There are many books and articles that instruct foundation chairs and CEO’s on how to conduct a successful board meeting. No one has written a book on what happens between board meetings and yet that is where some of the most productive time can take place. The challenge for our foundation is: “how to engage trustees and members in the activities of the foundation especially when board meetings are limited to just a few hours three times a year.?”
We realized that by asking this rhetorical question of ourselves we established one of the most fundamental issues when anyone considers navigating they way into the “social media” market which is flooded just too many choices. One must discern between applications that are simply fads and which can have serious applications to the field of philanthropy. So two of the most fundamental question for us to ask is, a. “What is something we would like to do, but can’t.” and b. “What media tools are available that can help us get to where we want to go?”
For the Nord Family Foundation, our challenges were – how to enhance communication among the board that lives in many geographic areas and has limited time to spend at meetings? How can we enhance knowledge-sharing among board members, and the larger community? How can all this be done on a reasonable budget?, and finally who will take control of the data management in input when our staff is so small?
We were in process of redoing our website, and I knew that ours could be a website that was more than an electronic version of what is readily available in paper. We also knew that we did not need to spend the typical $30,000 fee to pay for a web design. – which when you want to add features typically costs thousands of additional dollars. We made use of an open-source tool called Drupal which is a shell that supports and amazing array of two-way communication packages. We also know there is an active “drupal community” that are willing to help organizations construct websites and add applications tools at relatively low cost. With very little training, almost any approved person (staff and/or trustee) can add information to the website. The site supports not only text, but an ability to embed video, audio as well hyperlinks to related websites.
In short, our website contains both a public and a private component. The public side includes our website as well as an online application form. This form links to our in-house grants administration system Gifts for Windows. We include the contact information and links to websites for each of our grantees. The community can use a key-word search to find information about grantees who might be engaged in similar work. The community is encouraged to leave comments which are open to the public. We make use of this blogging tool to solicit ideas and input from the larger community. On the member’s side, which is private, all information relevant to the foundation is contained on the website. This includes all policy-related documents, members and trustee contact information. Each trustee and member has an assigned blog and can write about issues of interest to them that might related to the work of the foundation. Other members can leave comments on those blogs thereby creating a “conversation” about topics. Most interesting for us, is our board book is online. All grant requests for the docket are placed online. Trustees can read, and comment on each requests prior to the meeting. Other members are able to see those comments ahead of time. The board book includes an on-line voting tool that allows the trustee to register their vote on the staff recommendation as “approve” “disapprove” and “for discussion.” As each individual vote is cast, it is aggregated into a program that will allow the Board Chair to see ahead of time which g rants have unanimous approval, which need discussion and which are disapproved. Comments posted ahead of time will help inform discussion around the table. These votes are pre-voting. It is interesting to see how decisions made prior to the meeting can possibly change when the grant is discussed by the full board.
Not only does our online solution enhance the meeting, but it enhances the quality and quantity of communication among trustees between meetings.