Aerial view of team sitting around a table
June 14, 2019
Dee Sicklesteel

Critic’s guide: 4 steps to choosing the best-fit board portal

Strategies to assess your needs, compare products, and ask the right questions

The way a board of directors carries out business sets an example for everyone else in the organization. This affects the culture and operations at all levels. According to the Harvard Business Review, boards play a significant role in establishing the “tone at the top.”

So what are the key traits of effective boards? Progressive recruitment and governance. Efficiency in how they communicate and operate. And a commitment to security of information. The right board meeting software is the backbone of fulfilling these functions. Board portals help to engage high-performance directors by providing convenient, confidential information access. Board portals streamline the process to prepare for meetings, and they improve timely ongoing communication between board members and executives to support quick decision making in increasingly competitive times.

Though the benefits of board technology are becoming widely known, with the number of options on the market, choosing board management software can seem daunting and complex. Maybe that’s why boards in North American are lagging behind when it comes to adopting this type of technology. According to a report by Forrester, only 32% of boards in North America use board portal software. This is the lowest usage rate in the world.

This means that the majority of boards in North America are not operating with the efficiency they could be and that they’re missing out on vital opportunities to attract and maintain the loyalty of board members who expect tech tools to communicate efficiently. Even worse, boards are leaving themselves open to devastating and costly cyberattacks.

4 step process

If your organization hasn’t already chosen board management software, this critic’s guide will help you to discover your best-fit board software, in a streamlined process with 4 simple steps:

  1. Assess your needs
  2. Compare products
  3. Ask the right questions
  4. Build a business case

Board meeting software is a powerful tool for running better meetings by securely and conveniently distributing briefings and reports to directors. Here are some other ways that adopting board portal software protects and benefits your organization.

Private and secure board conversations

Even with all the worrisome headlines about cyber attacks, boards of directors remain shockingly cavalier about their online security. The Forrester report found that roughly half of board directors are using their private email accounts for board-related communications.

This practice leaves organizations open to data leaks and breaches. There’s also the risk of losing essential board meeting materials if directors forget a password or can’t access their email account. And despite their less-than-secure email practices, the Forrester report found that 41% of board directors were “very concerned about their ability to secure their communications and data sharing.”

Board portal software allows directors to be confident that they are discussing confidential issues and reviewing documents in a secure online environment. Even if a director loses a device, the data can often be scrubbed remotely to eliminate hacker risk and he or she can easily access all their board meeting materials by logging into their board portal software on another device.

Efficient communication with convenient access to information

To run an efficient board meeting, it’s best that directors have a clear view of the relevant issues before they take a seat at the table. This requires both well prepared board briefing materials and convenient distribution, no matter where directors are located.

Board portals play a key role in giving directors timely access to board materials and last-minute updates. Timely and convenient access to documents in board software also supports business continuity, making it much easier to navigate a natural disaster, surprise CEO departure, or public relations crisis.

Collaboration and discussion, ahead of the board meeting

The most productive board meetings are the ones used for discussing materials or making decisions, instead of catching up on background information or rehashing old discussions.

You can make sure this happens by providing directors with a discussion tool to use for conversations before and in between meetings. Board members consistently report that they are more engaged in the strategic objectives of a board with access to board management software that “allows for document annotation, sharing, and transfer.”

Purpose-built board portal software versus the alternatives

If you have a board chair or executive who feels that email and shared access to file drives are sufficient for board communication, help them to understand that systems like Dropbox and SharePoint are considered secure, but they don’t offer enough familiar functionality or file download protection to safeguard confidential board information.

Dropbox’s encryption level may satisfy your IT department, but Dropbox files need to be downloaded, and when they are, you’ve lost control of the document. SharePoint and other in-house platforms have a similar problem. Even if documents are accessed in SharePoint, most board members don’t feel comfortable in a corporate file drive as non-employees, and it’s common that they will move files to non-secure locations.

When comparing options, remember that emailing board documents or sharing them on free editions of software like Dropbox or Google Drive poses real security risks. More sophisticated file-sharing solutions like SharePoint often frustrate directors who struggle to find the right materials within unfamiliar folder names and labelling conventions.

