Online collaboration tools for nonprofit board members

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Nonprofit organizations do better when their board members and staff collaborate effectively. One of the board's biggest responsibilities is strategic planning. In most nonprofits, creating the annual strategic plan is a very time-consuming (and painful) process. It starts with a face-to-face meeting, then dozens of emails with document drafts, revisions and comments start flying around. Phone calls and meetings multiply unheeded. An unlucky soul who has volunteered to put everything together would spend hours comparing pages and sentences between different versions. As you can imagine, this whole process could take up months!

Today, new online collaboration tools are changing the way nonprofit boards work and communicate. They are being used by nonprofits to improve communications, participation and documentation. While there are a number of tools that board members can use to collaborate, in this post I have decided to provide a hands-on example of using one particular tool - Google Documents and Spreadsheets.

From my experience, I think that Google Docs is one of the best collaboration tools out there. It is free, powerful and has unlimited storage. It presents a unique way to collaborate and share documents in real time.

Getting started

1. Sign up for a Google Account

In order to use Google Docs, you must have a Google Account. Signing up is fast and you'll only have to do it once. Sign up for a Google Account here. You will also need to create an account for each member of your board with whom want to collaborate.

2. Create a new document

The next thing you’ll want to do is to create a new document, which will eventually morph into your shiny new strategic plan. You can easily create one by clicking on New Document and a blank document window will open. You can either begin writing or you can upload an existing Microsoft document (using last year's document or at least its table of contents is a good start - at least as a reference). If you have a really big strategic plan, create a separate document for each section.

3. Share your documents

Sharing the document is easy. Click on Collaborate and enter the e-mail addresses of the people you want to collaborate with (these e-mails should correspond to Google accounts of your board members). Each member will receive an e-mail with a link to the document.

4. Revise, edit and collaborate

Now the coolest part - invite everyone to start working on the plan! You will start typing up something, go away to have a cup of coffee, and when you come back you will see that the screen has automatically refreshed and the document now has comments from a couple other people on the board! And if someone edits the document at the very same moment you look at the screen - you will see a notice about that so you can wait for him to finish so that you would not introduce conflicting changes. All edits are saved automatically, every few minutes - and you can initiate a manual save at any moment. Google Docs has a good revisions tracker that helps for tracking changes introduced by all the contributors. It also works in the same way as the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word, except that it's in real time.

5. Communicate in real time

You can also communicate in real time using instant messaging and even talk while editing. Google Docs is integrated wth Google Talk - a chat and voice-over-IP tool that will show you when another collaborator (board member) logs in so you can talk and send instant messages while editing the document.

Managing your strategic planning project

While it is easy to get a Google document up and running, the real benefit comes from having each board member continually update and use it. Here are some tips to help ensure that your strategic plan is managed properly.

  • Train your board members - Set up informal training sessions and show your board members some basics for using Google Docs.
  • Keep track of progress - Monitor progress and follow up with members on any outstanding questions or tasks that might have been missed. (Consider using a companion product - Google Spreadsheet - as a very convenient way to keep a list of open issues, assign responsibilities and track status.)
  • Keep the content organized - Invest time in updating the project and adding all related information for easy access.

If you have any other ideas or suggestions on how board members can use Google Docs - or other similar online collaboration tools - please share your comments with us. We'd love to hear from you!

Soha El-Borno (aka Creative Apricot) is a writer for the Wild Apricot Blog. She writes about web technology and social media tools for nonprofits - charities, associations, clubs and other organizations.

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