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This Week (Group Starting Edition) - Creating Your Group's Constitution

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Constitution CilpartYour group's constitution is the core document that defines your group's existence. Every group should have one - in many cases, it's required by your school to become a recognized group - and it can be a critical element in your group's infrastructure. But a badly designed constitution can be a hindrance to your group and cause more problems than it solves. While creating your constitution may sound like a daunting task, we can help walk you through this project to ensure that you avoid common pitfalls and come out the other side with a strong foundation for your group's future success.

A good constitution should be the primary framework for your group. Much as the U.S. Constitution outlines the branches of government, primary elected offices, and basic procedures for governing, so should your group's constitution outline the form of your group, officers, and basic procedures for running your group as a whole. Your constitution should serve as a supporting guide, a system to keep your group functioning in the manner envisioned by the founders but able to adapt to change.

Here's how you get there! First off, drafting a constitution isn't a project best handled by a committee of the whole, and you probably shouldn't be trying to do it in group meetings. Find a small group of core volunteers - perhaps proto-officers - and either schedule times to meet separately or use online tools to enable virtual collaboration. We highly recommend Google Docs for this kind of project: it's free and allows realtime collaboration.

There are several resources out there to help you build a solid constitution. First, check out this fantastic article by SSA's 2009 summer intern Amber Scott on Constitutions and Bylaws. She explains in plain language the types of content your constitution should (and shouldn't!) cover. We also have a draft of a sample constitution that can help you get started with the language. Last but not least, check with your school or university: often they'll have a sample constitution available for your group to work with, too.

When drafting your constitution, make sure you are meeting the requirements of any outside organization you're working with. You definitely want to make sure you're meeting all your school's requirements, so check with them to see if they have any language they require you to include. (Many schools have a nondiscrimination clause they require of student groups.) You may also want to make sure your constitution is in line with the SSA's minimum standards for affiliation (although we don't require that you include specific language in your constitution about it.)

There are a few things you should be absolutely sure to include in your constitution. An overly-vague constitution sets your group up for problems and struggles, so it's best to avoid them with a little up-front planning. You'll obviously want to include a purpose/mission for the group. You'll also want to have procedures for establishing officers, and also for removing officers that turn out to be detrimental to the group. And since a constitution is a living document, you'll need to include procedures for changing the constitution itself if the need arises.

There are also a few things you should look out for. You should avoid inserting language into a constitution to legislate current or past problems within a group: for example, rather than writing a lengthy section on gag rules and confidentiality, you should probably just address the problem with specific individuals or remove them from leadership roles. You'll want to make sure your constitution's policies are clear and well-defined, but you don't want to make them so strict that it's impossible to get anything done. On the flip side, you don't want them to be too lax or vague: they're supposed to guide your group.

While drafting a constitution, be careful not to create incompatibilities with your school or any organizations you wish to be affiliated with. Many new secular groups are hesitant to include a nondiscrimination policy that includes religious students, but the SSA national and many schools require that clause. (We promise it'll be ok - many of our affiliates have religious members and we have yet to see evidence of a group suffer a hostile takeover.) So make sure that you're not creating a document that will cause problems with your campus recognition or SSA affiliation. Sometimes you'll find that there are conflicts between sample documents you've been provided or requirements: if you find yourself in this situation, always go with your school's policies. We can be flexible, but your campus is unlikely to bend the rules for you.

Hopefully this has armed you with the knowledge, ideas and resources you'll need to write a great constitution for your group. If you have any questions or need help, feel free to contact us. Otherwise, we'll see you next week!

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