Let’s get started with a critical evaluation of the board portal software out there.

Team talking around a computer

Step 1: Assess your needs

Every organization is unique and so is the board. You can use a number of factors to define your specific needs. Rate the considerations below in order of importance – this will help you ask the right questions later in this process.

Efficiency and cost savings

Consider the potential cost savings for your organization. How much time does it take your board administrator to prepare board meeting packages? How dependant is the board on the assistance of your IT staff? The right board portal software reduces staff time and makes access to documents quick and easy. And because a board portal is a digital solution, the need for hard copies is virtually no more. This reduces expenses for paper, bulky binders, and courier services.

Data security taken seriously

A data security breach can be a devastating blow to your organization, from both a cost perspective and a reputational standpoint. Your board software should meet the highest security standards, including document and communications encryption with secure document storage. You need layers of advanced security to give you the power to control access, guarantee compliance, and remotely wipe lost or stolen devices.

Attracting next-generation leaders

As we usher in the next generation of leaders, boardrooms are quickly becoming occupied by the under-40 age group. These leaders are tech-savvy and they insist on immediacy, reliability, and data security. They expect collaborative technology and remote access to information 24/7.

Ability to make quick decisions

Quick decision making gives your organization an edge. Consider the advantages of board members having the ability to securely collaborate from anywhere in the world and vote using their mobile devices.

Business continuity in times of urgency

Successful organizations plan for the future. This means preparing for a situation that requires fast action. It can be a crisis – anything from a data breach to a natural disaster – or a merger. Board members need to communicate from wherever they are and they need the right technology in place to make access to information, communication, information sharing, and voting quick, easy, and secure.

Board engagement

On some boards, only two or three of the board members are consistently engaged. Most of their directors are missing the mark, likely due to gaps in how the board debates, communicates, frames conversations, votes, and runs board meetings.

Board transparency

Disclosure requirements continue to amp up and there’s a shift underway that the Harvard Business Review describes as transparent business leadership. External voices and views, including those of board directors, now must hold businesses to higher standards. It’s not enough to bravely trust that the CEO and board chair are sharing full information – you need to actively ensure that you are informed and be ready to ask the tough questions.

Board management software can play a significant role in ensuring transparency among directors. It includes features such as:

  • Centralized, one stop access to board documents
  • Automatic archive and audit trail
  • Convenient, equitable update alerts
  • Valid online voting
  • Assessment of director and board performance

To help you evaluate your needs, here’s a list of the top ranked benefits of board portals to consider:

  • Instant, same-time delivery of sensitive updates and document revisions to board members at any time, regardless of location
  • Centralized access to meeting materials, communications, policies, bylaws, and archives within a highly reliable, secure portal
  • Secure online note taking and collaborating for directors, with the option of a clean swipe of all communication once the board makes a decision
  • Increased efficiency to produce and distribute board books and other documents
  • Increased efficiency to schedule and reschedule meetings
  • Increased security, including protection for confidential documents, and built-in safeguards to prevent accidental email transmissions.

Step 2: Compare products

An analysis of Capterra reviews of board management software identifies the top things to look for when first selecting software or making a switch. These are the key factors to compare:

  • Ease of use
  • Overall features
  • Value
  • Support
  • Security

In the next section, we’ll drill in on these topics and on the essential questions to ask board portal providers. To help you track your evaluation, here are a few assessment tools for first time buyers and portal users considering a switch.

Portal comparison checklists

Want a product comparison checklist to guide your review? Here are 10 things to compare when evaluating a board portal:

  • Board administration and management
  • Director access and collaboration
  • Mobility and engagement convenience
  • Security
  • Getting started and adoption ease
  • Technology innovation
  • Reputation and service
  • Support
  • Affordability
  • Best overall fit

If you’re already using a board portal and you’re reassessing your choice, don’t forget to identify what’s working well with your current product. You’ll have a few more considerations that are more specific in addition to the items in the previous list. Pay especially close attention to these 5 criteria when doing a reassessment of your board portal:

