A Consumer’s Guide to Grants Management Software
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Electronic Board Books – The Future is Here
I can see a little light at the end of the tunnel as I grab the last of the foundation board books for distribution. Crossing my fingers that I captured all of the many docket changes before tomorrow’s board meeting, I turn to leave my office and a single sheet of paper catches my eye. Simultaneously the blood drains from my face. It is the last page of the third grant request up for approval. I know I made ten copies of everything. I know I’ve just assembled ten books. There should be no extra anything.
That light I thought I saw disappears into the darkness of the tunnel. Which book is missing this single sheet? I hold my breath as I start flipping through the first book and pray that it belongs in one of the copies in my hand and not one of those already on its way to a director.
I’d love to say this rarely happens, but I can’t. With all the last minute changes to board books, this is basically standard operating procedure. I’d love to say once faced with this problem, it is easy to remedy; but it may not be. It may involve recalling a courier or sending a second courier to ensure the director has the current version of the board book by the following morning, less than one business day away. I’d love to say this will never happen again, and maybe I can. At least, several vendors are promising I can.
Vendors of electronic board book technology have been around for more than ten years, offering foundations and corporate boards the option of reviewing board materials by computer. Some progressive organizations took the chance to “green” up their carbon footprint by allowing their board members to view their once hefty board books on their computers. However, for most grantmakers, saving a tree or two has not proven to be a successful persuader over the convenience and professional appearance of a printed book.
But the Apple® iPad and similar new products are proving to be a game changer, making electronic board books a viable business solution for all boards. As my foundation has chosen to move in that direction, I’ll share with you our research on this journey. First, some caveats - we only considered electronic board book vendors with current iPad applications. We looked at the vendor products noting the features they offer that make them the industry leaders. My research focused on BoardEffect®, BOARDVantage, BoardLink, brainloop, and Diligent Boardbooks®.
All Electronic Board Books are Created Equal
All posturing and swagger aside, most vendors offer similar basic features. Among those are immediate update and distribution of board books, web access to board materials, and storage of archived information. Many vendors offer a dashboard framework that resembles a SharePoint landing page. This familiar appearance adds to ease of use, another very important feature. I’ll share some of the more useful universal features we discovered.
The first of the universal features is Internet access to board materials. In this current cloud computing frenzy, the vendors that survive must provide true web-based applications. All of the features and functionality must be accessible while running a standard web browser on an ordinary PC or Macintosh. Most require no additional software other than Adobe Reader, making them convenient and easy to use. Like many of its competitors, BOARDVantage has been providing board portal services for ten years. It has perfected the technology, ensuring access wherever there is Internet connectivity.
The second common feature promised is reduced production time and effort. Our board books are usually a compilation of reports and reviews collected from various contributors and saved in files. Most electronic board books allow you to drag and drop those files from your computer into the vendor application folder or equivalent. BOARDVantage allows you to drag and drop the entire folder creating an agenda based on the order of the files in the folder. Each agenda item can hyperlink to its document in the book. When you need to alter the order of the agenda items, edits are as easy as changing the order of files in the application folder. The agenda tabs adjust themselves to the new order, and the hyperlinks follow.
As the book is being created, only those with administrator access can view it. It is made public only when the “final” version is approved. With the click of a button, the completed board book is pushed out to all board members. They are notified by text, email, or instant message – you decide. When a board member logs into the app, the book will download. Old books are immediately replaced with the current book. For those of us who have compiled many board books, we know the last “final” version may roll out the day before the board meeting. “Love” used to make my heart beat faster, but now it is the ability to instantly update all board books.
If last minute changes are needed you can exchange the old file with an updated one. The text, email, or instant message is resent. The next time the board member logs into the iPad app, the update is automatically pushed out. Note that TPDF-based products will take longer to load, but that depends upon the size of your book. The Diligent Boardbooks® product loads one page at a time allowing readers to begin viewing the document as it loads, giving it a slight leg up on the competition.
