Yesterday, I had the huge honor and pleasure to present the keynote at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits‘ NPTech Conference, eStrategy in an iWorld. It was a terrific conference, with people from all areas of the state and all areas of the sector. There were interesting conversations at every turn and I also had requests to share my notes and slides. I also encountered quite a few people asking very similar questions, or looking for the same resources. Below, you can find my full speech and slides, as well as links to address questions and requests from many of those I met with. If you have other questions, or other ideas, please share them!
Thanks again to Stephanie, Shannon and Paul for inviting me to be part of the conference and putting on such a valuable opportunity for the community!
The Evolution of NPTech: Where we came from, and [maybe] where we’re going
To talk about the evolution of nonprofit technology we really need to pick a place to start, because the beginning could be anywhere. For this conversation, we are going to start with the frame of the analog paradigm and move forward from there. For perspective, I imagine you immediately ask where are we on this roadmap right now: We are in the social space. And in each of these we will talk a bit about tools, tactics and strategies. And we will also get to start talking about the options for what’s next, or as I refer to it, a more holistic paradigm. So let’s dive in!
In the analog way of working, we have some really beautiful pieces. We also have a lot of moving parts, a lot of maintenance, and a lot of (or perhaps, too many) options. We don’t, though, have a lot of efficiency or shared information. In our analog world we are too focused on processes that aren’t scaleable or shareable – meaning we have a lot of meetings, we write things down on paper, and when someone that wasn’t in our meeting or isn’t in our town needs to collaborate with us, we have to invest in catching them up and recreating the work we have already done.
What this means for tools, specifically, is that we don’t actually like technology. The tools in an analog world fulfilled a specific function but did not influence our planning or programs. We thought about technology as something that took time, required a lot of maintenance and work, and was usually best kept confined to as few staff members as possible. Technology in the analog period was usually defined only as hardware or software, it looked like desktop computers and a server room, and it got as much attention from the organization as a whole as the employee handbook.
As for tactics, well, we mostly relied on “proven” or “successful” efforts; lessons learned from other organizations working in an analog paradigm like government, unions, and churches. We sought out case studies or examples that reinforced much of how we already operated. We also approached best practices from a blind perspective that if it worked for someone else, it would work for us. Part of what defined our work in the analog period was the lack of nuance or specificity that will come into play later. For example, knowing that a certain message or call to action, or even type of service, worked for one organization in one community translated to other organizations as a packaged up and ready to repeat solution.
In the analog paradigm, our strategies did not include technology. We had simple goals, and defined our metrics only as they related to grant deliverables or obvious data, like: we will launch programs in 3 schools, or we will feed 500 families. Technology was not something we considered as a strategic option or as something that could support our programmatic strategies; technology meant simply “IT” and was left to those with IT in their title.
Obviously, when characterized in such simple terms like these, it’s obvious where the analog approach limits us and our work. But, lest we repeat history if we think the digital paradigm will solve things!
After the Internet became more than an online super highway crowded with signposts, we moved into a much more fast-paced and interesting period: the digital paradigm. In many ways, we just reversed the analog approach, holding too tightly to digital technologies, applications, and online communication options. Instead of leaving technology out of our strategies, it became the strategy.
In the digital period, the changing landscape of “tools,” meant that many of us were diagnosed with shiny object syndrome. There were so many new platforms and applications that provided tools for everything from communications to fundraising, outreach to development, and much more. But, the tools were emerging so quickly that many didn’t know how to approach them, there weren’t any policies in place; so, the Internet, except for the long-standing signposts, were viewed as toys or distractions and often banned from the workplace. Our focus on new media in the digital period also meant that we started to forget about the technology tools we already had in our organization: the hardware, software, databases, servers. We even forgot about our own website at times. The realization that another organization was using a tool, seeing another group’s profile on any given platform, or hearing a colleague at another organization mention something we hadn’t heard before were all causes enough to compel us to register, download, or log in.