  • Service – how is the response time when you phone or email for support? When you need help with new features or perhaps with year-end archiving, does the service team listen, understand your needs, and deliver the right assistance quickly?
  • Training – some providers focus on training administrators but lack learning tools and coaching for directors. Do all of your board members have continuous access to one-on-one coaching or to learning resources such as webinars, tip sheets, and videos?
  • Data security – all board portal providers are strong on basic security infrastructure. Does yours offer extra protections such as a choice of location where you host your data, or instant remote data scraping if a mobile phone or iPad is lost with the board portal app installed?
  • Pricing – you pay more, and you get more – that’s a common misconception for board portals. There is a risk of paying premium pricing for an equivalent product. Ask for comparable pricing from other vendors, including costs for training administrators and directors, set up fees for committees, use of mobile apps, and the number of board members included in the base pricing.
  • Product influence – think back a year or two – how have the needs you’ve expressed been factored into future product development? Does your portal provider do an annual survey or phone interview to ask about your evolving needs and satisfaction? They should.

Pen making checkmark

Step 3: Ask the right questions

Now that you’ve identified the core areas to evaluate when you reach out to board portal technology vendors, you need to ready yourself with the right questions to ask.

Questions should cover three general themes that apply to the needs of most organizations:

Gaining board efficiency in operations / communications

Your board portal should be designed to give your administrator confidence, shave days off the time it takes to compile material, and offer ease of use and the strongest security. Efficiency also incorporates ease of communication to best engage high-contributing directors, which means offering mobile tools so directors can keep track of meeting dates, board materials, and updates.

Training and support   

Efficiency is closely tied to the quality of support. Ongoing training for new directors should always be included as part of the pricing. You also want to ensure that the training has different types of resources, including one-on-one instruction. The software training program must accommodate all learning styles and comfort levels with technology.

Total cost of ownership  

Two main reasons to purchase a board portal are security and efficiency. Your total ROI will be tied to how well the details of your solution support these two areas on an ongoing basis – and how much they truly cost.

Most boards have similar goals: they want to streamline their meetings, cut down the work it takes for administrators to prepare for meetings, and find a way to connect with and communicate to all board members that keeps the best and brightest engaged and helps to attract them during recruitment.

Board portal software can help you accomplish these goals, but not all options on the market are created equally. You need to know the right questions to ask.

How easy is the software to use?

During a demo, ask yourself whether there’s a logical flow. Is the software user-friendly and intuitive? Does it work the way you work? Is your first impression “I get this,” and is the experience easy to follow?

How serious is the vendor about security risk?

Remember that a data breach can be a devastating blow to your organization from a reputational and cost perspective. How does the vendor guarantee secure storage of documents and board communication? What about the choice of location for data hosting and processes in emergencies? If a director loses a mobile device, can the data be deleted remotely?

Safeguarding data has never been more important. But not all board meeting management systems conform to the same standards.

How much do board administrators need to rely on the vendor for assistance?

Administrators should have self-serve features that let them carry out their functions, including setting up meetings, adding directors, uploading materials, adjusting license assignment, and pulling information for governance reporting – all without needing to contact the vendor.

What kind of training will I get?

Learning brand new software can be daunting, especially if this is the first board portal you’ve ever implemented. There are documents to upload, library folders to create, and features to master. Beyond the basic functions of the software, you want to make sure that you’re maximizing every feature to the benefit of your board.

How “supportive” is support?

What’s the response time? Does the vendor offer 24/7 availability? Where is the call centre located?

Is there ongoing training available, like webinars, and how does the vendor notify you about new product features?

Who answers the phone when I call for support?

Phoning for tech support and getting routed to a call centre, especially when you’re dealing with a time-sensitive issue like an upcoming board meeting, is extraordinarily frustrating. It’s even more frustrating when the person on the other end of the phone can’t even answer your question about the software.

Product pricing – are you seeing a demo of the premium version?

Some vendors offer tiered products and may give you a trial of the gold edition and a price pitch for bronze, or a “lite” version. Make sure your pricing reflects all the features you were shown.

It’s not uncommon for some board portal software companies to show you the deluxe package of their software during the demo, while quoting you a price that actually reflects their most basic offering. They strip away the features you found most valuable, saying you can’t access them unless you’re willing to pay more.

