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NTEN's Nonprofit Tech Conference
As one of MMT's two tech guys I usually only attend job-related tech conferences like the traveling conference DrupalCon, and local conferences Open Source Bridge and BarCamp. This year I decided to attend NTEN's Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) at the urging of a couple of fellow nonprofit geeks who found it a tremendously useful conference. It took place in early April, in San Francisco, always a wonderful city for a conference. I believe all 1,700 tickets were sold, so it was a sizable crowd.
It was very quickly clear to me that this conference was a better fit for those we serve, and for those tech folks who serve them, than for a philanthropic nonprofit like MMT. This still made it useful for me because we like to keep abreast of the needs of our partner nonprofits, but I was surprised to meet so many people from the philanthropic sector, and yet to see so little programming aimed at us or at conversations that break down misconceptions and barriers between nonprofits and philanthropy. That said, it looked like a great fit for most who would read this blog entry.
There were seven tracks of programming, Communications, Fundraising, IT Staff, Program, Leadership, Connect and Product Spotlight. Though it was not aimed at me, I checked a sampling of it out, and I had a host of conversations with other attendees and by and large heard good things. Further, the event seems to be more about networking than programming and there were a lot of opportunities for this, from breakfasts and lunches through evening events, while also helping folks set up casual meetings of folks around a common interest, both online and at the conference. There are few conferences who do the networking piece better, outside of Barcamp-style events. This was enhanced by the NTC Day of Service, a day where folks could work with Bay Area nonprofits to make a difference in local communities, a terrific idea and one I wish I'd had the chance to participate in.
The cost at the time I purchased my ticket was $399 and there were of course expenses for hotel and travel. The cheapest so-so hotel I found in touristy San Francisco cost about $200 for three days and was about a ten to fifteen minute walk from the conference through one of the seedier parts of town. Staying at the conference hotel was a steep $230 per night when you included San Francisco's collection of three different tourism taxes. Assuming one breakfast (two breakfasts were included with the con) and three dinners, maybe $40 more if you were careful. Airline tickets, extra bag charges and airport shuttle came to $350 for me. So, at a rough calculation, the cost of the conference would likely range from around $1,000 to $2,000 depending on the length and location of the stay.
Is it worth it? From the conversations I had, most said yes. Even most others from philanthropic groups as many of those I spoke to were with smaller organizations with fewer resources, or organizations that both raised and granted funds.
My main criticism of the conference would be that I found the NTC online schedule clunky, slow, hard to navigate and poorly designed, ironic for a tech conference.
Secondly, given that I several times heard folks talking about how aloof funders were while talking to my conversational and very non-aloof self, or how many folks cheer the comments in the second plenary that lumped us all into one basket, I think programming around bridging the gap between funder and fundee would have been a very useful addition. There needs to be more about understanding philanthropy and getting to meet real people from foundations, while dispelling some of the myths/misconceptions that might apply to some, but by no means apply to all. Certainly few of the criticisms I heard apply to MMT, and people need to know that there are philanthropic organizations like us as well. More than one foundation story needs to be told.
I find conferences that identify important topics and finding good speakers for them to result in better quality presentation than programming put together by accepting and rejecting talk proposals. Every tech conference I attend includes a couple of dreadfully boring talks, and this was no exception. Surveys help determine who poor speakers are... but the horse has already bolted. Some conferences help speakers by giving them handouts and even have sessions that help them be better. Some take it further by also training moderators and panelists. Not so much at NTC, but as I say, this is a broad failing of professional conferences that I hope will end.
In the same vein, I also thought there needed to be more panels and less slide-driven talks. Multiple speakers almost guarantee a richer, more detailed and more layered talk, with far less likelihood of misinformation or boredom.
NTC put a big emphasis on networking, both before the conference and at the conference, and they did it very well. I ended up meeting a lot of people and having a lot of conversations, much more so than normal for a conference. There was a sense of community and that is the mark of a better conference, for me personally.
They also had webinars beforehand on how to get the most out of the conference, something they did very well and that I wish more conferences would do. Very useful, though it could have used a complimentary article/blog post on the website.
It was also mostly very well run, on time and was well-put together by an experienced team. You can check out the 2012 NTC program schedule for a good idea of what was on offer.
NTEN is an organization doing a lot of fine work bridging the gap between the tech world and the nonprofit world. I've found the local meet-ups they organize In Portland to be terrific and the surveys and reports they produce tremendously useful.
I also found the wifi to be pretty reliable and available most places. A big win. The conference hotel was lovely, the staff outstanding, the location super central, the services excellent, and the large couch-filled lobby super useful.
Finally... it was San Francisco, a win for me personally, given that I was lucky enough to have MMT pay my way. Just a terrific city to be in. Great food, plenty to see and do, fantastic to walk in... loved it.
