What policies does my sport organization need?

At the Sport Law & Strategy Group, we regularly receive requests from sport organizations asking for assistance writing policies. These are the policies, procedures, and rules that the organization’s sport leaders believe are necessary to govern the organization and its members. Over time, most National Sport Organizations (NSOs) and Provincial Sport Organizations (PSOs), and even some local/regional sport organizations have built a working policy manual that is used and regularly reviewed by the organization.

Why does my sport organization need policies?

Most organizations will want the autonomy and freedom to handle their own issues internally. This means that organizations must build and follow their own organization-specific policies. There are other good reasons for sport organizations to have their own policies including:

  • The policy is required by law
  • Members are frustrated by a lack of processes within the organization
  • The organization’s leadership frequently changes
  • A recurring issue requires a standard solution
  • The policy provides a path to manage an issue from beginning to end

Organizations that do not have even the most basic and necessary policies (like a Code of Conduct or a Discipline and Complaints Policy) risk alienating members and raising questions about the both the organization’s governance and the credibility and transparency of its Board of Directors. Also, if a member has a complaint that cannot be addressed by a policy, the member may take the organization to court to resolve the issue – an expensive process for all involved.

Both large and small sport organizations have all kinds of different policies.

Squash Canada, an NSO, has policies for Privacy, Appeals, In-Event Appeals, Discipline and Complaints, Code of Conduct and Ethics, Gender Equity and Access, Eye Guards, Doping, Official Languages, Conflict of Interest, and Athlete Representative.

Manitoba Ringette, a PSO, has a 79-page Operating Manual that includes policies for Conflict of Interest, Conflict Resolution, Code of Conduct, Harassment, Discipline, Appeals, Leagues, Privacy, and Bingo.

The Peel Halton Soccer Association, a regional sport organization, has posted policies on its website for Privacy, Membership Consent, and ‘Playing Out’. The PHSA also has a policy statement on Harassment which reads:“The Peel Halton Soccer Association, as a Member of the Ontario Soccer Association, is committed to adhering to the OSA’s published Harassment Policy” and the OSA’s Harassment Policy is provided.

The Canmore Nordic Ski Club, a local sport organization, has a 4-page policy package that includes: Member Responsibilities, Code of Conduct, Enforcement Policy, Photo Release, and a Youth Athletes Code of Conduct specifically for youth.

Multi-Sport Organizations (MSOs) like sport councils, funders, officials organizations, sport centres, or advocacy groups will also have policies and they will likely be similar, especially if these organizations have members.

So many policies!  And there are yet more policies that these organizations do not have (likely by choice) or that they have included elsewhere in their governing documents instead of as stand-alone policies.

How can my organization determine which policies we require? 

There are a few questions a sport organization’s leaders can ask:

1.  What is the organization’s relationship with its sport’s larger organization(s)?
2.  Does the organization have members?
3.  Are the members individuals?Are any policies required by law?
4.  What policies are recommended for risk management purposes?
5.  Are there any recurring instances or issues in the organization that could best be addressed by a policy?
6.  Can any policies be replaced by a policy statement referring to another organization’s policies?

One question an organization should not be asking itself is: “What policies do other organizations have?”  Even other PSOs in the same sport may have different policies that are required by law or by issues specific to their organization. What is necessary and works well in one province or for one sport group may not even be needed or used by other organizations.

In the role of sport leader, let’s answer each of those six questions and end each answer with recommended and optional policies for larger (NSOs and large PSOs) and smaller (small PSOs and local/regional organizations) sport organizations.

1. Does the organization have members?  Are the members individuals?

This is probably the biggest question for sport organizations because most will indeed have members. An organization with members should have policies that address membership issues. For example, if members are individuals then the organization will want to have a Code of Conduct that governs/monitors member conduct. The organization does not want a member’s negative conduct to reflect poorly on the organization. The Code of Conduct should be enforced by a Discipline and Complaints Policy.  Some organizations may have a Harassment Policy that covers similar issues but in a recent article on our website, Rachel Corbett recommends the phasing out of this specific policy. Some organization may choose to have a Dispute Resolution or Mediation Policy that takes effect before a formal complaint process to attempt to resolve member issues via a negotiation settlement. An Appeals Policy should also be part of the procedurally fair process of handling member complaints or issues.