What are the extra fees and hidden costs?

Pricing should be transparent and not involve additional costs for things such as adding groups or committees, adding administrators, ongoing training for all levels of users, or mobile apps.

Product pricing is extremely important in order to truly weigh your potential ROI and make a solid argument when building your business case.

Will the fee structure change as your needs change?

The price of many board software options seems appealing during the demo, until you realize how it will change once you start adding administrators and committees, or you start using more data storage. The cost starts to balloon. Suddenly, the board portal you’re using is far more expensive than the product you tested and you have no idea how you got there.

When you adopt a board portal, what happens to all your existing data?

When you’ve decided to adopt a board portal, you need seamless migration of data from your current system to the new board software system. Ask for a demo on how this is done.  

Don’t just ask the vendors. Ask your peers.

Of course, organizations selling a product are going to rave about the technology they’ve created. You can get beyond the hype with these smart questions, but also do backdoor checks. Go back to the questions on this list and ask other organizations that use the same board portal you’re considering. How do they rate the ease of use and level of security? Does the vendor follow through on its promise of great service and support? Vendors who stand behind the performance of their products will also be happy to provide testimonials and references from their customers.

Young diverse group collaborating

Step 4: Build a business case

Board administrators usually don’t need to be convinced that they need a board portal. The time-saving tools for setting up board meetings alone give the technology instant appeal. Convincing busy executives to make the software purchase, however, can take some smart persuasion.

Building a business case can be a simple exercise that helps you frame your own thinking as well as convince others of your recommendation. The document doesn’t need to be long, and the process of writing it will give you confidence that you’ve made the right choice. Here are the five key elements:

Section 1 What you’re doing

In this section, state what you want to purchase. If there are other purchases for your board being considered internally, you can point out exactly what is in and out of scope for this recommendation. For example:

  • Goal: purchase board portal software to improve efficiency, security, and communication.
  • Out of scope: tablets for board members.

Section 2 Why you’re doing it

Here, you want to highlight the most pressing organizational problems being solved by the purchase. You might be purchasing a board portal to:

  • Reduce corporate data security risks
  • Save administrative time in preparing for and supporting board meetings
  • Meet governance requirements more efficiently
  • Support new director recruitment by using leading-edge tools
  • Support directors with easy mobile access to board documents while travelling
  • Eliminate costs from IT supporting external access to company material
  • Save costs from printing paper board materials

Section 3 – Costs

Costs should include up-front as well as ongoing expenses associated with the software. You should express pricing as an annual cost and include any explanations on pricing, such as billing schedule and price per user. Some additional costs to consider are:

  • Software setup costs
  • Software license costs
  • Training costs

Section 4 – Benefits

Highlight the benefits that you can measure, as well as the intangible outcomes that benefit the organization but are difficult to quantify:

Benefit: more efficient preparation of meeting materials and communication between meetings
Measurement: fewer staff and director hours for prep; fewer staff hours for between-meeting director assistance

Benefit: reduced security risks from downloaded corporate documents and email exchanges
Measurement: no data leaks via board

Benefit: more focused, efficient board meetings
Measurement: agenda items covered within target meeting length

Benefit: improved transparency and accountability
Measurement: same-time distribution of, and access to, all board materials

Benefit: increased board member engagement
Measurement: improved meeting attendance and preparation by directors (logged access to board documents in advance of meetings); intangible: board directors feel more respected and efficient (assess in board evaluation survey)

Benefit: improved recruitment for new board members
Measurement: intangible: monitor anecdotally by committee

Section 5 – ROI: costs today versus potential benefit

If you’re using email and file sharing tools already, you won’t have the paper cost of traditional board books for all your board members. You will, however, still have costs for administrative and technical support, as well as any printed booklets for board members who get frustrated trying to find what they need and ask for paper. You should also account for time spent by admin and IT on:

  • Chasing directors for signatures
  • Helping directors find the correct files and emails
  • Coordinating documents and communications for committees
  • Supporting external access to internal intranet or file systems
  • Supporting login issues and other help requests

A board portal can reduce administrative time spent on supporting board members as well as the need for IT support. Director and administrative questions on the board portal should be answered by software support teams.

