How can technology improve board and committee meetings?

Technology holds great potential for streamlining a board’s work. The only caution is that state laws govern how nonprofit organizations can make decisions, and states are slow to update their statutes regarding the use of technology.

Following are some examples of how your board might employ technology to enhance productivity and communications during and between meetings.

Face tO face meetings. Listening to PowerPoint presentations, learning from a video, and taking minutes on a laptop computer are all common features of board meetings. Some organizations with large boards use group decision-making software and electronic polling during their meetings. Others “meet” via videocon ference, which can save travel time and expenses for some board members while still allowing them to notice their peers nonverbal cues and read the tone of speakers remarks.

Technology can be most useful between live meetings and in committee meetings. Because committees are simply preparing rec- ommendations for board action, few state laws prevent the use of electronic lists for discussion and decision making on routine issues.

Telephone conferences. Boards and committees whose members know one another well might agree that the quality of their decision making won’t be compromised significantly by convening meetings via the telephone lines. Although conference calls may reduce the number of in-person meetings, they still require planning, detailed advance materials, a strong chair, and an agreed-upon protocol.

Virtual communities. Your organization can connect with people online no matter where they live. Through online chats, discussion boards, and e-mail forums, you can stay in touch with donors or other constituents who may have moved away from your service area but still want to feel a part of the organization.

Electronic hoard hooks. The large mailing envelope, stuffed with minutes, financial reports, and committee updates, is a thing of the past. An e-mail to board members can contain an attachment of all materials relevant to the upcoming meeting or the organization can establish a board home page on its Web site. Board members download and review the relevant documents on their own schedule.

Intranets. These internal, password-protected networks, only for employees or board members, offer an efficient means of communicating information and sharing documents. They can be used to archive minutes or post discussion papers in preparation for the next board meeting, thus cutting down printing and mailing costs. Board members can post messages for one another between meetings.

E’lists. The chair or chief executive can use an e-list to test ideas and options several weeks before a meeting. Having this advance dialogue can lead to improved, shorter discussion at the meeting itself and can be used to solicit feedback from board members who may be unable to attend the meeting. The drawback is that it can become cumbersome, even confusing, to track conversations via e-mail. In addition, comments can be subject to misinterpretation when removed from their face-to-face context because board members are unable to read one another’s body language or facial expressions.

Online surveys. Although their statistical validity is sometimes questionable, Web-based surveys can provide snapshots of what constituents are thinking. That input can be helpful when a quick decision is needed.

E-mail newsletters. These short communications usually no more than four or five paragraphs in length can keep board and committee members abreast of breaking news in the organization. They may also carry links to content on the organization’s Web site.

Online voting. Depending on the state, some board business can be conducted online. Most states, however, have not yet adopted statutes that permit organizations to conduct board elections via the Internet, except maybe in formal membership organizations. If you allow voting electronically, use professional software that ensures accurate and legal rules to be respected. Set up a structured way to verify the person’s identity perhaps through a password and to ensure that each person votes only once. Only under rare occasions should a self-perpetuating board carry on elections or other voting electronically.

As useful as technology is for governance, heed these cautions:

Technology is not foolproof. Just when you want to depend on it, it may not work.

Not everyone is skilled at using the Internet. Be prepared to train board members.

Some advanced applications are expensive and require staff support.

Using technology still can turn off some board members.

Words on the computer screen in e-mail or chat rooms often are interpreted differently from the spoken word.

Privacy is important on some issues. Be wary of hackers, and remind board members not to forward e-mail messages and materials that may contain confidential information intended for their eyes only.

Technology should enhance the process, not replace face-to-face interaction.

SUQQESTED ACTION STEPS

1. Board members, try multiple technologies with one of your committees. Send an e-mail directing them to your Web site for a proposal. Invite committee members to make their comments in a chat-room format for two weeks, and then schedule a telephone conference to reach consensus.

2. Board chair, assign interested board members and staff to a task force that meets with experts and reports to the board on potential uses of technology.