A Few Program Highlights
NTC Drupal Day for Nonprofit IT Professionals
This full-day event was geared toward IT decision-makers who either currently manage, or are considering, the Drupal content management system. The site you are reading right now is a Drupal site (I personally believe Drupal is the best fit for most nonprofit websites). I hosted a breakout session on sharing site recipes that was fun. There were a series of talks that were punctuated with related breakout sessions for more intimate conversations on a host of related topics. The day as a whole was terrifically well run, interesting and it seemed like attendees got an awful lot out of it. I always think that nonprofits and open source are a match made in heaven, two gift communities perfect for each other.
Opening Plenary by Dan Roam
This talk was about more effective communication and was given by the author of a book called Blah, Blah, Blah: What To Do When Words Don't Work. Some of us were given a copy of the book for free when we registered. There was some good information during the talk about how most of our brain is geared towards visual information and yet how we insist on giving preference to that most flawed of communication methodologies, namely the written word. He emphasized that the better understood message trumps the better message almost every time. Some good stuff, but overall I thought it gimmicky and poorly delivered. They put napkins and pens at every seat and the idea was that we'd all make useful illustrations on the back of the napkins. Of course there were three flaws with this, 1) most tech folks have devices for notes and much more effective collaboration tools, 2) paper pads proved far more effective than napkins and most I saw ended up taking notes on pads and not the napkins, and 3) the gimmick coincided with breakfast and many people used the napkins as, well, napkins. Given that the overriding theme was effective communication, going by many of the comments I heard and read, the speaker's use of examples that involved partisan news and politicians showed a lack of understanding of his audience and were somewhat classic examples of ineffective communication. Quite aside from the obvious irony, I thought this severely curtailed receptiveness and therefore reduced the usefulness of the talk.
Thursday Morning Plenary on Innovation and Nonprofits
For me this talk was the highlight of the entire conference. It was a 5-person panel comprised of people from different sectors (Beth Kanter (moderator), Laura Andreessen, Meg Garlinghouse, Brian Reich and George Weiner), with different perspectives on the topic. One of them was very outspoken and was not as well controlled by the moderator as he might have been, but still had plenty of interesting things to say that were not just more of the same. I thought much of what he said was misinformed and even naive, but still thought-provoking and challenging to the other panelists and a great part of a panel that expressed differences of opinion and a breadth of knowledge and opinion that a single speaker can never hope to match. It shook the other speakers out of their own well-worn talking points. I wish there was far more programming like this. I highly recommend watching this one on the NTC website.
HTML5 in Real World Applications
It was interesting to see specifically tech talks like this one at NTC. The talk was a good one and one of the best at the conference in terms of presentation, brevity, usefulness and clarity. A good speaker and a nice refresher on HTML5 for me.
Managing a Flash Crisis: How to Handle Online Criticism of Your Organization
Although I am not a communications person, I serve a communications team, so I was intrigued by this topic. The epic communication failure of Komen for the Cure early in 2012 that saw them effectively rebrand themselves overnight had many other nonprofits thinking about how to handle a sudden media crisis of their own... me included. This talk was given by a person whose job was to help organizations deal with bad PR and sudden emergencies. She had some good pointers and we were also regularly broken into teams and given theoretical crises to handle, most of which turned out to be actual examples based on fact. What was interesting was how few of the communication people in the room really had any idea how to handle an emergency and how most of their initial answers and instincts were wrong. It just highlighted the need for organizations to have an effective communications policy around how to prepare for, detect, handle and engage with these sorts of crises. An interesting talk full of useful pointers on how to prepare for a crisis and how to handle it.
OMG WTF: Engaging Youth on the Front Lines of Social Media
This session turned out to be a fun and interesting talk about how to engage youth and how different their worldview is in the age of the smart phone and high-speed internet communications. The speaker was funny and engaging and he was aided by one of his student volunteers, giving us two unique perspectives that were a very useful in combination. It highlighted how key social media is, particularly Facebook and how Facebook messaging trumps email most of the time with the younger generation.
Should you go? If you are a nonprofit organization who can afford the sticker price, most likely yes. You'll get so much out of this. You will learn from peers and from experts. You'll get ideas and inspiration. You'll realize that so many others share the same challenges and will be able to learn from them and find out how they overcame them... and maybe teach them hard-won knowledge of your own. You'll make new contacts with peers, possible partners and with service providers. You'll be exposed to programming that offers help and knowledge on all the major fronts, like fundraising, websites, leadership, communications, etc (see the 2012 NTC schedule for examples). This is an intense package aimed squarely at the nonprofit world and there is a very good reason why it sells out. From what I can tell, NTEN is doing a fine job and have some terrific people. I believe conferences like the NTC will lead to a net gain on the investment, for most nonprofits.
The tech guys I know who attend NTC regularly are mostly service providers who work with nonprofits on an ongoing basis or are jack-of-all-trades types, and they find the conference more directly useful in their jobs than I did. Still, the nature of my job as a software engineer distances me from much of the work Meyer Memorial Trust does and the nonprofits we serve and this conference was very useful in improving my feel for the nonprofit sector in general, as well as some of the broader issues and technical trends. I enjoyed it and will probably go again in a few years time.
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