Boosting Board Collaboration: Software to Support Your Board
Can software help your board collaborate more effectively? It likely can -- potentially, anything from scheduling meetings to share documents or even to meet online. This Idealware article was written for the inaugural issue of NTEN: Change, the new quarterly publication of the NTEN. Thanks to NTEN for their support.
Every nonprofit’s board of directors is different, from its makeup and responsibilities to how its members communicate with staff and with each other, but each shares some common needs. Regardless of the personalities members bring to your board, software tools can support their efforts to guide your organization by making their contributions easier, more efficient and more effective.
Most of these tools weren’t designed specifically for boards, but with a little strategy you can put them to work for you. You may already have some of them; those that you don’t are, for the most part, affordable or free, and approachable for even organizations with almost no money to spend.
Before you choose the tools you’ll use, consider the way your board does business—and what exactly that business is. Are members geographically diverse, or do they meet face-to-face? Are they actively involved in your organization’s activities, or do they serve a more passive role, providing guidance? Are their schedules difficult to coordinate? Is your work with them document-heavy?
We’ve identified board needs in several common areas—calendaring and scheduling, document sharing and collaboration, and meetings and communications—and we’ll look at them one at a time.
Calendar and Scheduling
You’re busy, and your board members are busy. Scheduling time that works for everyone can be a logistical challenge.
The easiest way is to choose a few dates and email them around so members can weigh in on their own availability. Chances are you’ve done this already, which means you know the shortcomings—the back-and-forth can be difficult to manage, especially with eight or more people to a board.
Shared calendars, like Microsoft Outlook or Google’s, are a fairly widespread, free solution. If your staff shares calendars already, you know the benefits, but board members may be reluctant to share their calendars unless they’re already on the same platform—they won’t want to have to update another calendar for each scheduled appointment.
A better alternative is any of the free online scheduling tools, like MeetingWizard or Doodle, which are simple to use. You propose multiple dates and times, and board members define which ones work for them using a simple poll. They don’t even have to log in or register—they just click the link you sent them to define their availability. The tools analyze the results to make it easy to choose the best time, and let you email confirmations and reminders. Doodle even integrates with popular external calendar applications to simplify board members’ actions.
Document Sharing and Collaboration
You’ve seen the massive undertaking that creating and managing board materials can become. From bylaws and governance documents to financial statements, donor and fundraising information, meeting minutes and more, the amount of paperwork used in even a single board meeting is staggering, and it gets worse for boards that have grant applications to review or other paperwork-intensive tasks.
All these materials must be easily and immediately accessible, but no one wants to carry around heavy binders with documents they only need on occasion. And you don’t want to spend too much of your time—or your staff’s—playing librarian.
Email attachments are a fast and easy way to share documents, but we all know their limits—especially if board members are reviewing, editing or commenting on documents. How many times have you wondered if you were looking at the latest version of something that had been passed around multiple times? Email also puts the onus on board members to archive their own copies of documents, which is perhaps not an ideal solution.
A better option is to use any of the number of tools designed for archiving, sharing and collaborating on documents. Google Docs is the best known example—you invite users by email to access text documents, spreadsheets, presentations or diagrams, or set the documents so anyone with the link can login. As an added bonus, because documents are updated in real-time, all board members can view—and even edit—minutes during a meeting, as long as they’re logged in. While collaboration is limited to files in Google’s document format, you can upload files in any format for board members to view and download.
A project management package like Basecamp or Central Desktop can also be very useful for boards, as they let you upload files, track tasks and lists, collaborate on documents in real time, and even pull in email conversations automatically so they’re archived for later. (Expect to pay $20 to $40 per month.)
If you’re already using a more sophisticated solution like Microsoft Sharepoint, it can also provide very useful ways to store, access and collaborate on documents. Configuring and maintaining Sharepoint requires some technical know-how and a web server—however, if you have an IT person on staff, or if you’re already running the software, it can be an affordable and useful option.
Or you could create a wiki and use it to store information where it’s both accessible and editable, but there’s a bit of a learning curve for board members.
A popular solution in the corporate world is to maintain an intranet, or internal website accessible only by staff. Similarly, you could use your content management system to create one with a secure section for board members, allowing them to access and download references and resources.
More simply, you could use the free Google Sites to create a board “start page” that members see when they log in, where you post calendar info, email group discussions, links to documents and other information useful to the board.
Meetings and Communications
Meetings take place relatively infrequently, and you want to keep board members active and engaged in the time between. Email remains the gold standard for communication, in many ways.
Board members often like email—it fosters ongoing discussions at the participants’ leisure, and it takes little effort on their part to. You can share documents, and with the advent of smartphones, access is virtually uninterrupted. If your board’s bylaws allow for it, members can even cast votes by email.
An email discussion can formalize your email conversations a bit, and make it easy for board members to define how often they see emails. These email lists—which can often be created within your existing email tool (like Outlook or Google Apps), or inexpensively through services like Electric Ember’s NPOGroups or CollectiveX—also make it easy to archive and search past discussions.
For meetings themselves, don’t overlook the noble telephone. It’s still the fastest and easiest way to talk to someone else. Simple conferencing—like that provided by freeconferencecalling.com, or for a fee through many large communications providers—can give voice to a single remote member at an in-person meeting, or unite an entire board virtually.
But you can enhance the telephone conference experience with other tools. Let’s say you want to share a presentation with board members during a call, or show them financial reports or something else on your PC. You could host the conference call through a service like ReadyTalk, GoToMeeting, WebEx or Yuuguu, which provide audio and let participants share their screens with other participants.
