August 14, 2013

Using Technology Tools to Streamline Nonprofit Board Operations

Nonprofit organizations that provide funding for research have a special responsibility to the groups that apply for support. We owe it to them to review their applications objectively and ensure that we handle the selection process as efficiently and fairly as possible.

We also have an obligation to the professionals who are involved in the proposal selection process. We owe it to them to organize and present information accurately and to streamline the review and selection process to make the most efficient use of their valuable time.

My group, the Morris Animal Foundation, is a nonprofit organization that invests in science that advances veterinary medicine for three categories of animals: small companion animals (dogs and cats), large companion animals (horses and llamas/alpacas) and wildlife. We hold three major board events each year to review grant proposals. We typically receive from 400 to 600 submissions each year requesting funds to advance veterinary medicine in each category.

Our scientific advisory board comprises three groups of distinguished scientists, with seven to 10 members on each board. The panels meet in person to narrow down the field of applicants and discuss each grant that is selected for further review, evaluating the merits of the proposals and rating them to make a final recommendation on funding.

Each grant contains highly complex, technical information, so it’s crucial for board members to have a way to capture and review key points. My team plays an administrative role, providing tools board members can use to facilitate the discussion and rating process. In the past, we used notecards and a basket to collect votes, and we used handwritten notes from board members to create spreadsheets to capture information on proposals under consideration.

Keeping track of the proposal evaluation process using paper and spreadsheets is cumbersome and occasionally confusing: Handwritten notations can be difficult to decipher, and it can be a challenge to locate crucial information quickly during real-time discussions that require immediate fact-checking.

Using our previous system, if we were reviewing 100 proposals with 10 reviewers, we would have to produce 1,000 scorecards. That entailed printing, cutting and laying out each card, a labor and time intensive process that was vulnerable to errors.

While attending a veterinary conference, I first became aware of a possible alternative to paper-based proposal evaluations. The conference organizers used software that allowed attendees to respond to questions in real time with clickers or mobile phone keypads and then automatically tally responses for display as a graph in the on-screen presentation.

Recognizing the software’s potential to streamline and improve the way we handle our grant proposal evaluations at Morris Animal Foundation, I researched the software after the conference. After reviewing the software’s capabilities, support resources and cost, it became clear it was an ideal solution, and we decided to implement TurningPoint from Turning Technologies at our next board event. It has significantly streamlined the proposal review process.

Implementing TurningPoint eliminated the need to create hundreds of scorecards and manually enter each into a spreadsheet. It removed the need to gather and decipher handwritten notes and drastically reduced the time involved in entering data, enabling meeting administrators to provide a quick view of rankings and standings based on actual scores in real time. As a result, votes are more accurate, and the backup data they’re based on is readily accessible without the need to store old scorecards in case of disputes.

With the new technology tools in place, our board members discuss each grant and assign it a numerical rating, which is instantly displayed in the PowerPoint presentation as a bar graph. It helps the reviewers stay focused and engaged, giving them the opportunity to bring up points based on the score while they are still focused on the grant requests under discussion rather than returning to prior reviews after the fact. This has the unexpected benefit of facilitating more fruitful discussion of scientific merit, relevance and impact.

When evaluating software tools for a nonprofit agency, it’s important to balance ease-of-use, cost and efficiency. We found that the polling software provided a major return on investment in the form of a more streamlined proposal evaluation process. It’s affordable, easy to implement and use, and the software maker provides excellent support.

The response of our board members has been overwhelmingly positive. The review process is challenging given the number of proposals we receive, and the polling software and clickers make it more manageable. These new technology tools also make the administrative aspect of the process much easier to manage.

When it comes to exploring new ways to make a difference in the nonprofit sector, there’s no substitute for human time and talent. But when technology tools can maximize volunteer and paid staff resources, it makes sense to use them. Our decision to improve our review process with new technology tools shows our board members that we are committed to using their time and talents as efficiently as possible to fulfill our mission to advance veterinary medicine.

Tobie McPhailTobie McPhail is the Director of Scientific Programs at Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) where she and her team manage the over five million dollars in grants awarded annually to advance veterinary care for companion animals, horses and wildlife. Tobie has been at MAF in this role for eight years. Her career has been focused on animal related philanthropy working previously at the Denver Zoo and Canine Companions for Independence.

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Interest Categories: Leadership, Operations
Tags: board