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Online collaboration tools for non-profit board members

Lori Halley 17 May 2007 11 comments


Non-profit organizations do better when their board members and staff collaborate effectively.  One of the board's biggest responsibilities is strategic planning. In most non-profits 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 non-profit 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 accounts for each member of your board who you want to collaborate with.

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 a last years' 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 email addresses of the people you want to collaborate with (these emails should correspond to Google accounts of your board members). Each member will receive an email 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 refereshed 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 automaticaly, 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. We will talk more about this in another post in more detail).
  • Keep the content organized -- Invest time in updating the project and adding all related information for easy access.
  • This article from Directorpoint also has some suggestions on strengthening collaboration between board members.

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! 

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Thursday, 17 May 2007 at 3:31 PM


  • Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Tuesday, 03 July 2007 at 6:14 AM

    Today marks a special day for the Wild Apricot team - it's a one year birthday for our product and our

  • Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Wednesday, 22 August 2007 at 7:35 AM

    Recently, I wrote about Google Spreadsheets for online collaboration and recently I stumbled upon DabbleDB

  • umar said:

    Wednesday, 12 September 2007 at 3:41 AM

    Thanks for this info.It really helped me in seeping deep into the workings of google docs and spread sheet.

    best of luck



  • Rose said:

    Sunday, 23 September 2007 at 5:46 AM

    Thanks, I really need to learn more about RSS

  • Derek said:

    Monday, 07 January 2008 at 6:20 AM

    Try the 5pm project management tool: http://www.5pmweb.com

    They offer 50% to non-profits.

  • Dirk said:

    Tuesday, 01 April 2008 at 1:27 PM

    A new tool for online meetings, sharing and collaboration is MyCommittee.com. Designed for non-profit organizations


    There is a free version (with a few limitations) but non-profits get a next level subscription bump-up if they contact the sales department.

  • Eric said:

    Sunday, 11 May 2008 at 4:25 AM

    I recommend checking 5pm - www.5pmweb.com. They offer 50% discount to non profits.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Sunday, 11 May 2008 at 8:50 AM

    @Derek and @Eric, I've been trying out the 5pm project management tool this weekend and it looks rather promising.

    @Dirk, those are some rather useful articles in the "Committee and Meetings Best Practices" section at MyCommittee.com, too. Thanks for the tip!

  • Jeremy said:

    Friday, 19 September 2008 at 11:11 AM

    Project Spaces is an easy to use online collaboration tool and extranet.  ProjectSpaces also features an API and can either be self-hosted or used as a software as a service.  Be sure to try the 30 day free trial!  http://www.projectspaces.com

  • Kevin said:

    Friday, 02 January 2009 at 4:12 AM

    We recently looked into www.boardeffect.com. It incorporates all of the features of Google Groups and already has a lot of the customization you'd want already incorporated. It also has some BoardSource policy examples already included.

    The negative is that it is relatively expensive, especially considering all of the free options out there. It can cost from $1500 - $8000 per year (no setup costs) to maintain.

  • Online Collaboration Software said:

    Monday, 10 October 2011 at 2:09 AM
    There are many benefits to using an Online Collaboration Software when you are working on projects with a team that is spread out across the world. Even if your entire team is in the same country it can be hard to meet up in person to discuss important details of any project. Here we will tell you a few of the benefits that an online collaboration software can offer you when you are working on medium or large projects with a large team. There are many more benefits than this but you will understand from these few things how greatly valuable this tool can be for your business.
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