Wednesday, June 22, 2016

One board thing: Build a board portal

(purchased from Bigstock Photo)

If I could change just one thing to increase the effectiveness of my nonprofit board, I'd

Build (and use) a board portal

I've often talked about the value of having a "paper" trail for nonprofit boards. While the institution - the board itself - is an enduring body, there is a certain transience created by the fact that board members come and go. When they do, they take with them a unique piece of the group's institutional memory.

That is where creating and maintaining the "paper" trail becomes important. While we may technically lose what's captured in departing members' brains, if we've been diligent in recording and storing actions, context and other institutional details in other forms, we ensure that that information remains available for future governing generations.

It also helps those of us in the midst of the work to have the performance support and information tools that we need to govern fully and effectively. We know what we need; we know where to find it, wherever we might be at the moment. A board portal facilitates that access.

If you've ever served on a board, chances are that you have (or had) a three-ring binder containing essential documents and information about your organization and the body in which you serve. Whether or not it remained complete and up to date depended, among other things, on whether you received new documents (e.g., minutes, updated member rosters, financials) and whether you actually filed them into the binder. (Confession: my track record over 30+ years is very mixed.)

A well-used, frequently-updated board portal ensures that all of that happens and that those resources are available - literally 24/7 with an internet connection and a computer or mobile device.  Depending on the tool(s) you use, it also can be a hub for a wide range of board activities.

A board portal is a private, online space and on-demand resource center for members. What is possible in a portal depends on the tool selected. In general, though, a board portal can be used to:

  • Store foundational documents (e.g., by-laws, member lists, budget)
  • Gather and share meeting materials (saving time and money)
  • Create committee workspaces and document repositories
  • Schedule meetings
  • Create an ongoing board calendar
  • Set up quick polls to capture board member sentiment or a topic
  • (In some tools) Send text message reminders
  • (In some tools) Convene video or audio conference calls

I'll highlight a couple of collaboration tools that I've used, as an administrator or participant, as examples of what is available for your consideration.

Wiggio is a personal favorite, one used frequently by several work groups in my professional life. I've also set up a portal on Wiggio for a local nonprofit board that, to my knowledge, is still used. What I like about Wiggio:

  • One, it's free.
  • Two, it's incredibly full-featured. Not only does it have space for storing documents, it has a calendar tool, a polling function, email and text options, and task lists. (How in the world is this still free?) 
  • There's also a discussion function that isn't always the most attractive, but it's still perfectly usable.

BoardEffect is not free, but it clearly is an example of what a dedicated board portal can do. My personal experience with BoardEffect is as a member of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management governance affinity group. In our corner of the ANM's space, we are able to create and share documents, schedule meetings, download board books (e.g., meeting packets), and otherwise have an online hub (and "paper trail") for our ongoing activities. A paid service like BoardEffect may make sense for many boards, especially boards where members are dispersed geographically.

There are other ways to replicate a portal using other online tools. For example, a board might create a GoogleSite or a GoogleGroup for collaboration and use tools in the Google suite of services (e.g., GoogleDocs, GoogleDrive, GoogleCalendar) to accomplish the same "portal" goals.

If simply storing documents is the goal, boards also have services available for that function, such as Dropbox and Both make sharing easy. A small fee for pro options may be in order for the kind of storage your board would need.

Whatever the tool used, creating a board portal/storage space ensures that board members always have the information they need, when they need it. That facilitates informed decision making and reduces the stress of trying to round up the latest version of whatever document is needed in the moment.

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