According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, a constitution is “the basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people in it.” On the other hand, a bylaw is “a rule that an organization (such as a club or company) makes and that its members must follow” or “a law or regulation that is made by a local government and that applies only to the local area.”

Constitutions

A constitution is fundamentally different from a set of bylaws. As mentioned above, a constitution contains the basic principles along which an organization should operate. Experts at the Holden Leadership Center at the University of Oregon advise that “all but the most informal groups should have their basic structure and methods of operation in writing.” Not only is having a constitution beneficial for those looking upon your organization from the outside, but the process of writing a constitution will enable you and your members to better delineate and define the purposes of your group from within.

Bylaws

Bylaws are a more concrete set of operational rules or policies that specify exactly how an organization is to be run. They follow the organizing principles set forth by a constitution and allow the organization to run in an effective and orderly manner. Bylaws should expand upon the articles of the constitution and provide specific information that members can refer to in day-to-day business.

Differences

Whether you’re founding a new club at your college or chartering a multinational nonprofit organization, writing and adopting both of these documents is a priority. To do that, you have to be certain that you understand the differences between them. A constitution should contain the purposes, aims and overall philosophy that your organization aims to serve. Your bylaws, however, will contain detailed rules, such as membership selection requirements or committee powers and duties.

Similarities

These two testaments of your group’s design also have some similarities, however. Both contain guidance that you and your members should follow when making decisions that impact the organization and its operation. “Bylaws must not contradict provisions in the constitution,” warns the Holden Leadership Center, as bylaws are based on the constitution, and the constitution is enacted through the bylaws. Knowing the key similarities and differences between a constitution and bylaws will allow your group to run smoothly and effectively.