Last week I wrote about planning as a way to organize your work. To create clarity around what you should be doing when in order to achieve a set goal. Setting up systems is another element of organizing the work of your nonprofit. To most people this sounds like a horrible thing that is luckily needed only for advanced nonprofits. Not so! Setting up systems when you are just starting out is actually a very clever way of getting ahead when you are getting started. Even the simple systems that suffice at starter level can make your life easier and save time. And those same systems will help you build trust within your team and with external stakeholders.

Eh systems?

Yes, I know. The word systems might put you off. Even to me it sounds much more sophisticated than I feel I can ever be. What I mean when I use the word systems is a coherent whole of written out steps, guidelines, assumptions and promises. These can be in the way of templates, formats, policies, guidelines, instructions, or standard operating procedures.

Why systems? Here are 5 answers!

1. Your processes can be more consistent and replicable. Think about a system for keeping a record of expenses or for reporting. Your donor needs a stable reporting quality and consistent consecutive reports. With a system in place to generate a certain report you will meet that need and expectation. And your team will find it easier to comply with donor requests.

2. You can be more predictable and thus more reliable. Predictability helps people know what to expect from you. Think about HR systems, where it is clear how a person can request leave and when they expect a request for a raise to be successful.

3. You can get stuff done faster. Think of a template for expense claims or a per diem calculator with ready-made formulas. No need for each individual to think every time about how to handle exchange rates or sums.

4. Systems help you manage. Think of time sheets where staff indicate how much time they have spent on what. You now have a chance to make sure your team is not overloaded. This will also help you stay within budget by not overcharging time spent. You will also be able to make better budgets next time, knowing how much time is needed for certain tasks.

5. Systems help you create sustainability and stability. Having systems in place makes it easier for new staff to come in and get started straightaway. Because once they know the system, it all follows from there. This way, staff can go on leave with less stress as they know that their colleagues can jump in as and when needed.

In short, if you have systems in place and are able to show this to external stakeholders you will be able to show yourself as a professional, reliable partner.

What systems?

Anything can be or become part of a system. Key areas of your operations where systems can be helpful are in my experience:

  • Systems for how data can enter your data collection systems, such as a bookkeeping

Think of standard contracts for staff, freelancers, volunteers. Or a procurement policy. Or instructions and templates for expense claims and per diems. Time sheets.

  • Systems for collecting and preserving data

Think of bookkeeping software or a bookkeeping excel sheet. Your cash book and cash count. Your way of filing documents online and offline. Or think about privacy and keep in mind rules and legislation for data processing.

  • Systems for data output

Think of how you monitor implementation of your activities and projects. Internal reporting practice. External reporting to donors. Your annual financial statement.

  • Systems for internal and external processes

Think of human resources: how do you recruit staff, how do you remunerate them, how do you do annual assessments of their performance. Consider security of your team, operations and community, both online and offline. Also, think of gender and diversity goals. Take into consideration how you safeguard the people on your team and the people in the community you work with. Or think about communication with the public on your website and social media.

  • Systems for management

Think of the role of the board and the role of your executive director. What about the mandate of the director and what about what your staff can do and decide. Think of checks and balances in your organization: how can complaints be made safely and dealt with properly? Think about annual and multi-annual strategies, budgets, and work plans.


You must develop your own systems, suitable for your context, your nonprofit and the stage it is in.

Use Google

You can of course Google and see what you can find to copy and adjust. In my experience this approach is much more successful if you already have an idea of what you are looking for and what you need. If you are starting from scratch and have little experience, this may lead you to formats and procedures that are not a good fit for you.

Use peers

Asking a peer organization in your field and/or in your community what systems they have in place can be much more helpful and on point. Ask if they can help you develop adjusted versions suitable for your team and organization. If they do not have time for that, ask if you can have copies of what they have and maybe spend an hour or so with someone on their team telling you what works well and why.

Build from your own observations and experience

If you want to start having more understanding about it yourself first, you can also observe your practice for a month. Observe what repetitive tasks there are and how they are done by different people or by you yourself in different moments. Note the time spent on these tasks. Observe where transparency would be needed, how, for what and for whom. Analyze where predictability would help avoid issues. Observe where you need regular information that is presented in a comparative manner in order to make management decisions.

… list and develop

Make a list of all these actions, tasks and responsibilities where a system might be helpful. Be clear about what principles the system would help serve (speed, consistency, replicability, transparency, etc.). Once you have a list, think of what could make this task easier to be performed in a better way with a better and consistent output.

Then try to write down instructions, guidelines or procedures, or make a template or format.

… and test!

Spend the next month trying out your systems, observing what happens and where they work and where not. Involve your team in this or external stakeholders if applicable. This way you can build your own systems step by step, whole making sure they work for you and for the purpose you had in mind when deciding to design them. In this process you can also use Google or your peers as reference, but you will find that you will be able to be much more precise in your questions and will get much better, more concretely usable answers in return.

Want to know more and ask questions?

Then check out my Facebook page here. I have weekly Facebook Live sessions on my page in July 2020. The next will be on Thursday 30 July 2020 and will focus on systems. If you have any questions you want to submit, please drop me a note here, via e-mail or via Facebook Messenger.

The Live session will take place at 2pm, CET, but check out the announcement on the page to be sure.