A board of directors has a high degree of responsibility in any nonprofit organization. Directors are given the public trust to ensure the responsible use of tax-exempt resources, so timely access to information is critical to doing the best possible job. The challenge for most nonprofit organizations is how to best support the work of a diverse group of volunteers, all of whom have other commitments and few of whom can just show up at an office to review financials, contribute to a fundraising pitch or read through staff reports on program impacts.

Back in the day (y’know, like four years ago), nonprofit staff would diligently copy pieces of paper, spend $30 on postage, and ship out a board packet each month/quarter so the directors would have common information to read. The last couple of years have brought us new collaboration tools that really do bring with them the promise of the Great Paperless Office promised to those many years ago. Not that you can’t have paper. Directors who want to have paper can certainly hit the “print” button like anyone else, but the amount of staff time needed to collate and process documents has been dramatically reduced.

This reduction is not the primary purpose of online collaboration, however. The real point—the real promise of these collaboration tools—is to enable directors to begin “pre-thinking” and sharing before they get together for their board meeting. Cloud-based sharing is different than just e-mailing a PDF to your board (how 2010!). Here’s how this can work now:

  1. Your organization picks a cloud platform and ensures that all necessary staff have access to post materials and that all directors have access to review, post and edit.
  2. Many of these services have versioning (ahh, the verbing of America!) so you can track changes over time. Encourage your directors to ask questions, add notes, highlight issues or otherwise mark up shared documents before the meeting begins. If anything gets seriously messed up, you can always back up to a point before those changes were implemented.
  3. Staff can review directors’ changes, and add or revise information early so that the meeting itself isn’t spent wondering about issues that can be resolved before any of these very busy people ever get into the same room.
  4. The pre-work of agreeing on all the facts and asking all the questions is done. Directors can now assemble for some great conversation about what to do based on the full data they themselves have contributed to before the meeting began. The cloud doesn’t replace their meetings; it just enhances them.

Moving board resources to the cloud also has the distinct advantage of letting new directors browse through past packets and conversations without having to reproduce lots of old paper or putting a burden on staff. With free (and near-free) storage in abundance, nonprofits never need fear the bulky three-ring binder that once made it difficult for directors to step up and provide oversight and vision. Access to more curated data may actually increase the usefulness of board collaboration and bring more value to its work.

Originally published at Nonprofit Quarterly.

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