With an over inflated focus on technology tools in the digital period, tactics and strategies lost much of their distinctions. A tactic is using a tool for a specific purpose. Well, during the digital period we viewed the use of a tool for a given or sometimes un-defined purpose as a self-contained strategy. All we needed to say was I heard they were using facebook; or my son has a YouTube account so I’ll have him set up ours. Much of our use of various platforms and specific applications was exploratory, understandably. But, it was without much of the real documentation needed to help others – whether in our organization or not – navigate similar areas. We didn’t even really have the language to use to create documentation, or, at least we didn’t think we did. We assumed the digital space was all new. We thought that there would need to be new tactics for making impact and new calls to action. And, most detrimentally, we thought those tactics would be defined by the technology itself.
One strategy that emerged as a popular trend during the digital period was the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” approach. Staff felt that often the only way to try new tools, engage with the public who were already adopting and investing in online platforms, and stay on top of the fast-moving digital space was to go around rules or organizational policies. If facebook was blocked, then start working on facebook at home. If you could provide enough evidence that it was worthwhile, then organizations would relax policies to allow for just those adventurous enough to circumvent the rules to now be allowed to use the tools. We went from technology belonging to the IT staff, to new media belonging to the young intern, web savvy communications officer, and so on.
And when our attempts at engaging communities online or creating profiles on various new media platforms didn’t work the way we wanted, we excused that failure with newness. The digital period converted many whole hearted believers, but it also made many others even more worried about our programs, services and grant deliverables. And after a while, the polarized views of whether our digital focus was working or not meant something had to give.
And something did give. We realized that as much as our analog view held us back from integrating technology into our strategies, so did we also limit our impact by putting technology first. We had experienced a digital land-grab; putting up profiles and setting up accounts in the “if you build it, they will come” spirit. But, it wasn’t long before our profiles and accounts seemed eerily similar to the online signposts of before. We had run at the digital space in a panic and forgot a major component: the community.
Thus, we entered the social period. The magical kingdom in which offline and online worked together, where strategies that were proven in one place were re-imagined in new ones. The focus now, instead of on the work we did, or on the tools we had, was on the people we could work with and serve. And most importantly, this is when we start to see the way our work is not only accomplished by us, but in tandem with the community.
The social period saw a more balanced weight across various kinds of media. This was when, as organizations and not just select staff, we recognized the value in collaboration across organizational departments as well as with our community. We also recognized that there were analog tools and technology tools, and that they may just go hand in hand. We continued to use the tools that emerged in the digital period, and continued adopting new tools; the difference was that we left the land-grabbing to early adopters. Now, we evaluated tools based on who was using them, and how. We looked at case studies that showed which tools were used and how, and especially to what end. We were also honest about how we used tools and organizations began making it public who was behind that wall – For example, a bio on Twitter might say “responding to your questions here are Amy and Claire” or a blog may include short bios or links to the staffers contributing.
Not only were we open to trying and learning, the social paradigm also included the emergence of toolkits – resources organizations created either to support community members taking on our mission and our work, or in the form of documentation for other organizations looking to replicate our efforts. At TechSoup, we’ve worked on a number of toolkits, including the Community Organizers Handbook where NetSquared Local organizers from around the world share their experiences and recommendations in the same place as organizational information and templates all to support knowledge sharing across the network, help new organizers get their groups established, and provide examples and resources to anyone else looking to build community whether they are connected with our program or not.
This is also the period when honest case studies take the forefront. Previously, we had examples to refer to during both the analog and digital periods, but the examples that were promoted were always the successful anomalies. The fundraising campaign that will probably never be replicated, the citizen engagement effort that relied on a whirlwind of perfect timing and serendipity. In the social period, we see case studies emerge about programs or campaigns that aren’t successful because we start to treat our use of technology as a shared success. For example, a recent website called AdmittingFailure.com highlights the examples of those opportunities where we can learn from what didn’t work.
In the social period, we realized that not only do our tools focus on conversations and human connection, but our tactics should also be people-powered. Regardless of our cause, we can have activist-oriented calls to action, resources for individuals looking to support our work in their own way, and metrics for engagement not just hard numbers. The social period is a time when we start to relearn the separation between tactic and strategy. We put facebook back in it’s place as a tool, explain to our teams that we have a community engagement strategy that includes various kinds of community groups, various types of content, and will use multiple tools. The tactics are created based on those limited moving parts – overall strategy and goal, the audience and the content. We can stop saying that facebook is our strategy and start saying that facebook is one part of our engagement strategy. What are we doing there? Oh, we have a few key tactics: daily content, conversation starters, and highlighting community members.
