The great folks over at BoardSource
are putting together an article about online board facilitation tools (like BoardVantage
), and asked me for some thoughts. I don't know a ton about this realm of software, but from what I've seen it's an interesting area, with a lot of promise - but I think it's important to think carefully about your own goals and your own board.
These software packages are, at heart, online collaboration platforms. They allow the collaboration basics like document sharing and discussions and often add on extras that are geared specifically towards typical board needs - like voting tools, and the easy viewing of board books (big packets of information, like financial information or project summaries, that often provide information behind things to be voted on). Like most collaboration platforms, they sound great in theory - stop trying to make decisions via email! Stop mailing or emailing big packets of documents around! have an audit trail online! have real conversations online!
But in practice, it's hard to get people to use online collaboration tools. People are used to other methods - like email or mail. Often, they don't like to view information online, and it's often hard to find the options to print. Many feel that online platforms are impersonal, and prefer a meeting or conference call. These kinds of platforms can work well for tech-savvy groups, particularly remote groups, who are really motivated to share information... but that doesn't sound like most nonprofit boards that I know.
If you're thinking about leading your board in a foray into online collaboration, I'd suggest thinking carefully through your goals, and trying to find a free or inexpensive software option to try out an online strategy. For instance, if realtime collaboration is a goal, there are a number of online presentation tools (like WebEx, ReadyTalk, or GoToMeeting) that can help you discuss, view information online, and vote. If you're looking to store documents, discussions, and task lists online, an inexpensive project management platform like Basecamp could be an interesting fit. Something like Google Docs might be an easy-to-use way to share financial spreadsheets or other documents.
And if you have success with these inexpensive methods, then by all means, take a look at the more robust board collaboration tools. They do offer some very interesting functionality - but if no one will use the package, it doesn't matter what fancy features it has.