Recommended for larger organizations: Code of Conduct, Discipline and Complaints, Appeals, Dispute Resolution (optional)

Recommended for smaller organizations: Code of Conduct, Dispute Resolution

Smaller organizations may not have the capacity to handle membership complaints or disputes on their own. A Dispute Resolution process should be undertaken, but if the process fails to reach a negotiated settlement, the organization could have a policy statement remitting the complaint, discipline, or appeal to be heard under the larger organization’s policies. For example, if Softball New Brunswick received a complaint from a member, the first step would be to attempt to resolve the dispute internally, but if that failed, Softball NB could have a policy statement sending the issue to be heard by Softball Canada under their policies. Currently, even though capacity issues may exist, many smaller organizations do not currently have this sort of relationship with the larger organization in their sport.

2.  Are any policies required by law?

Most sport organizations are incorporated, under either federal or provincial legislation, which means that the organization must abide by certain laws in order to maintain its status as a registered corporation. Directors of the Board have specific legal responsibilities, one of which is to place the organizations’ needs over the Director’s personal needs. This particular legal responsibility is often explained in a Conflict of Interest Policy.  Confidentiality is another area highlighted by the legislation. The federal government and most provincial governments also have privacy legislation governing the protection and use of personal information and, therefore, organizations should have a Privacy Policy explaining how they intend to comply with these laws. (The Sport Law & Strategy Group has created Privacy Policy compliance packages for organizations). Certain provinces may have other province-specific laws. For example, Ontario has Workplace Violence as well as Accessibility legislation, and recent case law has also created guidelines for the use of technology in the workplace – which should also be covered by a policy.

Recommended for larger organizations: Conflict of Interest, Confidentiality, Privacy, province-specific policies

Recommended for smaller organizations: Privacy, province-specific policies, Conflict of Interest (optional)

Conflict of Interest, which we have written about on our website, is nearly impossible to eliminate in amateur sport organizations and this is especially true for smaller organizations that have limited capacity. Though this may seem to be a good reason to have a Conflict of Interest Policy in the first place, it would also make such a policy extremely difficult to enforce and properly follow. There would be constant violations of the policy to the possible extent of restricting the organization’s actions. Conflict of Interest for smaller organizations may best be addressed with flexible case-by-case guidelines (such as preventing parents from evaluating their children for selection to an all-star team) rather than tight rules. We recently highlighted a practical article on the myths and realities of conflict of interest.

3.  What policies are recommended for risk management purposes?

Risk management is a huge area that some sport organizations find difficult to address. We have written extensively on this topic and are currently leading NSOs through risk management workshops (the ‘Risk Management Project’). In terms of policies, an organization should have polices that assist the organization with limiting its risk. For example, some organizations have a Sanctioning Policy that explains the standards (in terms of eligibility, participants, safety, etc.) required for any event to be given the stamp of approval and be formally sanctioned by the organization. Photo Release forms can also help the organization limit its risks by requiring members to agree to the release of their image for non-commercial purposes. Waivers or forms accepting the physical and legal risk of an activity should also be considered by an organization. For risk management purposes, it also would be prudent for organizations to have a comprehensive Screening process for its coaches, volunteers, and even Board Members. Our comprehensive Risk Management Guide for Community Sport Organizations is available for free through the 2010 Legacies Now website.

Recommended for larger organizations: Sanctioning, Photo Release, Screening

Recommended for smaller organizations: Photo Release, Screening, Assumption of Risk (optional)

Smaller organizations, particularly local/regional organizations, are likely to be the direct point of registry for members participating with the sport. The assumption of risk (plus a photo release form – so that the organization can use its members images on the organization’s website or for other non-commercial purposes) are best contained as part of a registration package. Smaller organizations likely will not be able, for capacity reasons, to have as comprehensive a Screening process as used by larger organizations. Still, smaller organizations – especially local/regional clubs – should strongly consider requiring its coaches and volunteers to acquire a police records check with vulnerable sector verification.

