NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference 2012 Roundup

Two of our FLiP staff members Grace Spangler and Irene Kelly, attended this year’s NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference in San Francisco on April 2-4. They discuss their reactions and major takeaways from the conference below:

Grace: Well, it’s been a little over a month since we left NTC 2012 in San Francisco, and I am still working on processing what I learned there.

Irene: Me too. There was so much! I usually leave conferences with only a few takeaways, but I left this one with so many ideas for our clients. How many sessions did you end up going to?

Grace: I went to seven total. It really was great to be surrounded by people from all walks of the nonprofit sector, you know?

Irene: It was. There were so many people there from all types of organizations. I was even more impressed by the variety of titles there; Leadership, IT, marketing, fundraising and the list goes on! It was definitely more than just “tech” people. Maybe we’re all becoming techies!

Grace: Oh absolutely. I am an aspiring techie at best, and I felt right at home.

Irene: It’s incredible that so many organizations made the Nonprofit Technology Conference a priority for all levels and titles. It shows how many organizations are evolving into the digital age.

Grace: Definitely. I also found it interesting to hear what strategies were working well for organizations of all sizes, but also which weren’t. It was an opportunity for members of digital teams to vent a bit, and to help solve each others problems in the process.

Irene: What types of problems were most people having?

Grace: Some concerns about how to integrate the ideas and innovations that come out of a conference like this. I heard a lot of conversations about how to make technology a part of the “culture” of an organization.

Irene: I heard a lot of that, too. A common question in every session I attended was “This information is great, but how do I get buy in from leadership or manage the leadership’s excitement and expectations?”

Grace: And what was the response?

Irene: It seems that organizations fell into two categories: (1) lack of buy-in from leadership around the digital world, or (2) extreme enthusiasm from the leadership around the digital space (this one seems like the ideal, but I heard many managers say it led to being pulled in many directions and led to distraction). It doesn’t seem like there are many organizations there that have found the perfect balance yet

Grace: I mean, that also makes sense, with the landscape changing so frequently and rapidly but it also helps you see the value in getting a group like this together.

Irene: Definitely — which is why it’s exciting to see so much representation from leadership there.

Grace: Many of my sessions were focused around technology as it relates to fundraising, so there was also a lot of conversation around how to have fundraisers and communications teams work with program staff to work together with new platforms.

Irene: How did they suggest that these teams collaborate?

Grace: Well, it varied by the size and scope of the organization. Suggestions ranged from having bi-weekly brownbag lunches to discuss new social media platforms to having program staff generate content for platforms by using a flipcam or iphone to film the work that they are already doing.

There was also a great session on content curation that emphasized the ways sites like Pinterest can help maximize efficiencies for organizations of all sizes, both internally and externally.

Irene: Great ideas. One suggestion I heard was to send out bi-weekly reports that track the “essential” data on your platforms (taken from Google Analytics, Facebook Insights, etc.). The data in these reports should show your progress towards achieving goals that were originally set for the website and other digital properties.

Goals were a major discussion point in many of my sessions. Every digital property should have goals around them. These goals should include not only the organizations goals, but also the audience’s goals. If a user isn’t getting what they want out of an organization’s digital properties, then he/she isn’t going to interact with them.

Grace: Agreed.

Irene: This was a common answer in sessions where managers asked about how to manage enthusiasm at their organization, too. When someone in leadership asks why the organization wasn’t doing something new in the digital space, a manager can present the goals that were previously set forth to illustrate why that new technology won’t align with the goals for the organization’s digital properties.

Grace: I think that was one of the biggest takeaways from my conversations throughout the week. It’s all about alignment and integration. The best applications of new technologies are those that enhance the work that’s already being done by an organization, not just because it’s shiny and new.

Irene: Absolutely. Everything should work towards a goal.

Irene: I think in the “Story of Stuff” presentation, we saw real integration and alignment in action. Annie Leonard, the co-director of The Story of Stuff Project, shared her “offline” strategy for engaging people and this was well reflected and well aligned in their digital strategy as presented by Christina Samala, the Director of Online Strategy & Media for The Story of Stuff Project.

