Lessons From A Virtual Board Meeting

By: Michelle Boucher

How the National Association of Social Workers took its 300-person delegate assembly online.

Elizabeth Clark, executive director, National Association of Social Workers, and her board of directors determined that NASW could no longer foot the bill for airfare and hotel rooms for its annual 300-person delegate assembly. Instead, they moved the meeting to an online format.

Here, Becky Corbett, NASW's chief operating officer, shares its approach to preparation and training for its first virtual delegate assembly, and what she and her volunteer leaders learned through the experience.

Michelle Boucher: What elements of your delegate assembly required the most change in a virtual environment?

Becky Corbett: One was the security involved: whether people were allowed to have a conversation with a single person or a group. The chat feature in the platform allowed a participant to communicate to an entire group or just with another participant. ...

The other challenge was that people were just used to talking. Participants had to realize that they needed to read and write in order to communicate, as opposed to just talking verbally.

What kind of training, if any, did you provide for using Robert's Rules of Order in an online environment?

A third of the people who attended the first virtual delegate assembly had never been to a delegate assembly. We had to conduct the training in two parts: how to follow Robert's Rules of Order and how to follow Robert's Rules of Order using the technology.

How important was that?

Extremely important. That pre-education of a) making sure the participants understand Robert's Rules of Order and b) learning where to click and where to go to make a motion greatly increased participant comfort level with the online platform.

After the meeting, what was the response?

Overall, good. Participants were very glad not to travel. These are all volunteers. The cost savings was also a saving of time for the participants; they were not away from their jobs and family for as long of a period of time.

Overall, participants wanted a greater comfort level with the technology, and less time sitting in front of the computer. We are condensing the agenda for our next meeting so that participants aren't spending as long of a period of time [in the meeting].

So you would suggest breaking the agenda into shorter periods of time with breaks in between, or maybe extending it over a few days so that no one is sitting in front of a computer for six straight hours?

Exactly. I think that's where we all are going to have to start thinking differently, particularly if you're holding what is normally a six-hour board meeting. Virtually, you have to decide if you really want someone to sit there for six hours. In my experience, people are more succinct online and do not need as long to communicate as when they are face to face.

Is there anything that you would suggest to other associations that are considering this option?

First, when picking a platform or partner, fully communicate what you need the technology to do.

Second, particularly with volunteers who may not be using the technology daily, you want to conduct training. You may even want to require participation in the training prior to participation in the meeting. The training could be a PowerPoint presentation that they read on their own or, even better, a mock virtual meeting in which they would literally use the site in a demo mode and you would simulate the meeting. I think it would be easier to embrace the technology with board members and volunteers if they understand how to use it before putting them in the position to use it.

Becky Corbett is chief operating officer of the National Association of Social Workers in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Michelle Boucher is marketing director at CommPartners LLC, in Columbia, Maryland. Email: [email protected]