Or, take it a step further and video conference people into a board meeting. Skype and Ooovoo are free to download and use, but the participant will need to have a webcam, microphone and speakers. Both tools are free for basic versions, but the technology is not as reliable as telephones. It can also be hard to use with a number of different people—it’s simply difficult to follow more than three or four people all in different little video boxes on your screen. Still, these tools are a good way to add a single remote user to an in-person meeting.
All-in-One Tools and Board Portals
As we’ve shown, supporting board members just takes a little forethought and some planning to combine multiple tools into a workflow. But there’s also an entire class of product built to make meeting-related activities easier.
With meeting management tools like mycommittee.com, you can create agendas, invite and notify members, and attach documents in advance of the meeting. Then, during the meeting you can create minutes and task lists and give members the ability to view and update them as well as call for and defer agenda items and other meeting-related actions. All users need to do is log in. The basic version is free, but premium options ($19 to $140 per month) offer advanced features and document storage capability as well as support for branding, subcommittees and additional tools.
Microsoft Office Live Meeting offers similar functionality in the context of a subscription-based web conferencing service. Free client software is installed on members’ PCs which enables them to connect to a central server. The service also provides for audio and video integration, and is aimed at creating an all-in-one meeting and conferencing experience. Costs vary, but start at $4.50 per-user, per month.
There are also purpose-built solutions aimed specifically at board collaboration that tie tools to support all these actions into a single package. Called board portals, they’re designed to help board members fulfill their roles and collaborate effectively, even when spread out geographically, and to help staff deliver materials to board members and expedite the flow of information among board members and between boards and executive directors and their staffs.
Most of these tools were created for corporate boards, which are subject to strict legal requirements. They tend to be too complex, and too expensive, to garner much appeal from nonprofits. In the past few years, as prices have begun to drop and interest from the nonprofit sector has grown, vendors have adapted these portals to better meet the needs of nonprofit boards.
Portals from BoardVantage, BoardWorks, Diligent Boardbooks, BoardEffect, Directors Desk and Thomson BoardLink all offer varied functionality, but many overlapping features. Essentially, they provide access to board materials and tools that help prepare for board meetings, and that make it easier to produce and manage materials and schedule work.
Board members can take notes online as they review meeting packets, and access these notes during meetings. Portals typically include tools to create a board book—the package of documents to be reviewed at a particular meeting—and centrally manage organizational documents, as well as the ability to broadcast materials to all board members, to a specific committee or to selected individuals.
Board members usually have defined access to materials, with user-level access to allow support staff to see appropriate materials without accessing confidential sections of the portal. Other typical functionality includes on- and off-line accessibility that lets board members access materials over the web and download them for review while offline, such as when traveling, while still ensuring the same strict security.
Most provide calendaring functions, and can link calendars to materials for scheduled meetings, as well as e-mail and discussion tools with confidentiality controls that limit access to appropriate staff. Some also include survey tools for polling board members or conducting board assessments, and let board chairs call for online voting, when appropriate.
You could replicate many of these features in less expensive tools. The selling point for the board portals is that they’re tailored to the needs of board meetings, and (often not very technically sophisticated) board members. They provide all the functionality you’re likely to need in one place, with a single user interface and login.
Getting Board Buy-in
While budget and board requirements will play large roles in determining which tools you use, don’t underestimate the importance of the human element in your decision. A board is made up of a group of people, and people have varying levels of comfort with, and willingness to adopt, new technology. Even the most technically articulate board members will start to push back if they have to remember a handful of different log-ins and passwords, or have to learn too many different tools or systems.
In other words, board support tools are useless without board member buy-in. How comfortable are your board members with technology? How confident are you in their willingness to accept and adopt new solutions, and their ability to overcome technological hurdles?
Whichever solution or solutions you choose, there are steps to minimize adoption challenges and ensure a more seamless transition for busy board members. First, use the right tool for the job—additional features and functionality will only confuse if they’re not necessary. Next, test systems thoroughly in advance of introducing them to board members; a board meeting is not the time or place for a catastrophic failure, nor will such an event help secure board buy-in.
Third, familiarizing a few key staff members with the tools will serve a few useful purposes—it will give you a built-in test audience, hands-on training partners, and accessible tech-support resources for confused board members. Prepare for a transition period and add time to the agenda for the first few meetings with the new software to allow for questions, log-in difficulties or other unforeseen difficulties.
Finally, try to minimize necessary user input. The fewer separate log-ins and passwords people have to enter, the happier they’re going to be—and a happy board goes a long way toward a happy organization.
This list of solutions is by no means exhaustive, but it should get you started thinking about the best way for your organization to meet your board’s needs, and what types of tools are available to you.
There are other solutions on the market in each of the categories we’ve covered here, and other ways to use tools we haven’t even thought of yet. The fact is, board support is an underdeveloped niche in the software field—as board portals continue evolving to fit the nonprofit space and new tools continue to appear, your choices will only grow.
If you have an understanding of how your board works and what it needs to work more efficiently and effectively, as your options improve you’ll be right where you need to be to act upon them.
Thanks to the following people:
Jonah Goodman, Phi Sigma Pi
Andy Wolber, Wolber Works
Gavin Clabaugh, Charles Stuart Mott Foundation
Laura S. Quinn, Idealware
Jo Lee, Green Machine PR
Winthrop Morgan, Winthrop Morgan and Associates