Building a sound organizational structure by writing out a complete and accurate set of bylaws may not be the most thrilling endeavor for urban farmers and gardeners, but it can make all the difference in the health, longevity and strength of a group.

An example: South Central Farm.

The 2008 documentary “The Garden” followed a group of gardeners in South Central Los Angeles in their fight to keep their 14-acre community garden, after the city sold the parcel to a developer. Garden opponents and city council members sought to discredit the gardeners’ nonprofit status; they pointed out that some gardeners managed multiple plots and were growing more food than their families could eat, selling the extra food for a small side income. According to the Farm’s official rules (lawyers call them bylaws), each family was only allowed one plot, but the leadership had been informally allowing people to break that rule.

After hearing this criticism by their opposition, and thinking that it would help their cause, the garden leaders locked a few gardeners out of their extra plots. The film shows the emotional confrontations that erupted. One locked-out gardener, in a rage, even attacked a garden leader with a machete.

This confrontation could have been avoided if the Farm group had been following their bylaws.

Most new groups should start with bylaws that are simple, concise, and easy to understand. They should meet the needs of the specific organization, and should be created by the leaders and membership of the group.

If a dispute arises, an organization’s bylaws should contain the ground rules for its resolution. If a dispute ever leads to litigation, courts will first look at an organization’s bylaws in order to resolve the problem.

An organization’s failure to follow its own bylaws can expose it to liability. It can also cause unnecessary conflict and frustration in your group.

Have you read your group’s bylaws recently? Does your board and membership follow them? If not, it’s essential to update your bylaws to reflect your organization’s current practices.

If your nonprofit organization is in Maryland, contact Community Law Center for help with your bylaws at

Posted on by Becky Witt

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