And what are those strategies? In the social paradigm, we recognize the need for both online and offline to be part of our work. Our strategies are focused on clear goals and metrics. We use all of our technology – from the website, to the database, to facebook – to evaluate our efforts, monitor the community, and create data-driven strategies. With metrics that cover both traditional measurement to real engagement – from the number of people that receive our emails, to the number of people that take action in emails related to congress, from the number of events we hosted in a year, to the number of events about our cause that were hosted by anyone in a year – being data-driven means we ensure our strategies are successful because we can make decisions based on what the community tells us.
In the social space, we operate with the understanding that, just like the community, a strategy can also change. We build in evaluation and communication check-points to the way we engage with our community, in the same way we do to our overall strategy. For example, we may ask our enewsletter list or our Twitter followers what we don’t talk about that they wish we would, or what’s really interesting to them lately. In the same way, we create flexible strategies so that if we launch a program and no one responds, we can iterate and change it, and continue to move forward.
The social paradigm period is the one we are in now. We have a lot that we can still improve and we aren’t yet ready to emerge into the next period, though, we can see it around the corner. Today, the sessions will focus on using tools, identifying tactics, and creating strategies for engaging with your community and successfully operating in the social paradigm – that includes creating integration between on and offline, that means operating in a networked way. But, I want to talk a bit about where we can go from here. And I hope that some of these principles and ideas, though maybe just beyond where your organization is now, will help you navigate the distance between now and what’s ahead.
Next up: the holistic paradigm. For those that can’t tell, this is a picture of a clock on the face of a coffee maker. The holistic period represents not just a balance, but an integration of technology with the way we work. This means that the data-driven approach emerging in the social period is strengthened – we don’t just monitor and measure data, but now we let our community do so, too. For example, why track how many events are taking place for our own reporting only? We can keep the numbers public both for how many events, but also for how many attendees; is it a fundraising event? Show how much money is being raised! Is it an event to get out the vote? Show how many people are pledging to participate!
From another perspective, there’s the side of our data that translates into APIs, maps, and info graphics. In the holistic paradigm, we recognize the value we create for ourselves by putting our data into an API so that we can use and reuse it all we want, and recognize that doing it in an open way like this means we create value for the rest of the network by giving them access to our hard work. For example, the Social Actions API pulls together volunteer opportunities and social actions from over 60 different sources – that way we can all re-purpose calls to action from across the web. We will have maps telling the stories of our impact for us (for examples of this already in use, check out google earth’s nonprofit stories). We will leverage the real time Web so that we know what’s going on, and our community can take action with us.
In the holistic paradigm, we have an opportunity as organizations to both create and support the creation of the tools we need. Remember the digital period, way back in time, when any tool that someone launched – be it for profit, for a lot of profit, or for compromise – was a tool we felt obligated to register for, create a profile on, and otherwise try to adopt? That was a silly time. If, as organizations using tools and often investing a whole lot of time, money, and energy (not to mention social clout) into, we should be collaborating to call for the tools we want, and then use them. I’ve talked before about a time when we are open about the actions, transactions, and functionality we want and outline it clearly for vendors or technologists to build, operating with the agreement that if we call for it, and it is built, that we will use it, and going forward we will continue to have influence in the direction it evolves. There is no reason we should, as an entire sector, have to change the way we operate in order to use a database. In a holistic paradigm, organizations and end users will work together with technologists and vendors to create and maintain tools that help us all meet our mission.
In the holistic paradigm our tactics also evolve to be framed in terms larger than they were before and open for use by more than just our own staff. In a holistic paradigm, our programs and services and even our fundraising are community driven. This means not only do we monitor and measure data as we started doing in the social period, but we also listen to our community, and listen for action. We ask what we can do, we ask about what is already being done, and we ask how we can work together. Being community-driven, like data-driven, relies on the permission and support to take action based on what we learn. If we take the time to be an active part of our community and hear about the issues and opportunities our organization’s programs or services could address, yet aren’t given the authority to start working on addressing those issues or options, then we lose our ground and our momentum.
