Cloudy with a Chance of Efficient Collaboration: How Your Board Can Use the Cloud


A board of directors has a high degree of responsibility in any nonprofit organization. Directors are given the public trust to ensure the responsible use of tax-exempt resources, so timely access to information is critical to doing the best possible job. The challenge for most nonprofit organizations is how to best support the work of a diverse group of volunteers, all of whom have other commitments and few of whom can just show up at an office to review financials, contribute to a fundraising pitch or read through staff reports on program impacts.

Back in the day (y’know, like four years ago), nonprofit staff would diligently copy pieces of paper, spend $30 on postage, and ship out a board packet each month/quarter so the directors would have common information to read. The last couple of years have brought us new collaboration tools that really do bring with them the promise of the Great Paperless Office promised lo those many years ago. Not that you can’t have paper. Directors who want to have paper can certainly hit the “print” button like anyone else, but the amount of staff time needed to collate and process documents has been dramatically reduced.

This reduction is not the primary purpose of online collaboration, however. The real point—the real promise of these collaboration tools—is to enable directors to begin “pre-thinking” and sharing before they get together for their board meeting. Cloud-based sharing is different than just e-mailing a PDF to your board (how 2010!). Here’s how this can work now:

  1. Your organization picks a cloud platform and ensures that all necessary staff have access to post materials and that all directors have access to review, post and edit.
  2. Many of these services have versioning (ahh, the verbing of America!) so you can track changes over time. Encourage your directors to ask questions, add notes, highlight issues or otherwise mark up shared documents before the meeting begins. If anything gets seriously messed up, you can always back up to a point before those changes were implemented.
  3. Staff can review directors’ changes, and add or revise information early so that the meeting itself isn’t spent wondering about issues that can be resolved before any of these very busy people ever get into the same room.
  4. The pre-work of agreeing on all the facts and asking all the questions is done. Directors can now assemble for some great conversation about what to do based on the full data they themselves have contributed to before the meeting began. The cloud doesn’t replace their meetings; it just enhances them.

Moving board resources to the cloud also has the distinct advantage of letting new directors browse through past packets and conversations without having to reproduce lots of old paper or putting a burden on staff. With free (and near-free) storage in abundance, nonprofits never need fear the bulky three-ring binder that once made it difficult for directors to step up and provide oversight and vision. Access to more curated data may actually increase the usefulness of board collaboration and bring more value to its work.

Steve Boland lives at the intersection of community, policy and technology. He holds a Master of Nonprofit Management from Hamline University and is a regular contributor to Nonprofit Quarterly. He can be reached at

  • eryn kelly

    I love this idea, thanks for the article. This could be a creative way to incorporate the consent agenda and allow for more generative conversations during the board meeting and as a follow up!

  • Alan Arthur

    Good article, Steve. “The cloud” can definitely help, but even without the ability to make comments “within the cloud” it’s a very helpful practice to get questions in the door early. For exactly the reasons you state, Aeon’s board actually requires/promotes that board members ask their big questions BEFORE the board meeting, especially about monitoring report information. This allows staff (or the board chair, as applicable) to send out additional relevant information prior to the board meeting, or at least have additional info ready at the board meeting, so that the board doesn’t spend unnecessary time talking about the past. And THAT allows them to focus more time talking about the future, which is where they can and should have the greatest impact.
    Best Always,

  • Joyce Klemperer

    I kept looking for some discussion (if not specific information) on privacy and security. Google, for example, tends to treat your data as their data for many purposes. Before I would encourage a board to share data in the cloud, I’d want to be able to assure them that there are adequate protections for confidential and private information.

  • Lee Rose

    Our board meets less often, is more productive and everyone can access materials from anywhere at anytime thanks to a recently implemented cloud solution. There was some initial scepticism , but when people started seeing how simple it was to implement (and how much simpler their board work was going to be) it became an easy sell to both staff and board directors. Documents, logos, donor information, meeting minutes, all at your fingertips. The iPad has replaced the notepad for many of us. Feedback and ideas for budgets and grant proposals can be posted and shared without having to schedule committee meetings, leaving most of our precious little time together at board meetings for bigger picture and strategic conversations.

    For us the cloud is much more secure than the back up hard drive that was carted around or stored at the office.

    Lee Rose
    President – Ten Oaks Project

  • Doug Skinner

    To your point Joyce, different cloud vendors have different terms related to the ‘ownership’ of the data. Take Google and Microsoft for example: Most people throw their data into many cloud services unaware that they may be giving up their claim to the intellectual property rights. Many Board members of non-profits are OK with this arrangement. Alternatively, what if you are a digital content business person? Other cloud services with a product centric heritage, like Microsoft might be better, because they have a different posture about what they’ll do with the data which gets posted to their cloud, respecting your digital privacy rights. Google does a good job in my view of adding value and creating some compelling services in exchange for giving up some privacy aspects of the data. And they done well adhering to their ‘Do no harm’ belief, but their terms of use reveal that they (are) will mine the data they collect when you use their system. It’s a different philosophy than Microsoft. Something to be aware of . . .

  • Edie Patterson

    I agree the accessibility of information “ethereally” is important, but it can only be effective if the board members/staff with access are trained and willing to go that route. One board member without internet access and/or willingness to use the cloud will hamper the entire operation. In larger communities where board members are probably more sophisticated about the use of technology this is a great idea, but smaller orgs, with older board members who are “sot in their ways” are going to have a harder time making this transition. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be done-but done openly, with the right transition time and a recognition that there may be the need to do individual training.

  • Tierney Smith

    From what I’ve heard, using cloud tools with your board can be really powerful for collaboration. It can be quite a big change for many boards though, which is why I like this piece that one of our guest bloggers wrote for us on how they started using Google Docs with their board: Hopefully this will be helpful to other organizations wanting to make a similar shift :)

  • Steve Boland


    Thanks for the comments – sorry I missed them after the article was published. Not surprised to hear your board is doing some “pre-thinking” on the important issues. Great stuff!


  • Steve Sampson

    Great post. Getting a charitable endeavor rolling starts with good communication across all the stakeholders. Online collaboration tools obviously can pay big dividends. We tried about a dozen vendors in the collaboration workspace area, but settled on Centroy, mainly because it was very easy to use for those without technical skills and already had a lot of the features bundled in the core offering (things like document management, chat, discussions, video, calendar). I’m not the tech guy, but I am very much the planning guy, and stakeholder collaboration is a must-have. But unless it’s simply to use, all the other bells and whistles the technology guys push matter less if no one adopts. That’s the dirty little secret about most collab offerings, which disregard for the end-user experience. In theory collaboration can pay big dividends in terms of increased productivity and time-to-action; however, an important point missing here is that these tools need to be adopted in order to be useful, which means they need to be easy to use..Anyways, we’ve been pretty happy with Centroy. I’m not tied to them at all. Just a happy we finally settled on something everyone uses.