A Call For New Nonprofit Tech Ideas in 2014

3 Comments 07 June 2013

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It’s conference submission season, and I’m ready to be dazzled. I’m tired of the same old workshops on how to raise more money online, tell stories, and be a better cross-channel communicator. (Full disclosure: a colleague and I offered a digital storytelling tools meetup at the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference.) Maybe it’s because I’m writing this late at night, or I’m just back from a regional conference that served up the same list of workshops that every conference serves…but I’m waiting for the blow-me-away sessions and ideas that change the way I think and approach nonprofit tech.

Certainly some plenary sessions “wow.” When Dan Pallotta spoke about why the “thinking out of the box” isn’t really thinking out of the box at this year’s NTC, my mind began to whir with possibilities. I remember being “wowed” by the founder of Code for America at SXSW a few years ago. And I don’t want to discount some of the wonderful workshops that I have attended. By and large, though, nonprofit-oriented conferences aren’t offering up conversations about what digital media could become or will do 10 years from now. Their audiences are still experimenting with the popular social media platforms of the day.

I get that social media, as a system of communication and organizational expression, is maturing, while concurrently nonprofit organizations get into the game. My boredom stems from the fact that the field of nonprofit technology is changing faster than I can say my ABCs, while conferences stick with stasis rather than future-thinking. We are now presenting to “born digital” organizations, digital natives, and nonprofits that have been using social media for many years. More of them attend our sessions each year. There is a new online fundraising company every month opening its doors, and umpteen ways to approach social data and measure social media success. And around the corner: post-millennial (the teens and tweens) digital natives who view the mobile web as the web and don’t know why we’re not just trying and failing because they see no boundaries.  That is a whole lot of potential for a wide array of new workshops and sessions, so let’s get our thinking caps on.

Of course conferences should offer the “how-to” sessions for those who want to learn and solidify the basics, as well as more advanced-level sessions for those who want to build on their understanding. I don’t dispute that, just that it’s not all there is.

Let’s stop catching up so much that we’re not looking ahead: what’s next for social media? For nonprofits? What does the next generation of online fans want from nonprofits and how does that make us uncomfortable? I’d love to attend more TED-type talks that offer crazy theories and stories that push the way I think. Or even “idea mashups” – such as what happens when storytelling meets social data? Or when online donation campaigns meet design thinking?

And let’s not be afraid to offer many sessions on failure: those are the lessons that push us to the next great idea.

Let’s make 2014 the year conferences disrupt the industry with new ideas. Let’s make it the year that we leave conferences saying “wow – everything has changed for me.”

Nonprofit Technology Conference session submissions are due June 15th, the SXSW Interactive Panel Picker opens on July 1st, and New Media Expo (formerly Blogworld) speaker submissions have been open since late April.



Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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