In a holistic paradigm, we also recognize the tactical differences between working with our community and working beyond that. In the social period, we began exploring the network – mapping it, evaluating it, testing it. We ask for our supporters to spread our message to their communities, tapping into the network for help. Our communications changed, the words we used changed, the calls to action changed all to try to engage the network. The difference between a community and a network is that you can know your community and be part of your community in a much more real, tangible, and even permanent way. The network is all those that are connected to you through the community. Many of the nodes and groups you don’t know and maybe not even share similar goals. The network is great for responding in crisis or times of needs, the network is also great for distributing opportunities to support a large movement or cause. But with day to day communications, with strategic planning, with programs and services that improve our city and our state and eventually our world, we focus on our community. We know they are invested, we know what they care about, and we know we can work together.
There’s a similar difference between another tact that emerged in the social paradigm period: crowd-sourcing. How many people here have heard of crowdsourcing? How many have tried it? Okay, how many here have tried community sourcing? The difference, like with communications, is that when you launch a crowd-sourcing contest or campaign, you are trying to get ideas or submissions from the network, the crowd – from people or organizations you don’t know. Community-sourcing is when you launch a contest or campaign to your community. You can assume more about shared context, you can also expect a higher investment in the outcome. Lastly, you can also expect higher collaboration over competition. For example, the NetSquared Challenges have tapped into the global NetSquared and TechSoup global community, created opportunities for Project teams to not just get visibility for their work and possibly win cash to fund development, but find others working on similar technologies or on similar goals and join together to code faster, grow wider, or otherwise collaborate instead of compete.
In the holistic period, we will definitely see strategies evolve. If the changing environment of our tools and tactics are any indication, then our strategies are in for a major shift. Not only can we move from openly sharing what works and what doesn’t, something that we saw in the social period, but can build on that sharing to ensure our goals create frameworks for collaboration and significant impact. For example, this means strategies that are focused not on feeding the homeless in our city, but on ending homelessness in our city. By evolving our goals in this way, we create opportunities for other organizations, other service providers, as well as community members to collaborate with us toward actual change.
The Sweet Spot
Yesterday, I had the chance to run a workshop with the leadership institute graduates. We played a round of the Social by Social game and it relies on this notion of the sweet spot. Regardless of what our organization does, we have a certain set of goals. Our community, similarly, has goals. But they aren’t the same. They probably shouldn’t be the same! There are aspects of our work that the community doesn’t really care about or at least doesn’t care to be involved with. And the same is true for all that the community wants – some parts of it we just don’t want to get involved in. For example, maybe our community is rallying behind a specific politician, and we are working towards a piece of legislation. We aren’t going to join with each other on these specific goals – but bettering our state, well that’s the sweet spot. The sweet spot is where our goals overlap. And it’s the place where we can invest our time and our energy knowing that we are all rooting for the same end. Identifying the sweet spot is an integral part of community mapping and engagement planning. Knowing the areas that you and your community both care about can turn your campaigns, your communication and your engagement efforts into successful community-driven work.
When working with community groups and organizations on operating in a more holistic way, I often get asked about the changing roles or skills that they need to think about. Many of these things may already be part of your organization and it’s just a matter of identifying the skills and assets already in your staff but maybe just not tapped into yet. Some roles and skills will be identified as the sector as a whole starts moving in this direction and we can more clearly see what’s needed. At this stage at least, to help get us into the transition, we need translators. That means translating or liaising between the organization and the community, as well as between technologists and end users, and even between community segments. We need leaders that are not our executive staff (sorry directors!) and leaders who are not within the organization; the more people who step up into leadership roles and take responsibility for real impact then the more legitimacy we have as an entire community towards building a movement and creating the change we want. We also need catalysts. Whether they are vendors like CauseVox, openly asking for what the community needs in a fundraising tool and building towards the response, or they are individuals that take a photo or shoot a short video that they share with the world changing the conversation about an issue or an event.