Here’s an example of the type of calculator you might use – we’ve filled in the approximate savings your organization would experience with a board portal:

Current expenses Total current expense $ Approximate % savings with board portal software Annual savings $
(Admin time: hours per year) x ($ per hour) = 60%
(IT time: hours per year) x ($ per hour) = 100%
Hard costs: $ for paper, courier, etc., per year = 90%
Total =

Your total amount saved per year can then be compared to the cost of the software to determine ROI over five years. Subtract software costs from the estimated annual savings:

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Total
Estimated annual savings $
Software costs/year $
ROI: savings minus costs

Now that you’ve developed a solid business case, present it to your executive. It shows that you’ve done your homework and instills confidence in everyone that you’ve chosen software that’s a business advantage for the organization, justifying the investment.

White and blue stars

What’s next? Take a close look at Aprio

Whether you’re looking to make a switch or to adopting board portal software for the very first time, we invite you to consider Aprio board portal software. According to Capterra, Aprio is the trusted choice of credit unions, financial institutions, crown corporations, non-profits, and public companies across North America.

A long list of clients have adopted Aprio as their first-choice board meeting software.

Financial and credit unions – Aprio board portal software is the #1 choice of credit unions, small banks, and large financial institutions to run efficient meetings, effectively recruit and engage directors, and safeguard the financial information critical to their organizations.

Government – Aprio technology provides boards of government associations and crown corporations with the efficiency, data security, and transparency required to effectively manage a board and be accountable with public funding.

Education and non-profits – Aprio makes good governance simple and affordable for boards that spend very cautiously but highly value efficiency and transparency.

Corporations – Aprio provides industry-leading security for board information, streamlines board communication, and fosters better board meetings for businesses that value efficiency and transparency.

Health – Aprio provides the efficiency and security that is top of mind for health organizations as they work to stay ahead of compliance and governance regulations and run their boards in the most productive way possible.

Indigenous – Aprio makes good governance simple and affordable for boards that serve First Nation communities.

Let’s go back to the top factors identified by Capterra in Step 2, which is the list of things directors and administrators consider when choosing board meeting software. Here’s how Aprio delivers:

Ease of use

  • As a provider of modern software, we pride ourselves on ease of use. Compared to other board tools, Aprio is a breeze to learn for both board administrators and for directors.
  • We survey our clients annually for input on product enhancements and maintain an excellent score for simplicity and ease of use. Plus, we are set-up saviours – making it simple to migrate from other portals or in-house systems.
  • Ease of use appeals to the incoming cohort of next-generation leaders. By choosing the right board portal, you’re setting the stage for success now and in the future.

Overall features

  • Aprio helps organizations large and small efficiently run board meetings, keep directors up to date, and keep information secure.
  • Features we hear that set us apart include our automated agenda creator, administrator DIY tools to add or remove directors and committees, and reports to track board activity.
  • With Aprio, there are no “lite” versions of the product; all users have full features to work at maximum efficiency.

Value

  • Aprio’s full-featured board portal delivers premium features for all, without premium pricing.
  • We provide the complete functionality needed to save costs and time for boards through faster meeting set up and director prep, accelerated board decisions, and improved board recruitment and succession management. Our pricing includes adding committees, ongoing training, and our mobile apps.
  • Aprio’s board portal delivers premium features, including mobile and desktop versions, without premium pricing. We offer full visibility into different pricing levels. You automatically receive 12 user licenses with our base package, with the option to add additional users as your needs change. You only pay for the users you add.

Support

  • We stand out for personalized, practical training for directors and administrators. Plus, we have live 24/7 help for when board members need it, and our support reps are people who are masters of the system and experienced board administrators themselves.
  • Because it’s a tight-knit group of Aprio employees helping you out, you may even speak to the same person each time you call, ensuring continuity and solutions for your problems.
  • Aprio provides one-on-one training for both directors and board administrators. The training isn’t limited to the onboarding stage and is available when you need it as you explore different aspects of the portal. Regular webinars also help you master new features and maximize your use of the software.

Security

  • Aprio board portal software conforms to the highest security standards in the industry.
  • Aprio provides layers of advanced security and gives you the power to control access and guarantee compliance. If a device is lost or stolen, you can remotely wipe the data from the board portal app. Our international servers adhere to independent, third-party requirements for security certification.
  • Administrators have full control over access permissions for committees, sub-committees, and even individuals, so only those who need to see documents are able to do so.
  • Review this audit of Aprio security and find out how Aprio board portal software overcomes common cyber threats.

Earlier, we mentioned that level of support is closely tied to your efficiency. Aprio offers personalized training and assistance 24/7 from experienced board administrators for:

  • Portal setup – guidance on the best setup for efficiency
  • Admin training – one-on-one coaching for a board administrator’s “day in the life”
  • Data migration – as much help as you need porting your information
  • Director training and first meeting – one-on-one training in your portal and support during your first meeting.

Here are some real-life examples of organizations that made the switch to board meeting software. They chose Aprio.

“The ability to transmit large amounts of confidential data electronically has been a game-changer. We’re no longer constrained by file size limits or needing to encrypt. Our board portal software takes care of that.”
– Michelle Akers, director of governance and administration, Firstmark Credit Union (read the case study)

“With our board portal, I notice less confusion as directors prepared for the meeting. I used to get board members contacting me frustrated because logging in was difficult. They may have lost their password and there was no easy way to reset it. Or, they could login but how to find things wasn’t always clear.”
Ruth Shirley, CUES Executive Administrator and Board Liaison (read the case study)

“At the start of our board meetings, we’d have a dedicated IT support person come and assist directors and executives with getting logged into SharePoint on the iPads we provide. That’s when we discovered directors had not seen the board package in advance. Because our board package is large – it meant unprepared directors. SharePoint security was good but we needed that same security and more ease for directors. Now we have both.”
Louise Carlow, Island Health Board Liaison (read the case study)

Aprio makes it easy to:

  • Prepare for board meetings with time-saving features to prep board packages in hours rather than days and use calendar integrations to maximize scheduling efficiency
  • Review board materials by housing all documents securely in one location and allowing for review and collaboration from anywhere in the world
  • Run better meetings by simplifying communication, tracking, and reporting 
  • Keep everything secure with the best physical and cyber security

Aprio board portal software also improves transparency and board engagement, which leads to more progressive boards. Aprio increases efficiency, resulting in better board agendas and minutes. And the software ensures business continuity in times of urgency.

At Aprio, we routinely benchmark our software against the competition to be sure that our technology and support are the best in the industry, at the best price.

We pride ourselves on product innovation and we’re continually improving. Read about our cutting edge features like three-step annotations, making it easier to prep for meetings, and Aprio surveys, making board evaluation, CEO review, and quick voting easy.

Our mobile app also makes it easier than ever to review, communicate, and prepare for board meetings – anywhere, anytime. You can:

  • Participate in discussions
  • Access polls and surveys
  • Manage expenses
  • Easily view agendas while switching between meeting materials

Every organization is unique and so is its board. We would be glad to help you build a business case for the Aprio board of directors portal that’s tailored to the specific needs of your organization, whether you’re considering a switch or adopting board management software for the first time.

Get in touch. We look forward to showing you how to take your organization to the next level with Aprio.

Ready to learn more? Book an Aprio demo

Resources:

  1. Harvard Business Review, 2019. How to make sure your board sets a good example for your company. Retrieved from:https://hbr.org/2019/02/how-to-make-sure-your-board-sets-a-good-example-for-your-company.
  2. Forrester Consulting, 2018. The Directors’ Digital Divide: Boardroom Practices Aren’t Keeping Pace With Technology. Retrieved from: https://diligent.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2018/11/UK-Diligent-Global-Report-Forrester-Directors-Digital-Divide-Boardroom-Practices.pdf.
  3. Harvard Business Review, 2010. The Big Idea: Leadership in the Age of Transparency. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2010/04/the-big-idea-leadership-in-the-age-of-transparency.

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