Grace: I completely agree. And I’m a great little case study on that. I found the Story of Stuff Facebook page right after her talk, and have been sharing articles and updates with friends of mine since then. They have done a great job taking something that started as a lecture series and launching it with great success on social media platforms. She’s reaching an audience she never thought possible, all while generating the same content she always had.

Irene: She’s also using the same basic strategies online as she was using offline — strategies like: keep the message simple, don’t talk down to your audience, don’t talk about yourself all the time, etc. These are all points we learn in fundraising when interacting with a donor in person; why would it not carry over online?

With that said, I think it’s a lot more difficult than it seems. It’s like having a donor with you (in person) all the time.

Grace: Right, and that’s where the curation piece comes in.

Irene: What did you think of the Nonprofits and Innovation panel? It was pretty controversial.

Grace: I thought it was really interesting; I liked the idea that nonprofits have as much right to innovation as for profit organizations and that making room for innovation is just as important for nonprofits, maybe even more so.

Irene: I was struck by the discussion of how it’s a high risk/high reward scenario. As you said, Innovation is extremely important for nonprofits, but they also have a lot more to lose. Beyond losing funders, their risks will impact and could hurt the community they’re trying to help.

Grace: It’s the same story that’s been told again and again in the private sector over the past 20 or so years, but the stakes are so much higher from nonprofits. There’s a lot more to lose than profit margins when you are talking about human service organizations, or healthcare, or education.

Irene: Definitely. Brian Reich (who we interviewed back in October) mentioned that this fear of potential failure leads to a culture of iterations instead of innovation. Nonprofits will keep improving on the last model instead of reworking the problem and creating an innovative new model.

Do you think some of the organizations there will accept his challenge to nonprofits to give up fundraising for 30 days and come up with solutions to the problems they’re trying to solve?

Grace:  Well, judging by the reactions of people in the room, there are a lot of people who are adamantly against the idea, but I think it would be an interesting exercise.

Irene: It would be and it could potentially bring some incredible results. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s realistic.

Grace: And I think a lot of the audience agreed with you.

Irene: I loved Meg Garlinghouse’s idea of next year’s panel featuring nonprofit leaders that tried something new and failed in the last year. It would be interesting to hear what they tried and learned.

It would also help the rest of the community feel a bit more comfortable with the idea of failure.

Grace: Yes! Exactly. Presenting concrete ideas that have happened would make risk-taking less scary for nonprofits.

Grace: What was your biggest takeaway from the whole week?

Irene: My biggest takeaway, in terms of nonprofit strategy, was that it’s important to have digital staff at high levels in the organization, if not at the c-level. Having someone at this level allows the organization to fully integrate a digital strategy into the organization’s overall goals. A thought out, well-planned digital strategy also means less “shiny object syndrome” from staff and leadership, alike. It’s important that organizations think of digital less like a toy and more like a tool. Organizations need a staff person that is experienced with this tool and can create strategies around it.

Irene: Tactically, I’m not sure I could pick just one major takeaway! Sending a bi-weekly dashboard (with major analytics related to goals) to staff and leadership was a great idea, though.

Irene: How about you? What was your biggest takeaway?

Grace: I think the biggest thread throughout the week for me was the importance of “demystifying” technology for your organization. The first step is thinking about digital integration in a realistic way, ensuring that you have the funding and the staff in place to allow it to succeed and then working toward making it a part of the culture of your organization, to avoid that “shiny object syndrome” that you mentioned.

Grace: But mostly, I just can’t wait till next year.

Irene: Agreed! NTC 2013 in Minneapolis will be a blast!

Read FLiP’s immediate reactions to the various sessions on our Twitter Page, twitter.com/networkflip.

Changing Our World is a proud sponsor of NTEN. For more information on NTEN and its members, or to register early for next year’s conference, please visit www.nten.org.

Are you a nonprofit interested in learning more about how to develop your digital philanthropy strategy?  Changing Our World’s innovative digital practice helps nonprofits develop and implement digital strategies that increase revenue and impact. Follow us @fundraiseonline or contact us here, we’d love to hear from you.


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