If I Were Running A Company…The Nonprofit Tech Conference

This past week, I attended the NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference in Washington D.C. This was one of the most anticipated conferences I wanted to attend this year because I heard great things about last year’s conference in Atlanta, plus my friends were attending and/or presenting so I register and attend. This is what I got out of:

The Service

NTEN did a wonderful job before the conference to give every attendee a rundown on what to expect and deliver a wonderful site for attendees to set their schedule, see who is attending and setup meetings with other attendees. At the conference, NTEN staff and volunteers were what they are online: friendly and helpful. The people there were great and wish other conferences have a friendly and proactive approach. In addition, everyone got a copy of Dan Heath’s book,“Switch” which was very cool from NTEN and Dan Heath.

The Sessions

In my opinion, most of the sessions I attended were informative and intriguing. For most of the attendees, they likely had an agenda of going to sessions in their field (I will discuss this later). As for me, I was curious about the nonprofit tech sector since I had some previous nonprofit tech openings and really want to understand the language and mindset of the people. The most filled session I attended was the SEO session and deservingly so as the session was advanced and didn’t cut any corners. The most intriguing session I attended was the diversity panel where 1) it resonate me as a HR person and 2) it was the most provocative conversation on diversity I heard in a long time. The two focal points of the diversity session were Jason Corning (partially blind and deaf) and Terry Booth (who is self-described as the “Tech Munchkin”) and the most interesting comment I heard from the conference was from Roger Holt, to paraphrase him:

“Jason doesn’t need light and Terry has a chair, why do we, ‘normal people who walk and talk,’ need lights, chairs, and speakers.”

If that doesn’t make you think, I don’t know what will.

Also, I attended my first Beth Kanter session, which was very cool. Overall, the sessions I attended were great and thought-provoking.

The Speakers:

Friday’s keynote speaker, Dan Heath, was excellent and humorous with his presentation with memorable takeaways from “change is sparked by feeling, not information” and “if you want change, failure is part of the deal.” Dan challenges the audience of making a difference in our organization, even if the process might be a pain.

Saturday’s keynote speaker, Moira Quinn of NPR’s Tech Nation, discusses net neutrality and mentions that not everyone embraces technology. Moira later brought out Representative Donna Edwards to further discuss net neutrality. The main takeaway is that most legislators are not educated on net neutrality and need to be educated on the subjected.

Both speakers were relevant for the conference, hence a great reaction from the crowd. Great job from NTEN and the keynote speakers

The “Science Fair”

Let’s admit it; the Science Fair is the exhibitor expo just for nonprofits. To me, this was the underwhelming part of the conference as the majority of exhibitors were fundraising software or deal with fundraising. There were a few I find to be intriguing, but the exhibitors never stood out. I wish there was a more diverse group of exhibitors next year.

Events

NTC Ignite:

This was the first time I went to an Ignite event. The premise is the presenter has 20 slides, 15 seconds each slide and must be done in 5 minutes. After seeing the presentations, it would take me a long time to master it. I’m more of an improv person than setting a script, but I’m still impressed by the Ignite speakers and have more respect for them.

Progressive Happy Hour:

I wanted to bar hop, but heard some of the bars were very crowded in the beginning, so I went to Grand Central for the Small Act Happy Hour and if you have The Princess Bride, Scoot Pilgrim vs. the World, and the NCAA Tournament, I am going to be there. Met a lot of old friends and create new relationships and chose a great party to attend. (Ahem)… Fine, I also won a gift card as well.

Two observations about the Nonprofit Tech Conference:

1. I overheard some at the conference and on Twitter about the majority of the sessions were lead by consultants and vendors and not nonprofiteer practitioners. This has been an issue for a long time in all conferences and I used to think they should have more “trench nonprofiteers” in the sessions, but with the changing job market, I would recommend sessions to have a consultant(s) and a nonprofiteer(s) to share the discussion on a topic. This would add multiple layers to the conversation that will satisfy most in attendance. I think the bigger question for NTEN is when they move up in the ladder in conferences. This year’s attendance was at 2008, which was 600 more than the previous year, and sixty percent of the attendees were newbies, plus the WiFi and 3G signals was all over the place. NTEN has to ask these questions:

  1. What is the percentage of attendees who are in tech, marketing, nonprofits, or other?
  2. If they expect attendance to go up, is it time to go to a bigger place like a convention center or be theIndependent Spirit Awards of tech? The latter might be tough to maintain.
  3. If it grows, how does NTEN maintain the “soul” of the conference?

That’s a good problem NTEN has, but one bad move to upset the masses and they could ruin potentially a great thing.

2. Executive Director of NTEN, Holly Ross, mention in her speech on Friday that nonprofit tech needs to “have a seat at the table.” So, we have human resources and nonprofit tech who want to be at the table. I’m guessing development, communications, programs, and even janitors want to be at the table. The point being everyone wants to be at the table, but you need to have business and people skills, willingness to learn, and some passion and knowledge to the industry/sector to be at the table.

This brings up an article I saw that China Gorman wrote on her memo to HR. She mentions that HR must have evidence and analytics to convince the CEO to head to the proper direction.  Interestingly, Dan Heath mentions that change comes from emotions. Are they both right? In China’s case, data is important, which is crucial in any sector. However, and some HR people might not like this answer, HR is reactionary when it comes to results; but in tech, they test something out and try to find something that works and become proactive in their approach. What tech has an advantage of HR is one word: disruption. HR contributes to the sector, but tech are the game changers since they’re looking for new ways to change the sector. It’s not a bad thing about contributing to a sector like HR, but if you find something that can blow the lid open in your sector, you take the risk. This is why tech will have an advantage because of their liberal attitude and strong knowledge to the sector.

Conclusion

I have been in many conferences: most in my area in HR/Recruiting, some curious, and some just for fun. The Nonprofit Tech Conference is the best conference I ever attended not because of the sessions or the events happening around the conference. It was the people who are not only friendly at heart, but have the drive to help out in the nonprofit sector. This is the only conference that I can think of the merge an industry and profession woven together nicely. I wish Nonprofit HR or any other sector/profession had that and will soon down the line, but the nonprofit tech people get it.

Congratulations NTEN on mastering that.

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