But we need new resources, too. Shared, collective resources. How many people here can imagine sharing your database, even just to one person not in your organization? Well, what about a database that you could share just the names and emails and selected actions with the other organizations in your field who have pledged to work at the movement level along side you? That’s what groups like 1Sky, 350, and others fighting for change on the issues related to our climate did. That’s not to say that the world has your email address if you joined one of those organizations; but instead it let’s each organization know you’re already in the network and which organization you joined with so the rest don’t bother you with more emails and they can all work together to share petitions (and get much larger responses) and to share calls to action. We will need our technology resources and our knowledge resources to evolve in a holistic way as our tools, tactics and strategies do.
Elevating our work from a single program in a single geographic area into a movement is going to require a lot of hard work and will definitely not be easy, especially for institutions that have existed since the analog period. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as clear cut as finish one and start the next.
If we’ve learned anything in this social period from looking at back at how we got here it’s that we need to remember that as strategies change, missions evolve, issues emerge, the role of technology remains as a tool. Technology is not what we build the strategy around, but what allows us to implement the strategy.
In a holistic approach, we are going to see a shift in even the way we operate, what an organization means, what a campaign looks like. Global campaigns may be ignited by an individual. Organizations can emerge from a successful campaign. Movements will be created by organizations putting goals ahead of branding. 350 is an excellent example: people around the world used a tag “350ppm” to start uniting their content whether it was blog posts or analysis or videos. That tag then became a rally point that brought people together and supported a community to emerge. As actions and energy built, an organization was formed. The community still led the way, though, from the local to the global level. And it wasn’t until this autumn that a fundraising appeal took place – the first time the movement had asked for money in the years it had been coordinating efforts around the world. 350 is a great example not just because of the organic and purpose-driven way in which it grew and eventually an organization was formed, but also for the idea that together, as a movement, we really are better, stronger, faster, louder. But, even a group like 350 will see change ahead as we move as a sector towards a holistic paradigm.
Starting the Shift
I know that was a weighty talk – with a lot of lofty forecasting. But, everything I said, I believe is at least an option for what is ahead. I also believe that if we do move to the holistic paradigm we will make much more lasting impact. So, before I close, I just want to share some of the things we can all do today to start moving the sector off the cliff, I mean, um, forward J
We learn much more and much faster when we openly ask questions. If you’re asking questions now, ask more of them. How can you help, what are others doing, what does your community need and want, where is there opportunity for collaboration?
In the social paradigm now, as I said earlier, we are creating toolkits and sharing resources. But, to move towards a holistic approach, you will need to share your whole toolbox with your community. If you have resources or access that you keep locked up, then there’s no way your community will be able to help you or carry that work for you.
You share stories of your impact so people can be inspired, they will give, and they will join you. You can share your data in the same way – data, especially when shared in full and put together can tell many stories.
It might sound silly, but striving to be replaced is a core element to working with your community and operating holistically. Sharing your toolbox and asking for opportunities to collaborate are precursors to handing over parts of the work to the community (whether it’s your organizations work or collectively held responsibility for change).
Focusing on shared goals means concentrating on the sweet spot – there’s a lot that can be achieved in that space.
I included the idea of letting others lead not as a reinforcement of the striving to be replaced idea as much as an opportunity to make the invitation explicit that you are invited to let go of the shiny object syndrome you came down with back in the digital period and feel confident following your community to the appropriate tools and supporting community members in asking questions and sharing ideas.
One more time, before I go, I’m going to say that we should focus on the community. I know, I’ve probably said it enough.
And lastly, seriously, ask for help. There is no better feeling than being the one that could help and you can extend that offer to your community, to colleagues, to other organizations.
I hope that by sharing these thoughts I can extend the invitation to all of you to join me in thinking about and starting to move us all closer to a paradigm and a way of working that matches our goals for creating a better world. If you have questions, ideas, additional examples or resources, please add them to the comments here for the benefit of others! Thank you.
Resources & Links
Community Mapping and Planning
Primers and Publications