Smarter Tech, Better Board

By: Beth Ziesenis

Cloud computing, tablets, and myriad other new technologies are making the work of association boards faster, more efficient, and even more eco-friendly. Several associations share how they've upgraded their boards' tech savvy, without breaking the bank.

Imagine a world in which every member of your board of directors is dialed in, hooked up, and on the same page. A world in which email attachments don't get buried, printed board books don't kill trees, and it doesn't take seven emails to find the perfect time when everyone can meet. How much more productive would that make your organization's leadership?

For some associations, the use of today's cutting-edge technology in the boardroom has simplified the communication process and increased efficiency, easily justifying the expense of the investment in hardware and software, as well as staff and board training. From iPads in the boardroom to the use of free document-sharing applications in the cloud, these early-adopting associations have changed the way their boards work forever.

A case in point: Before November 2010, to prepare for each of its four yearly board meetings, staff at the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) Institute printed and shipped thick packets of information to 18 members of the CFA Board of Governors all over the world. CFA's Head of Society Relations Chip Deale, CAE, works with the organization's leadership as a President's Council representative, and he says the monstrous task took volumes of paper and hours and hours of staff time, not to mention a good chunk from the budget.

Last year the organization created an intranet to hold documents for the meetings and invested in nearly 40 iPads for the governors as well as key staff members and other representatives. Meeting attendees use their iPads to easily access documents on the intranet (built in house using the Microsoft SharePoint collaboration platform), download PDFs, take notes, and visit critical websites during board meetings.

"Using the iPad is certainly far more efficient in preparing for meetings, rather than somebody or several somebodies standing by the copier for hours and then having to pack and ship all those packets," Deale says. "Plus, if a document is outdated or contains an error, we can just pull it down and replace it rather than having to reprint and redistribute all those copies."

Deale says the cost of the iPads was not significant compared to the cost of printing and shipping the packets. They chose to provide the iPads along with the intranet instead of making the governors figure out how to access the information with their own devices.

"It's easier to give them the tool to allow them to download right there, and we're in a financial position where we can afford to do that," he says. Rather than toting the printed board books or lugging around their own laptops, "they can walk into the meeting with that nice, thin iPad."

Transforming the Board Binder

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) moved to a SharePoint platform for all of its board documents about eight years ago, and Pam Day, senior director of governance administration, says the switch saves money, increases efficiency, and helps the organization stay green. She estimates that her organization saves between $5,000 and $10,000 a year on postage and overnight delivery costs, and her 53 board members appreciate the environmental savings.

The CFA Institute has 108,000 members, and AIA has 75,000, but smaller organizations are also finding online document repositories a welcome respite from the printed board book. When the National Child Support Enforcement Association—with just 500 individual members and 120 organizational members—had to file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 in 2009, Executive Director Colleen Eubanks concentrated on streamlining the organization's structure, staffing, and procedures to ensure greater efficiency.

Eubanks says she discovered an online solution from BoardEffect that helps board and other committee members prepare better for meetings. The platform includes a repository for documents, virtual meeting rooms for committee work, a central communication platform, and other tools geared for board collaboration. Using the platform has increased collaboration and shortened conference calls, and it encourages people who cannot attend meetings to still participate.

"Committee effectiveness and efficiency have been tremendous," Eubanks says. "We have found that members pay more attention and seem to be better informed, probably because it is much easier to manage all the information we provide [and] to drill down to what someone needs immediately instead of having to wait for everyone to scroll to a certain paragraph or page number of a long PDF document."

The Physical Therapy Association of Washington has 14 board members and a membership of 2,500. Executive Director Jackie Barry, CAE, says her organization uses a free version of the PBworks wiki for online collaboration for the board and other committees. Barry says they post 50 to 80 documents for each board meeting, duplicating documents from the archives if necessary to make sure board members do not have to search old documents for each meeting. During the board meetings, the secretary uses a projector to show documents that she has downloaded on her laptop so they do not necessarily have to connect to the internet.

"The wiki is a secure place for our board and committee members to discuss topics that we might not be ready to share with other stakeholders, and it saves a lot of paper," Barry says.

Perfecting the Virtual Meeting

In addition to using SharePoint to distribute board materials, AIA makes face-to-face board meetings more efficient with an online meeting platform from WebEx, says Day. In advance of each face-to-face meeting, AIA conducts a three-hour online meeting with the 53 board members; the online meeting covers administrative items so that the ensuing face-to-face meeting can focus on more strategic conversations, she says. Day also uses the list of participants as they log in as a backup for her attendance list. The system makes it easy for meeting participants to share and download documents and other resources.

"What we have found to be a problem is that members will join the phone portion only, which means we have people who don't know how to mute their phones, and people talk on top of one another," she says. "But it works very well for us as a time-saving measure at the face-to-face meeting for dispensing with items such as the treasurer's report, consent calendar, oral reports, et cetera."

Day says she uses WebEx, a paid service, because it has advanced features that an association of AIA's size needs. Smaller organizations like the Pacific-West Fastener Association (Pac-West) can use free online meeting platforms, such as AnyMeeting.