Our funder, Georgia Power, adopted this technology for the corporate board earlier this year, signing up with BOARDVantage. Each board member was given an iPad with the app loaded. BOARDVantage provided one-on-one training for each board member and administrative user. Training for board members was 30 minutes or less, depending on a director’s comfort with the technology; administrators’ training took a little longer. All of the vendors offer training, either in person or by webinar. While board members with gadget propensities became familiar with their iPad, others put their iPads away until the board meeting. The training proved to be sufficient to run the meeting smoothly. Forgotten passwords were the biggest problem. The BOARDVantage representative providing onsite support at the first meeting was able to reset passwords as needed (some vendors allow the dedicated administrator to reset forgotten passwords).
Leaders of the Pack
Those vendors that are pulling ahead and proving to be industry standouts offer iPad applications, offline access to board book materials, handwritten note taking ability, stellar 24/7 customer support, and secure data and encryption.
The first must-have feature for us is a functioning iPad application. The release of the Apple® iPad has revolutionized many business practices. The demand for immediate and constant access to business materials is fulfilled in this sleek one-pound package. We want our board members to enjoy the iPad functionality – finger swiping, expanding, tapping – that comes with an iPad app. These traveling members are more likely to carry their iPad along than their cumbersome board books. Marc Daniels of Diligent said all of his new 2011 clients have interest exclusively in the iPad application. BOARDVantage has added many more customer service agents to tend to its explosive iPad business. And let’s be honest; iPads look cool. Businesses are finding ways to use them. Board use has been a perfect fit.
Another feature--the “briefcase”--allows the user to access the entire board book offline by downloading the book to a virtual briefcase. This eliminates the need to create several printed board books “just in case.” This download is an extra step that is well worth the effort. Using the downloaded book during the meeting gives an added level of comfort without losing any iPad functionality. The frustration of losing Internet connectivity during a meeting would turn to panic should your entire book disappear as well. Moreover, Board members must be able to access their books on planes and in the boardroom with equal success. Vendors that perfect this feature move to the head of the pack.
As many directors are of a less technical generation, responsive customer service is vital. One company, Diligent, has customer service offices in New Zealand, London, and New York, and offers 24/7 technical support. Sharon O’Connor of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City has had nothing but positive experiences with Diligent customer service, stating “I have contacted Diligent customer support on national holidays, late in the evening (after 9:00 pm), and literally all hours of the day and night. I have always been treated with a great deal of patience and my questions were answered." As an extension of our staff, this is the kind of customer service that is required.
The final deal-breaking feature is the top priority to our IT department: security and privacy of data. Many vendors offer data encryption, two-level user authentication, and complex passwords. Vendors back-up data to a physical facility offering 24-hour security, including closed circuit cameras, and back-up power sources. Most vendors undergo annual SAS70 Type II-level audits – an industry standard. The vendor that takes precautions above the norm, will take the lead in the electronic board book industry.
At the end of July, Diligent pulled a board portal coup — the ability to make handwritten notes. While “post-it” notes are available on most apps, Diligent Boardbooks® feature allows you to write your question or notes directly on the “page.” Board members can circle something questionable to discuss in the meeting. They can write a question in the margin as they go along. This most emulates the paper experience and will increase the product’s lead in this iPad-app rabbit race. While the absence of this feature isn’t a deal-breaker, its presence gives IT an advantage when all else is equal.
Although the final decision of the Foundation is pending, we have narrowed our selection to two vendors based on our needs. We’ve learned that while all electronic board books may be created equal, some have features that suit our needs better than others. We need a working iPad application, offline access to board materials, and a dependable and secure product. While this has been our journey, I hope you can apply this experience to your own work. I am convinced, based on our own individual needs, that there is an electronic board book out there for each of us. I hope this helps you find yours. No more forgotten pages. No more panic. The light at the end of the dark tunnel is the faint blue glow of the Apple® iPad.
A Consumer’s Guide to Grants Management Software
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