What’s the diff between policy and procedure?

Posted on March 14, 2013

As a self-described policy wonk, I often find myself explaining the difference between policy and procedure to non-profit organizations. Both are essential, but it is important to know the differences.

Mrs. Lorna Wagner fighting for policy change between 1910-1915

A policy is a guiding principle or rule used to set direction in an organization. Frequently policies take one of two forms: rules frequently used to govern staff or mini-mission statements used to set direction for the organization.

Policies are written in clear, concise and simple language. Policies are overseen by the board of directors or executive staff.

A procedure is a particular way of accomplishing something and should be tied to policies. They are designed to answer the question “What would happen if I were hit by a bus tomorrow and someone had to take over my job?” Procedures are a series of steps to be followed as a consistent and repetitive approach or cycle to accomplish an end result. The staff own these documents and adapt them as the need arises. They may be used as training tools or to create consistency between departments.

They are written in detailed language, outlining the processes of the organization and should make sense to anyone without much explanation. They should be written in a way that fits with organizational culture. They are staff led and maintained.

Side-by-Side Comparison:




Method of Action



Address rule

Implement rule

Rarely Changes

Frequently Changes



“You must…”

“This is the best way to…”



Breach is grounds for dismissal

Breach is grounds for performance management

Approved by Board or Executive Team

Maintained by Department Heads

Also note:
In a non-profit, policies and procedures fall into a greater schedule of governance:

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