David Kennedy-Logan: Learning from the 2014 NTEN conference

The crowd at the opening plenary of the 2014 NTEN conference.

The crowd at the opening plenary of the 2014 NTEN conference in Washington, D.C.

At any mission-driven organization, success depends on strong internal systems and processes to support and enhance capcity for external impact and influence. Whether we work in program or in operations, everyone’s at their strongest when they have a deep understanding of the context in which they operate, including emerging challenges and opportunities.

In that spirit, last month, I and two other McKnight colleagues, Shannon Eisentrager and Jay Colond — along with a couple thousand of our nonprofit and philanthropic IT and communications friends from around the country and the world — descended upon Washington, D.C., for the 14th annual three-day, techie-nerdy-dogoodery extravaganza that is the NTC: the NTEN Technology Cnference.

Based in Portland, Oregon, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN for short) is the membership organization of nonprofit technology professionals. With origins rooted in the “circuit rider” model of nonprofit IT and communications strategy of the mid-1990s, the organization was officially launched in 2000 and has held a gathering in various cities around the country every year since. The first NTC was attended by about a dozen people; the 2014 get-together weighed in at over 2,000 attendees, their largest yet.

The stated goal of the conference is for nonprofit technology and communications practitioners to connect to share ideas, tools, and resources. On paper, that may sound a little dry. The real-world realization of that goal is anything but; in person, the conference virtually crackles with energy, passion, ideas, and humor. Also, tweets. Lots and lots of tweets.

The NTEN community came into existence a long time (in “internet years”) before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, when nonprofit websites were still relatively new and still largely informed by the off-line, print communications model. A small but dedicated group of “early adopters” got together to figure out the best way to harness the web’s potential to help the nonprofit sector make the world a better place. The NTEN community has grown exponentially in scope and impact ever since.

NTEN 2014 with a penguin.

All dressed up and somewhere to go — the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference.

The digital landscape for nonprofits has evolved immensely over the past 10 years, and NTEN is a great place to get the lay of the land. The 2014 conference line-up included sessions such as “50 Shades of Social Media: Navigating Policies, Laws, and Ethics,” “You Can Capture Lightning in a Bottle: Motivating and Measuring Engagement,” and “Cultivating a Culture of Storytelling at Your Organization.” Through these and many other highly engaging sessions, I know that the three of us returned to our roles at McKnight with new and exciting ideas about how to provide insights, support, and content to our various stakeholders in useful and engaging ways.

While the NTEN membership base comprises only a small percentage of foundations, there is a huge amount for philanthropy to learn from our nonprofit partners about effective and efficient use of technology to advance mission. Here at McKnight, the word “collaboration” plays a starring role in our mission statement; it’s one of the tools we use to do our work. Without the ability to share ideas, discuss problems, and test potential solutions with our peers and partners in a timely way, our impact would be severely curtailed.

In the past, logistical, financial, and geographic barriers made collaboration difficult. It’s still hard work to do it well, but technology has had an immeasurable impact on our collective ability to do it at all.

NTEN puts on a great conference. But this evolution goes further. Among all the takeaways Shannon, Jay, and myself stowed in our cranial carry-ons for the trip home to Minnesota, perhaps the most resonant was a sense of the new reality that links very technological and very human experiences. Thanks to technology (or, more accurately, thanks to the “practical dreamers” who believe in its potential and know how to use it effectively), the fact is we all now do live in a world where most if not all all of the aforementioned barriers to human collaboration have been broken down — and breaking down those barriers should get all of us closer to meeting our program objectives and fulfilling our missions.

DKL_mk0366_cDavid Kennedy-Logan
Communications Officer, McKnight Foundation