7 Thoughtful Take-Aways from My #12NTC

An event like the 2012 Nonprofit Technology Conference is a big deal for an organization like VolunteerMatch. Despite the large audiences we serve, we’re still a pretty small office, and the number of us on the team who are lucky enough to get out and actually meet the nonprofits we help is smaller still.

With #12NTC held in our own backyard this year, we were fortunate to bring six of us out to the Union Square Hilton, and thank goodness. The math of three days of nonprofits, technology and 1,800 attendees meant a pretty pooped set of VolunteerMatchers by the end of the conference. And of course, our regular chores didn’t exactly disappear while we were out. (I’m still following up on emails that stacked up during #12NTC. So if I owe you a note or a call, bear with me!)

But once again, this is a conference that’s worth it. In terms of sharing, learning, making new friends and reconnecting with the spirit of our work, #12NTC hit the spot.

Here are a few things I learned at 12NTC:

1. Viz is the biz.

Helped along by the inspired placement of Dan Roam’s awesome Blah Blah Blah book in the conference tote bag, no topic at #12NTC was hotter than visualization. Call it the Pinterest effect, but everyone was talking about tools and trends for storytelling and reporting via images. Curation, sharing, pinning, and even digital rights were all the rage, and it’s clear that the smart money is on a future where constituents aren’t expected to do much long form reading.

Viz popularity is also a big reason why NTC Ignite sessions are so popular.

2. We all have a role to play.

#12NTC isn’t produced by slick brands with big budgets. While our friends at the organizer NTEN do a great job bringing everyone together, being inclusive and providing a framework for a great couple of days, they can’t do it all. As NTC grows each year, it’s even more important that side-line events, sponsors, planners, volunteers and note takers all get actively involved.

For our part, we threw a party on the eve of the conference’s first night. With 250 folks coming in, clearly there was a need for an organized event on the front-end of #12NTC. We were glad to step up, along with our co-sponsors.

3. We’re getting better with our tech – because we have no choice.

Nonprofit tech used to be a backwater… not anymore. Today, every effective nonprofit is also proficient with technology. It’s the only way we can reach our audiences, engage and inspire supporters, and deliver services.

In my field, communications, the number of tools we have to juggle is crazy. According to a Communicopia report, [PDF] the typical smaller nonprofit digital team manages an average of 12 web properties (a website, a blog, accounts at Flickr, Facebook, Linkedin, wikis, etc.)

4. Email isn’t going anywhere.

Social media may be exploding, but the chorus of expert voices warning nonprofits not to abandon email as the main engagement channel for volunteers and donors is just getting louder. Organizations need to learn how to use it effectively at nearly every step towards success.

5. The volunteer-fundraising divide is still a broad chasm.

Giving time, giving money. In both cases supporters are giving resources to a nonprofit. Once again at NTC, I saw no deeply integrated systems or ideas for recruiting and managing supporters in both areas, and I met lots of development staff and volunteer coordinators who are worlds apart in their approaches and budgets.

Some of the online social fundraising platforms like Fundly, Razoo and Causes are helping the field to close that gap — to think of social fundraising as a kind of volunteering — but this is still a work in progress.

6. The shadow conference only grows.

Each year, it seems like more and more of NTC takes place outside of the sessions. This year, the hotel lobby seemed to be rocking with nonprofit technology industry insiders meeting and greeting, but generally ignoring the good stuff going on inside.

To an outsider, it may appear as if these folks already know what’s going on in the Nonprofit Technology world. Sadly, this group is missing the great stuff that’s going on inside, while the tech revolution continues to evolve and change under their very noses. It’s easy to miss change when it happens.

7. The debate about innovation is raging.

Our CEO, Greg Baldwin, joined Meg Garlinghouse, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, and Brian Reich in conversation with Beth Kanter about innovaton at nonprofits. While Reich argued that few NPOs are doing truly innovative things — otherwise, wouldn’t more problems be getting solved? — a big chunk of the tweeting audience in the room called double standard on the critique. Others said it was a good reminder whether we should be pursuing innovation at all at the expense of incremental gain in efficiency and scale.

A week later, TechSoup’s Co-CEO Daniel Ben Horin published this interesting article about the debate.

These are just my thoughts… I’ve pulled together a fun list of other folks’ recasts on the conference to give you a clearer picture: