What Credit Union Directors Should Look for in a Board Portal

by Kevin Smith, TEAM Resources

Recently I had the opportunity to spend some time with a 100+ credit union board members and volunteers thanks to Terri Murphy and the New York Credit Union Association. During a discussion of best practices the use of board portals came up and there were quite a few questions. So I thought this might be a good opportunity to relay those questions along with the “wisdom of the room” that came together.

First, let me say, I’m not exactly an expert at this technology. But over the years I have reviewed quite a number of the products available out there as professional research. And at onepoint I was offered a job by one of the (clearly savvy) providers in the market. I do know many of the features, and the things that I like and don’t like. In fact, I’m a supervisory committee member with a Madison credit union using such technology. I have also gathered anecdotal information from a range of volunteers along the way. So take that for what it’s worth – a relevant and informed opinion that is not coming from a provider’s sales team.

Now, let’s define what we’re talking about before we get too far down the proverbial rabbit hole. By board portal, I’m referring to any electronic tool that a board might employ to provide electronic contact to colleagues or access to credit union and board related materials outside of the boardroom itself. This is sometimes a software-as-a-service (SaaS) product. Sometimes it is a feature built by the credit union’s IT team. They come with a dramatic range of features and at a dramatic range of price points, from free to thousands of dollars per year. Like anything else, this choice needs to fit the needs and budget of your organization and deserves adequate due diligence to make sure it will be a valuable asset. As we’ll see shortly, this is simply a tool for the board, but it is one that can have a big impact on how the board governs. So choose wisely young Padawan.

Typical base level features of a board portal:

  • Email or email access
  • Calendar
  • Storage of board documents
  • Reminders (text or calendar)
  • Administrative Access
  • Varying levels of access (i.e. management vs. board level)
  • Mobile access – be leery when this feature is advertised and test it carefully.

Features less common but that you may want to consider:

  • Secure Chat Function
  • Access/Oversight Information – Some portals let you know who has clicked on or opened documents within the portal. (i.e. have your directors done their homework?)
  • Real-time document collaboration – Think Google-docs, where you can work on a policy document, for example, in the portal and it will track changes and who is making updates.
  • Voting option – In some options you can hold official votes that are tracked and documented for the minutes, which goes beyond finding out who wants steak or shrimp, but rather allows you to get work done outside of the boardroom.
  • Calendars – I know I listed this above but some calendars are much more dynamic and feature laden than others allowing you to see when board members are available and when they are not.

A Word About Security

Since your portal software is storing and moving information related to a federally regulated financial services organization, and since there are issues of confidentiality at stake, security is of utmost importance. The provider should be able to answer any and all security issues, without mumbling or hesitating. In fact, one due diligence test I have for providers is based on how easy it is to find information about security on the marketing website. I like to see that “stuff” featured prominently, with easy to access data and information. The more forthcoming the company is about this issue, the more confidence I typically have that they have done their homework and invested in the proper protocols. But easy to find security information doesn’t let you off the hook for completing thorough due diligence. It’s just one less red flag.

Make sure you are asking about security issues and getting everything in writing. Here you should certainly have your IT department involved. If the salesperson needs to chase down the security information (i.e. doesn’t have it handy) or makes generic and vague statements about “great” security without backing it up, you need to press them on it. Don’t sidestep this.

Speaking of IT Department Involvement

Yes, you need to have your IT Department involved with this to a degree. But please, don’t let them drive the process or choose for you. Their “wants” are far different from the board’s. Make sure the board is making the choice based on what they want and need. The IT folks can be your consultants and make sure you don’t go down a bad path, but they are not the, um, deciders. It may be far too easy to give marching orders to the IT team and have them research the products for you and bring back three viable options. I’d caution you about this route (no offense to the IT peeps). This needs to function for the board.

Test Drive

You’d never buy a car without test-driving it. Don’t even think about purchasing this software without giving it a run, and if possible having ALL of your directors give it a try under real-world conditions. Just watching a demo from a skilled salesperson does not count as test-driving.

Do your testing on multiple devices. Most of these software options will tout the fact that they work on computers, tablets, phones, etc. But you need to actually try these out. Just because it technically “functions” on your phone doesn’t mean it will be an experience that is any more than tolerable. Most directors I know these days, love their iPads and prefer to do their work there. Make sure the portal is easy to use there. I’ve seen some portal options that are designed for a PC, but will work on an iPad. The trouble is that it’s not optimal on the iPad. The icons are small and hard to tap on the screen, the interface looks like it’s on a PC screen. And I’ve heard the phrase, “let me show you the workaround for the iPad.” That, my friends, is a red-flag phrase. Make sure it’s actually easy to use, not something to “suffer through” several times a month. This scenario is something that makes governing the CU more difficult. Let’s not understate that. More on that later.

Understand the Learning Curve

This software can change how your board governs. No … really. That’s a tall order. With that in mind, understand that there will be a learning curve. Prepare yourself for it and prepare your colleagues for it. Don’t take any easy ways out on this. It will be worth it if you find the right product and invest not just the money but the time to get the most you can out of it. When the salesperson says you can pick this up in a few minutes or an hour, and that’s it’s very “intuitive” be leery and start asking questions. There may be a few features that you can pick up quickly, but that may be a sign that the tool is to simple for your needs. Fully integrating portal use by the board is a cultural issue, and those don’t happen quickly. This isn’t about how quickly you can find and open a PDF. This is about how your board adopts this tool as a cultural norm that helps it to govern at a higher level of efficiency. It may take months to incorporate this at this high level. Don’t let that scare you off.

This is a GOVERNANCE Tool (I’m aware I’m repeating myself.)

Used thoughtfully, a good portal product can change the governing and cultural tone of your whole board … if everyone takes the task seriously and gives it the thought and effort it requires. I’m here to tell you that it’s absolutely worth it if you do. If you treat this as a way to get email and move PDFs around, then that’s what you’ll have. If you treat this as a way to govern more efficiently and to make the board’s work more dynamic, then that’s what you can have. Implementation on this is key and requires the right discussions and expectations up front. Don’t settle!

You may need to be the champion for doing this right and push the holdouts who don’t want to change. Do it!

Okay … this went on a little longer than I was expecting it to. And there are a few things that need more elaboration. I’d be happy to hear from you. Just comment or ask a question below and we’ll have a discussion. Remember, I don’t sell this software, nor am I connected to any company that does. I don’t endorse anyone. I just want to help.

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