NTC: Geeks Doing Good
by Jonathan Lam, Sean Thibault, Scott Hertz, and Jill Peltzman
URJ web team members
Several of us on the URJ web team joined a few thousand other like-minded geeks in Washington, DC recently to attend NTC, the Nonprofit Technology Conference held by the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN). For three days, we immersed ourselves in learning about the myriad of ways that technology can be used for doing good.
We were inspired by the conference itself, but an added benefit was spending an intensive amount of time with each other away from the office, networking, talking and thinking about what we do, and how to do it better.
Much of the focus of the learning sessions was on the specific goals of nonprofits: engaging constituents, fostering online and offline communities, encouraging volunteerism and advocacy, and fundraising. There are also challenges we all have in common: we are all caught between the opposing forces of limited staff resources, time, and budgets vs. a plethora of important missions and messages that need to be communicated. Many of the presenters were our fellow nonprofit technologists, sharing both their successes and their failures.
So, what exactly did we learn? A whole lot, and much that will serve us well in our efforts as an organization, and in what we can teach our congregations:
Social media was of course a hot topic. Just a tidbit of the insights we gained:
- Even the biggest, wealthiest and most advanced organizations have the same challenges in this arena as the smallest. Social media flattens the playing field in this and other ways.
- A huge number of people do nothing but play on Facebook all day – and not necessarily with the result of a better social media presence/approach.
- Goal-setting, planning, strategizing, documentation, and ongoing evaluation are necessary for effective use of social media. As one presenter put it, just because a tweet is only 140 characters, doesn’t mean it requires less planning.
- The depth of engagement with supporters is of equal importance to reach/breadth of engagement. e.g. 1000 really active people is better than 10000 who “like” you, but don’t engage.
- Some amazing tools for social media analysis were demonstrated by our new guru, Devon Smith. You can visit her blog to learn everything you ever wanted to know about social media, presented in a very statistics-oriented, academic light.
- Favorite quote about why it’s important for organizations to get on Facebook and Twitter: “You don’t want to be like that organization that said ‘We don’t need a website’ in 1998″.
But social media was only a small part of the conference. There were sessions that addressed specific aspects of email marketing, cloud computing, online donation technology, mobile applications, website development, managing data, list-building, fundraising, storytelling, contact relationship management, accessibility, and a whole lot more.
More tidbits we took away from these sessions:
- How accessible is your site to your disabled audience members? Here’s a great evaluation tool http://wave.webaim.org/. Browsing tools for blind and visually-impaired people: http://www.webbie.org.uk/ and http://www.screenreader.net/
- Getting data on your constituents is important, but even more so is how you organize it and what you do with it.
- Our nonprofit technology peers are a really, really nice and mutually supportive cohort. We all have limited resources, and can be of great value to each other as a community.
- The basis for using almost any technology well is to first define your goals and your audience, as well as how you will measure success or failure.
- Segmentation – categorizing your user data into groups according to demographics and interests – is key to delivering messages that are most effective for you, and useful for your audience.
- More organizations are employing the use of analytics – tools to find out how many people are visiting your site, how they’re getting there, and lots of other useful information. Developing a process for evaluating these metrics is vital to improving your offerings. (See below for links to Google’s tools and articles on the subject).
We attended the “Science Fair”, an exhibit hall with an impressive array of vendors. Just a sampling of the cool products/services we learned more about:
- Idealware: generates reports essential for any nonprofit looking to choose the right software for the job. They’re kind of like CNET for nonprofits. Plus, they have tons of great articles and sessions.
- Google: It’s always good to be reminded that they offer free services for nonprofits, such as email, calendars, and document collaboration. Also check out their free webmaster tools for building forms and setting up web analytics that integrate with existing sites. Visit their analytics blog for tips. Our congregations often look to Google for easy-to-use, free or inexpensive solutions.
- NPower is a national nonprofit that brings information technology services to nonprofits at discounted rates.
- mGive is a tool that enables nonprofits to easily raise money from text message donations.
We web people often have to remind others (and ourselves!) that technology is really only a means to an end, not the goal itself. (One of the sessions referred to this in its title, “Look, Something Shiny!”) The challenge is often in sifting through the massive, confusing array of offerings, and making the best decisions, not only about what tech components to adopt, but how to integrate them, use them most effectively, and train others to do the same.
We each came away with new strategies for how to enable our teams to work together better, prioritize our work and move projects forward. We’re at the precipice of big changes at the URJ, and attending NTC gave us the benefit of a birds-eye view of our choices, and plenty of ideas and inspiration for making the most of them.