May 4, 2015

Helping Your Board Collaborate

A nonprofit’s board of directors requires a lot of collaboration—with other board members, committee members, and organizational staff. That collaborative work requires the ability to review, comment on, and even vote on an enormous amount of material. Everyone involved wants that information to be easily accessible, readable, and actionable. The burden often falls on your staff.

Board members are often spread out geographically, adding another challenge to successful collaboration. Even if board meetings are held face-to-face, much of the work between meetings is done virtually. Software can bridge the distance and unite dispersed collaborators by making it easy to present, review, and comment on information.

Board Portals
A breed of tools has been designed specifically for the board environment. At its core, this type of tool—called a board portal—helps staff manage and create board documents and lets board members share, read, and annotate board books and other meeting documents electronically. If your board’s needs are complex or demanding, these tools help your staff manage and create meeting documents and help board members share, read, and mark-up those documents. These solutions place great emphasis on creating a central, easy-to-use interface—both online and through apps for iPads or other tablets—which makes them great for less tech-savvy board members.

However, board portals are expensive. They may also be far more feature-rich than you need if you’re just looking for a way to collaborate. The software market is full of tools designed for collaboration, from email and document sharing apps to online conferencing and project management systems. Many of these can be tailored to meet the more specific needs of a board—and your organization may already have some of them.

Other Software
If you use nothing else to improve your board collaboration, a cloud-based file sharing service will be a vast improvement over emailing meeting documents as attachments. These tools will let you store all board documents—including minutes form past meetings, board books, financial reports, and bylaws or other governance files—all in one central, organized location. You could even use Google Drive, which provides additional useful features for both before and during board meetings that one might expect from a dedicated board portal—such as a shared calendar for meetings, tasks, and deadlines through Google Calendar; group discussions through Google Groups; online chat and basic conferencing for your meetings through Hangouts; and even some ability for short surveys or voting through Google Forms.

If your board desires a more structured, central repository for board documents, task management, and discussions, online project management tools can provide a centralized and professional-looking workspace for board members to discuss issues, collaborate on or access important meeting documents, or keep track of upcoming board or committee meetings. While not free, these tools cost significantly less than fully-featured board portals, especially for larger boards or boards with multiple committees.

Board collaboration is more than just sharing documents, however. For geographically-dispersed boards, where meeting in person for every meeting is difficult, if not impractical, a conferencing tool is a must. If all you need is a phone conversation, there are free and low-cost solutions available that let board members meet with audio and video and provide the ability to present documents to the full group. These free tools are better suited to organizations with smaller boards, as they only allow a limited number of participants.

For most nonprofits, the right collaboration solution will be determined by a combination of needs and price, but there is a wide range of options available for almost every budget. Idealware looked into all of these solutions recently as part of a research project funded by the Technology Affinity Group (TAG), and created two separate resources.

You can read the first, A Few Good Tools: Board Portals and Other Ways to Collaborate, for free to explore both low-cost and fully-featured solutions. If you’d like to learn more about dedicated board portals, our report, A Consumers Guide to Board Portals, is available for free to TAG members.

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Kyle Henri Andrei
Kyle Henri Andrei is Senior Researcher for Idealware, a nonprofit that provides impartial resources to help other nonprofits make smart decisions about technology. Learn more or browse the hundreds of free articles, reports, and online trainings at www.idealware.org.