Pac-West Executive Director Vicki Lester, CAE, says her organization started using AnyMeeting when the Los Angeles Fastener Association merged with the Western Association of Fastener Distributors. With the new association's larger geographic reach, some member companies cannot afford to send board members to all the meetings, so Lester sets up a computer and a speakerphone at face-to-face meetings and lets remote board members dial in.

"Using AnyMeeting allows multiple levels of people in an organization to participate in the governance, not just owners with a travel budget," Lester says.

In addition, Lester says Pac-West uses for its standing Thursday morning teleconference for board members to touch base on hot topics. The service offers a regular conference-call line (not toll free) for up to 96 participants. Attendees pay their normal long-distance charges, if applicable, with no additional costs.

Project Management for the Rest of Us

When boards work together on large projects that involve multiple people with varying tasks, someone has to manage the big picture and keep the project on track. Traditional project-management software such as Microsoft Project can be complicated for the average user, but new online technology has created do-it-yourself project-management portals that keep teams organized without Gantt charts.

Jay Karen, CAE, president and CEO of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, says his staff uses Manymoon to track board projects, share documents, assign tasks, and more. The board secretary types meeting minutes into Google Docs, another online collaboration option that allows document storage and multiple editors, which links directly into the board's section of the Manymoon system. And Lester says Pac-West uses Basecamp for archiving governing documents and setting milestones for the board.

Is Your Board Ready to Go High Tech?

While none of these associations reported significant board resistance, initial board adoption of new technologies was sometimes a little slow. Deale says that CFA Institute governors have embraced their new iPads, and initial training takes very little time. "You get the occasional person who is a little slower on the uptake with technology and needs a little hand holding," he says. "But our people are pretty savvy, and they're dealing with computers every day. It's just a natural part of their lives."

Eubanks says that staff should be fully familiar with and trained on the system before it is introduced to the volunteer leadership. "We have several members that we often use as testers when we are introducing a new product or idea, and we had them play around in the portal before we asked everyone else to start using it," she says. "The test users were highly enthusiastic about the new portal, so it was easy to overcome some other individuals' reluctance to move to it."

Eubanks also advises organizations to make one technology and process the standard to make sure the archives and historical data are kept together for new leaders. "Don't allow any workarounds to it. Insist that it be the only way committees work and organize their work," she says.

California Society of Association Executives CEO Jim Anderson, CAE, says CalSAE initiates incoming board and volunteer leaders into its technological infrastructure by posting the entire board and volunteer leadership orientation packet in its online community, CalSAE Connects.

"Much of the initial transition work was making sure everyone could log in and the fact that volunteers had one more login and password to remember. The little things can add up, so it took around six months to get everyone up and running and used to the idea," Anderson says. "It runs relatively seamlessly now. It's part of our culture."

Beth Ziesenis is owner of Avenue Z Writing Solutions in San Diego and author of Upgrade to Free: The Best Free and Low-Cost Online Tools and Apps. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Free Tools to Bring Your Board Into the Age of Technology

These days you don't have to spend a fortune on software or hardware to upgrade the tools your board uses to collaborate, meet, and get things done. These tools are a good place to start if you've already spent your tech budget for the year.

Document Management and Collaboration

Google Docs. Free real-time collaboration for spreadsheets, text documents, calendars, and more.

Dropbox. Create and share folders and documents instantly and ensure instant synchronization. Free for up to two gigabytes; paid versions start at $99 a year for 50 gigabytes and up.

Project Management

Basecamp and Zoho Projects. Both services offer free plans to manage one project. More projects and many more capabilities start at $20 a month.

Virtual Meetings

AnyMeeting. Bring your board members together online with AnyMeeting, which allows you to share your screen with up to 200 viewers and interact via phone or chat. You can also record the meetings for your archives.

Skype. Skype-to-Skype group conference calls are free. For about $5 a month, participants can conference with video and from standard telephones. Screensharing options are available for Skype for Mac only.

Conference Calls Exactly what it says. Participants call a regular phone number and conference in. Hosting a call is free, though callers' long-distance charges may apply. Also allows recording and archiving of calls.

Board Training and Orientation

Jing. Need to explain your online resources to new board members? Try Jing from TechSmith, with which you can record short screencasts with voiceover for board orientations and new initiatives.

Board Meeting Logistics lets you type meeting minutes online in real time and helps you organize action items, record attendance, and distribute minutes in, well, minutes.

Doodle and TimeBridge. A number of tools like these will let you propose times and dates for board calls and committee meetings, without playing email tag with multiple attendees.

Want more free tools? Author Beth Ziesenis started collecting association professionals' favorite free tools in 2007 and now shares hundreds on her blog.

Beth Ziesenis

Beth Ziesenis is Your Nerdy Best Friend. As author of several books on technology including Nerd Know-How: The 27+ Best Apps for Work … & How to Use 'Em, Beth travels the country talking to organizations about free and bargain technology. Check out her blog at