Predicting the Future After the Nonprofit Technology Conference

The Future of Technology and Volunteer EngagementAs far as I know, no one can predict the future. But paying attention to growing trends in order to take advantage of those opportunities is one way to come pretty close.

Fresh from this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference in Washington, D.C., I thought I’d share a report on some of the trends that are breaking in technology and volunteer engagement, so you can help your nonprofit take advantage of the future that’s coming.

Big, Growing, and Better Than Ever

If you need to catch up on what the NTC is, we previewed it here last week. The key event of the Portland-based Nonprofit Technology Network (or NTEN), this is the largest industry event focused solely on technology trends, training and social events for nonprofit professionals and those involved in social change. NTEN has also made streams of various sessions available here.

Many of the veterans I talked with shared how much the NTC has changed and grown. Five tracks – communications, fundraising, IT, program delivery, and leadership – split the audience into discernable tribes. With more than 2,000 attendees, it’s no longer easy to talk with everyone you hope to see. Still, the new faces give the event a vitality that’s hard to ignore.

Overall it was a terrific event, and everyone I’ve talked with has returned inspired, informed and energized to get back to the work we’re doing in our local communities. But what does the conference and everything we learned there say about where technology and volunteer engagement are headed?

So here are my three big observations:

1. The vocabulary of volunteering is permanently expanding.

Like Eskimos and snow, there seemed to be a million ways that NTC panelists and speakers referred to volunteering. Ironically, though, few folks actually used the word. Instead – in a continuation of a trend that has been taking place for several years now – phrases like “free agent,” “rock stars for your cause,” “proselytizers,” and “supporters” were all over the place.  Enabling this, sessions at NTC about social media monitoring, the engagement ladder, social media CRMs, and creating tool kits and other support for virtual volunteers were in abundance.

This is most noticeable in Beth Kanter’s session on free agents (notes here). In a time when thousands of NPOs are struggling to keep the lights on, Beth has been relentlessly optimistic that this is actually a time of abundance for nonprofits, in which they can connect with and empower external supporters to do the heavy lifting of awareness-building and fundraising. Here’s an article I wrote last year about how volunteer coordinators can play a transformative  role in this shift.

Of course, while this is going on, traditional volunteering is still alive and well at most organizations. It’s just that technology is making it even easier for organizations to identify supporters for their cause (if not the actual organization) and arm them for battle. This signals a permanent expansion not only in the work of volunteer coordination but also in the idea of what volunteering is.

2. The NPOs that can engage skilled volunteers in technology are the ones that will survive.

Most 501cs are stretched dangerously thin – too thin even to use the technology that will help them the most. For example, the Google Grants program that gives free ads to qualifying nonprofits is potentially one of the most transformative free services you can use right now. But less than 8,000 NPOs are officially enrolled!  And just last year Salesforce, which has offered its terrific customer relationship management (CRM) tool for free to nonprofits, also reported that only about 8,000 nonprofits were taking advantage of the program.

The good news is that many of the NPOs that have been putting these tools to good use have been able to do so with the help of skilled volunteers. That’s why everywhere I found myself at NTC I was asked about the ability to use VolunteerMatch to recruit technology volunteers.

I also spent a lot of time highlighting the listings of organizations that have already clued in to this idea of recruiting those with skills to help them use free tools to expand their capacity.

3. Uses of social media in the nonprofit field are growing more sophisticated.

When the Web first hit in the late 90s, nonprofits lagged behind businesses in picking it up as a transformative tool. Things are different with social media these days, as many nonprofits are leaping ahead of the business community in innovative new ways, to engage audiences through online social networks.  That makes sense: these are tools that depend on commonalities of interest and affinity – and of course an organization’s mission or cause is a key example of an interest area that can unite people who’ve never met. Plus, it’s cheap.

All told, I heard more than one panelist comment on the astounding diversity of campaigns and uses, and I was pleased by the growing sophistication of the questions and issues presented by the audience.

There’s a lot more to say about the NTC experience. If you haven’t already read Shari Ilsen’s post here, give it a look. And if you went to NTC this year, what did you think about it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

(Photo by Frogman!)