Impressions of 2014 NTC: Going Home Smarter

Imagine an international nonprofit conference of luminaries — without neckties or expensive shoes or much grey hair. There was some pink and blue hair, but very little grey at last week at the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Washington, D.C., the annual conference of the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN).

The exhibit hall is called the “Science Fair,” where there are big technology firms like Blackbaud and Microsoft, Amazon and IBM, but also where there are tiny startups offering web-based services that are mashups of Skype and Facebook, and bragging that they have “four clients already.”

Of the eight conferences I regularly attend, it’s the only one where:

  • The average age is 20 years younger (even with me there);
  • Session rooms are regularly overcrowded, with people sitting on the floor in the aisles;
  • Where just about everyone takes notes on an iPad;
  • Whose attendance has increased from 600 to 2,200 during “these difficult economic times” and is expanding to create a second “annual” conference;
  • Where “networking receptions” are replaced by “progressive parties” moving from bar-to-bar;
  • With 1500 tweets about the conference (#14NTC) at the half-way mark, that have reached almost 3 million subscribers; and,
  • Where the most favorite door prize was a “Nerd” T-shirt.

The attendees are very heavily skewed towards nonprofit employees and not vendors to the industry, even though 150 firms were represented in the Science Fair. Among the nonprofits, there was disproportionately heavy attendance by small nonprofits. The National Association of (enter your favorite organ or disease here) is not represented here.

The Nonprofit Technology Conference employs a level of technical sophistication that is worth of its name, and far above that of most other conferences:

  • The attendee list isn’t printed – it’s published online, searchable by first name, last name, organization name, or email address;
  • Questions can be tweeted to the plenary session speakers from the audience; and,
  • Session evaluations are done via mobile device, not on paper.

Note to other conference organizers: not only are these technologies inexpensive, NTEN will probably let you use them for free if you ask nicely.

Small organizations didn’t just dominate the attendance; they’re also won awards. Today the Integrated Marketing Advisory Board (IMABgroup.net) awarded its third annual awards for excellence in integrated fundraising. One winner was the Montgomery, AL Food Bank, and another was “The Redwood,” a women’s shelter in Toronto.

Speaking of Toronto, attendees at a plenary session were asked to raise their hands if they or their organization are based outside the U.S. Dozens of hands were raised.

More thoughts from working the rooms:

  • Half the people with whom I spoke are attending their first NTC. One “outranked” me – this is his 10th.
  • There is at least as much philosophy discussed as there is technology; more often, the two are mixed in conversation;
  • The mood is upbeat. People who are working to solve some of society’s most desperate problems are positive about the future of the world.

There was much more “education” than “training” conducted. A new friend said, “When I would come back from the old XXX conference, I would have a list of 18 new tactics to start working on Monday morning. From this conference, I’m going to come home… smarter.”