will present the proposed by-law change. This is known as the first reading. No formal discussion is taken at this time but the proposed by-law change is posted and made available in the minutes.
- At the next meeting the by-law committee presents again the proposed by-law change. This is known as the second reading. Formal discussions can now take place and the proposed by-law can undergo revisions at this time or may be withdrawn by the person(s) who proposed.
- At the next meeting, they by-law committee presents the revised proposed by-law change. This is known as the third reading. Any final comments are now made. If there are no more comments the president calls for the by-law to go to paper ballot.
- Paper ballots are created and mailed to all active members. The members are then to return the ballots before the start of the next regular business meeting.
- At the next meeting, the president reports on the ballot tally
So you can see that it takes 4 months from the time a by-law was proposed to the time it can be adopted. It is very hard to sneak a change through to single out a member.
What do you do if your volunteer by-laws don't cover a situation?
Many times your volunteer by-laws don't cover a situation. Hopefully the by-laws have been written in such a manner that you can make a correct decision. Fortunately there is Robert's Rule of Order to help you out. Major Robert was in the US Army during the Civil War. After the war he was tasked with establishing military contracts with new civilian governments in the expanding west. What he found was that there was no single way for each town to run a meeting. This made getting the government contacts approved. He developed a series of rules for running meetings which are called the Rule of Order.
You can defer to Robert's Rules of Order to help you out when your by-laws don't cover every situation. Your by-laws should, of course, state this in print. It turns out that Robert's rules cover almost everything in running a meeting.
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