4. Are there any recurring instances or issues in the organization that could best be addressed by a policy?

Organizations naturally face different issues depending on the sport, location, and size of the organization; among other factors. A small Judo club in Quebec may want a Fundraising Policy that standardizes how money is raised by members. A provincial hockey association may have specific rules regarding sponsorship – necessitating a Sponsorship Policy. Athletics Canada has a number of paid staff members and they may choose to have a Human Resources Policy (with or without Employee Agreements) to help streamline the internal operations of the organization. Some organizations may take a ‘hands-on’ approach to administering events and want a written procedure for protests and appeals that happen during an event. As in the Manitoba Ringette example, there may be policies that no other organization has (such a Bingo Policy) but that make perfect sense for the specific needs of that particular organization.

Policy options for organizations: Fundraising, Sponsorship, Human Resources, Event Protest Procedure, etc.

Social media is the “recurring issue” currently facing every organization. We have written about this more exhaustively in a recent post on our website from October 2012 and we simplified the discussion in a post back in October 2011. It is important for every organization to have a strategic approach to social media; which may or may not include a Social Media Policy depending on the nature of the organization.

Recommended for larger organizations: Social Media Strategy

Recommended for smaller organizations: Social Media Strategy

5.  What is the organization’s relationship with its sport’s larger organization(s)?

Instead of having their own policies, smaller organizations may want to adopt a larger body’s policy and apply it to their own issues. For example, the Red Deer Curling Centre may have a policy statement, instead of a larger policy, that simply says “The Red Deer Curling Centre adopts and adheres to the Alberta Curling Federation’s Code of Conduct” with the intention that any conduct issues by members of the local club would be handled under the jurisdiction of the PSO’s policy. But this arrangement does not always work. This arrangement would require the local club to have a referring committee, the correct jurisdictional understanding, and a relationship that is understood and approved by the PSO.

6. Can any policies be replaced by a policy statement referring to another organization’s policies?

Most NSOs have a policy statement about drug use and doping control in which they reference the Canadian Anti-Doping Program and agree to adhere to this program as outlined by the policies and authority of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES). NSOs may also have policy statements about gender equity and communication in both official languages, outlining their commitment to both of these issues. The issue of transgender athlete participation is gaining some attention from larger sports that have transgender athlete participation and this may soon be a legal issue rather than an optional policy.

Policy statements for larger organizations: Doping, Official Languages (optional), Gender Equity (optional), Transgender Athlete Eligibility Guidelines (optional)

Policy statements for smaller organizations: (Depends on the relationship with the sport’s larger organization)

Policy Approval, Policy Review and Policy Distribution

New policies enacted by the organization should be approved by the Board and any policies should undergo a regular review. The review can be annually or, more commonly, every two years. Part of the review should consist of determining if there were any recent issues that required the use of a policy. Were the any complaints from members? Privacy problems?  If so, were these issues properly addressed by the policy and can any improvements be made?

Next, are there recurring issues that require a new standard policy? If the Board is constantly receiving requests about player transfer protocol then perhaps a new policy should be created that outlines the proper process. Finally, a policy review should make sure that all the organization’s policies work together. For example, the Discipline and Complaints Policy should contain a section that reads: “Appeals of any decisions made under this Policy may be appealed using the Appeals Policy” and the Appeals Policy should similarly make connections to other policies in the section describing its scope.

Most policies can be posted on the organization’s website. Some policies do not require this treatment and can instead be used only internally. A Confidentiality Policy can be kept amongst the Board of Directors and other province-specific legal policies may not need to be posted publicly. Generally, any policy that affects members should be posted in its own section on the organization’s website along with the organization’s Constitution and By-Laws.


In this article we have outlined why organizations need policies, provided questions for sport leaders to ask themselves about which policies are needed, and given recommendations for policies for different sizes of sport organizations. We have also briefly touched on policy reviews and distribution.  Throughout the article we have linked to other posts on our website that describe some of the listed policies in more detail.

The Sport Law & Strategy Group has years of experience helping organizations with their policy creation, development, and review. If you have any questions about any of the policies mentioned or about any stage of this process please feel free to email us.

Kevin Lawrie – KRL@sportlaw.ca
Steve Indig – SJI@sportlaw.ca

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