Monday, April 18, 2011

In defense of paper trails

I’m about to take a traditionally unpopular stand. I believe in paper trails – at least paper trails that make essential documents readily available and provide a sense of context for nonprofit boards.

Whether or not these trails literally are made of paper is not important. What is critical is having access to documents, reports and other information that boards need to make informed decisions. What boards need is institutional history and context for governance - to have a chance to learn from their predecessors, to build upon their work and avoid making the same mistakes.

Board members are human. Even as we embrace the awesome responsibilities that come with governance, we still struggle with stretched schedules and overtaxed memories. Expecting us to retain everything presented to us, everything we “should” know to lead effectively, without a little help simply is unrealistic.

Board members also are a transient lot. Members come and go, taking with them their knowledge and  institutional history. Even when they serve long and well, through as many years as term limits will allow, when members leave, they take with them information and context for the decisions they made and their interpretations of mission that led to them. Without that perspective – and garden variety detail – board members who follow them risk reinventing the proverbial wheel and making the same unfortunate mistakes. 

We can't expect to capture everything known and experienced by the board (nor would we want to do so). But we can find ways to make what is essential for governance accessible to our successors, and to preserve highlights of members' experiences that provide context for why our boards made the decisions that they did.

Among the types of resources that should be readily available to board members:

  • By-laws
  • Board and organizational policy documents
  • Board and committee meeting minutes
  • Written (or perhaps audio?) committee reports
  • Executive director reports
  • Budgets and financial reports
  • Copies of organizational newsletters

Those are somewhat obvious examples of resources that board members would find valuable in their governance work. But, especially with increasingly easy availability of electronic tools, and space to store them, we need not limit our board’s leadership resource to text-based documents.

For example, how would board members’ capacity to tell a compelling story on our behalf grow or shift after they’ve had a chance to listen to, or watch, a testimonial from a former client or a clip from a news story that the local station ran about one of your programs last year? Or a YouTube video that you’ve posted, promoting your services? What if we provided publicly accessible links to those resources within the board resource to make it easier for members to share with others in their boundary-spanning role?

Actually, the ability to archive and share links to information sources – our own and others – makes creating an online board resource increasingly attractive. Several great, private, secure options exist. A few I’ve used and can recommend as possibilities for boards:

All offer secure, free versions that would be suitable for creating a board resource/database/social network space.  I’d recommend visiting each site and reviewing the available tools for fit to your board’s needs before selecting one option. Some offer additional services for a usually affordable monthly fee.

Before jumping into any document storage and sharing system, I’d make the case for creating a resource to the board and query members about preferred formats. I would not allow them to reject any system. I also wouldn’t rule out an online option solely based on their predictions that they “wouldn’t use it.” I predict that, probably more than keeping track of literal paper (and storing it in any accessible way), an online resource’s value will be proven the first couple of times that members are able to quickly put their hands on the report from six months ago, the bylaws or the link to the right YouTube video testimonial. 

(Personal example/confession: I'm not afraid of paper or technology. I like paper. But ask me to put my hands quickly on the budgets of the boards on which I serve. I probably could do so for one - not because I know where the paper version is, but because I know where to find the Excel file on my thumb drive. The other board? No chance. If I need a duplicate, I'll be wasting my time, and the staff's, groveling for another copy.)

I’d be interested in hearing your experiences with, and recommendations for, creating and sharing resources to enhance your board’s understanding and effectiveness. I’d especially be interested in lessons learned if you’ve created an online resource.

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