Forget The Status Quo: Final Thoughts On NTC 2014

Technology won’t fix the problems your nonprofit is trying to solve. It will enable your people to tackle those problems in new ways that might be much more efficient than your old ways.

This was one of the themes prevalent in discussions during the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference (#2014NTC), last week sponsored by the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN).

A large food bank leader explained that he’s trying to use technology to enable his food suppliers to work directly with the soup kitchens and others who use the food. This is leading to more direct deliveries, bypassing the food band completely in some cases.

“If we can get out of the business of moving food around, we can focus more on the business of finding fresh food and getting it to the people who need it,” he said. Mobile GIS-based tools (which is a part of every smartphone) and better communication networks will make this possible.

You can imagine both the potential leverage and the cultural upheaval in this kind of thinking. This is why many of the young nonprofit techies who attended NTC are frustrated at their inability to be heard within the management of their organization, and eager to “drag the organization” (their words) into the future (not just the technological future).

People know how to solve their problems better than nonprofits know how to solve those people’s problems, said Saturday’s keynote speaker Willa Seldon of The Bridgespan Group. We need to ask our constituents for their input, not just push top-down strategies. (By 2016, getting a 4-star rating from Charity Navigator will require such feedback) [Link to http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=1507#.Uyl5-9hOU6s ]

We’re using technology to do what we’ve always done, but to do it more efficiently. Let’s use technology to empower people to do what we’ve never done before, especially empowering our constituents to be more self-determining.

Seldon twice interrupted her presentation to encourage those in the audience to share thoughts on a particular topic for one minute… and they did. Other challenges to our status quo that she left us include:

  • What beliefs and practices about expertise must I abandon or shift?
  • How am I sharing my power and the power of my organizations with our constituents?
  • Is my organization’s use of technology enabling people to become agents of their own change?

One reason NTC delivers such broadminded thinking is that its audience comes from a wide range of the nonprofit world. Some   21 nations were represented in the attendee list, and interestingly, there were more from Asia and Africa than from Europe.

Some examples of NTEN’s focus on its members and their diversity:

  • The registration data was analyzed and, by Saturday morning, the leaders were able to show the top five furthest distances people traveled to get to NTC. They included Australia (Perth & Sydney), New Zealand, Nepal and Kenya.
  • “Nerd t-shirts” (the most popular take-home from the conference) were given to active NTEN members for snarky “Most likely to” awards such as: “Be on every committee and remind you when the next meeting is.”  or “…fix all your systems, make your conference call feel fun, and then go sing Karaoke in German.

If you want your paradigms challenged, if not tumbled completely, you don’t have to wait for #2015NTC. NTEN announced a second, smaller conference will be held in September.