Constitutions and Bylaws
by Amber Scott, 2009 SSA Summer Intern
Becoming a Legitimate Organization
One of your first actions as an organization should be to complete the process of becoming a legitimate, registered student group within your institution. In order to have access to many resources your campus provides – meeting space, grants, office space, travel funds, A/V equipment, training, travel assistance, and many other benefits - you must first be recognized by your school‘s student activities center. Additionally, many schools only allow official student groups to post flyers.
Visit your student activities center (in person or online) to learn about your school‘s policies regarding campus groups. Most campuses require a group name, faculty advisor, names and contact information of officers, and a set of bylaws or a constitution. Some campuses even require officer training for groups to become recognized.
If you run into serious difficulties getting your group recognized by your school (e.g. obstruction from your school‘s office of student activities) contact the SSA‘s Campus Organizer (organizer(AT)secularstudents(DOT)org) immediately for assistance!
Constitution / Bylaws
No matter what they are called by your school, the bylaws and/or constitution are the rules that govern your group, and every group needs to have some (most schools have sample copies). They detail leadership structure, member qualifications, the financial expenditure process, and many other operations that need to happen for your group to run smoothly. Your school may have specific requirements about what kind of governing documents your group needs. Requirements notwithstanding, it is up to you to decide whether your group needs bylaws, a constitution or both. When in doubt, start with a constitution.
What’s the Difference?
- Is concise
- Is a statement of the group‘s purpose/mission
- May provide a historical or broader perspective
- Is rarely revised / remains stable
- Outline specific procedures
- Help the group conduct business in an orderly manner
- Contain detailed policies that are in line with the constitution
- Are easily revised and are revised regularly as procedures and needs change
What Should Be Covered In A Constitution?
Constitutions should be concise, yet contain the important framework of an organization. It is a summary of group structure and why your group exists, but does not detail every inner working of your organization. Your school or university may have requirements for what is included in your constitution, and may also have sample constitutions available. The Secular Student Alliance also has a sample constitution.
There are many ways to organize a constitution; a general example is shown below:
- Name and acronym if applicable
- Any affiliations with state or national groups
- (What is the core of your group? Community? Education? Activism? Service?)
- Who/what is your group intended for?
- Requirements for Membership
- (Students vs. Non-students, Dues?)
- Depending on your institution/school, they may have mandatory membership/non-discrimination policies similar to this: "Neither membership in, nor services provided by the organization will be denied to anyone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, physical or mental handicap, age, sex, sexual preference, ancestry, or medical condition."
- Elected Officers / Advisor(s)
- Who is eligible to run for officer positions? (e.g. candidates have previously attended at least 2 organization meetings, and will be students at your school for the duration of their term, etc.)
- Include titles, abbreviated description of responsibilities, and length of terms
- Are advisors elected or appointed/volunteers?
- When are elections held? (For college groups, it is wise to do this mid-year / between winter break and spring break).
- What is the structure? (e.g. candidates get to speak about themselves for 3 minutes each, answer questions from the group, then leave the room so the group can briefly discuss their thoughts and anonymously vote).
- Do you require a non-voting facilitator who will count / tally votes?
- What is the voting procedure? (Does everyone get 1 vote or do you use "instant run-off" voting? Generally it is better to elect your highest position first, so that candidates who are not selected to fill it can opt to run for other / lower positions).
- What percent of members must be present ("quorum")?
- Do you need a simple majority to elect a leader?
- Frequency, any special requirements (e.g. one service project per semester)
- How are amendments proposed?
- Are amendments voted on by the organization at large (vs. officers only) and if so what percent of members must be present?
- What is the voting procedure?
- What percent of members must be present ("quorum")?
- Do you need simple majority or 2/3 approval to pass it?
What Should Be Covered In Bylaws?
Bylaws are the working procedures and processes of an organization. They are usually easier to change - requiring only a simple majority rather than the 2/3 vote often required to amend a constitution. Remember that both your bylaws and your constitution must be in line with the policies and requirements of your school / university, especially if you are trying to become a recognized / registered student group. Below is an outline of the kind of information often covered in bylaws (some topics may be mentioned in the constitution, and then covered in more detail in the bylaws).
Dues & Funding
- How is this group funded? By the school? Through local partnerships with other groups?
- Dues amount (if any), how & when are they collected?
- Are there requirements for how your group‘s money is spent / allocated?
Officers / Advisors / etc.
- Appointed Positions (this is likely to change / be revised as needed, which is why it is not in the constitution)
- Responsibilities of all positions - specific, detailed lists (e.g. the vice president writes the newsletter and sends reminder emails; the president is the liaison to the school, speakers, and other groups)
- Description of how to train your replacement / plan for succession (e.g., after elections, what responsibilities must next year‘s officers pick up before the school year ends?)
- What is the procedure if officers leave positions before their term ends?
- Is there a required number of business meetings per term? -Is there required attendance of a certain number of said meetings? -Are your business meetings open to anyone?
- Has your group made commitments to other groups or the community?
- Specific policies and procedures unique to your organization
- Procedures for dealing with special situations (e.g. policy on dealing with a disruptive member, safety plan / guidelines, etc.)
- How to / who can propose amendments (officers vs. anyone)
- Can they only be proposed at business meetings?
- Voting procedures, quorum, majority