It’s true. It’s so true in nonprofit technology that it hurts every time I think about it. However, I was immediately and immensely grateful to Tom for articulating so succinctly and eloquently what had been merely tacit knowledge for me.
One of the biggest problems in any nonprofit technology implementation is the difficulty in reconciling it with the organization’s culture. It’s not just that individuals within it may not want to learn new things or do things differently – it’s that every organization is a delicate ecosystem of incentives, disincentives, alliances, and hostilities. A change in information and communication technology systems can easily upset the organization’s equilibrium. Just the same, new implementations may become necessary, and at that point the challenge is not to arrive at an abstract understanding of group dynamics, but to gain the good will and participation of all the stakeholders by demonstrating that the potential benefits of the change are far greater than the threats to the status quo.
(And now for a full disclosure of financial relationship: I’ve served as a paid consultant to Kathryn’s organization, Community TechKnowledge, for some time. However, she did not ask me to endorse this white paper, and she certainly is not paying me to recommend it.)
Back in the 20th century, when I first started working in Massachusetts in the field of nonprofit technology, it seemed to me that the unofficial motto of every nonprofit was “Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing, because if you do, they’ll know what we’re doing.”
I’m much obliged to people who have taught me a lot about the importance of nonprofit collaboration, such as Tom McLaughlin (who does a great deal of hands-on work to make it happen), Heather MacIndoe (who is doing academic research on the interplay of nonprofit collaboration and competition in the Boston area), and Susan Labandibar (who is pioneering some important new ideas about how nonprofit technology assistance providers can support organizations in collaborating for greater mission success.)
However, the new spirit of openness is much more than a regional phenomenon; it is an information age phenomenon. As Beth Kanter and Allison Fine have explained in their groundbreaking book, The Networked Nonprofit, we are living an age where every stakeholder is a free agent online. People who have strong ties or no ties at all to a nonprofit can use any number of social media channels to make facts and opinions about the organization available to everyone. While the privacy and security of client data is still an extremely high priority, nonprofits have already lost most of the battles in the war against transparency. So they might as well embrace the practice of sharing information with other organizations and start looking for ways to make their programs, operations, and missions complementary.
Transparency, accountability, and collaboration in the nonprofit sector are mostly positive developments – especially when compared to obsession with control, covering up wrongdoings, and stonewalling. As Louis Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Even if it were not, it’s clear that greater openness is now a fact of life in our culture. Our focus should not be on fighting the information age, but in balancing between its imperatives and the need to respect the privacy of the innocent and vulnerable.
Of course, my thinking has become even more grandiose since I originally came up with the idea of a three-day outcomes/data viz training series. Now I’m thinking in terms of a “Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology,” in which the first initiative would be a degree program in nonprofit data analysis.
Let’s take this training opportunity, which will be brief in comparison to the more elaborate programs that I’ve envisioned, and build on it!
I’m much obliged to my beloved friend Peter Campbell for the #NTCBEER button, which I wore proudly throughout the conference. You know it’s not just a good party but a great yearly tradition when a nondrinker looks forward to it.
However, at the moment, I want to call attention to the “Diva” and “Instigator” ribbons attached to my badge. This was a brilliant swag offering from the folks at the Strategic Fulfillment table in the conference’s exhibit hall. Usually at conferences, ribbons are given out by the event organizers to sponsors, exhibitors, speakers, and various other V.I.P.s. The Strategic Fulfillment Group was smart enough to make it a matter egalitarian self-determination. Any visitor was welcome to take and wear the ribbon of his or her choice.
I like “Diva” and “Instigator,” but the ribbon I really want is one that says “TECHNOBABE.”
Disclaimer: This illustration is for entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional data analyst.
My training, such as it is, is heavily skewed toward qualitative methods; at the same time, I have a lot of respect for quantitative analysis. However, my favorite form of research consists of staring off into space and letting ideas float into my head. Sometimes I validate my findings by engaging in conversations in which I talk louder and louder until everyone agrees that I’m right. It seems to work.
Lately, I’ve had a little time to stare off into space and let ideas float into my head; by this, I mean that I traveled to Austin, Texas for the Nonprofit Technology Conference (also known as #15ntc) and had some down time on the plane. By the time I arrived in Austin, I had become convinced that “Data Analyst” would be this year’s standout job title in the field of nptech. At the conference, I was able to confirm this – by which I mean that I didn’t meet anyone there who talks more loudly than I do.
What are the take-ways? It depends on who you are:
For data analysts who are now working in the field of nonprofit technology: prepare to be appreciated.
For nonprofit executives: don’t kid yourselves. Brilliant data analysts who want to work in the nonprofit sector aren’t going to be attracted by job announcements that indicate that the successful candidate will also be responsible for network administration, hands-on tech support, social media, and web development.
For workforce development professionals: this is your cue. It’s time to put together a program for training computer science graduates to be nonprofit data geeks.
For donors, grantmakers, and other funders: if you want reports from nonprofits are based on reliable and valid methods of analysis, then you will need to underwrite data analysts at nonprofits. That means money for training, for salaries, and for appropriate technology.
If you don’t agree with my findings, please take a moment to share yours in the comments section.
In addition to the excitement of an event that enables me to work with a slew of nonprofits that are making the world a better place, I love the idea of showing the world that our local community of nonprofit technology professionals is a surprisingly collaborative one. Three nonprofit technology assistance companies are coming together to host and underwrite the evening, and the 21 mavens will be working side by side in one room. We’ll be encouraging all of our guests from the nonprofit sector to solicit second, third, and fourth opinions. The goal isn’t to block them from exposure to other vendors, but to make sure they have the information they need and an opportunity to identify resources that are a good fit for their needs.
At the Venture Cafe on November 3rd. (Cambridge Innovation Center, Kendall Square.) The co-hosts of this event are Annkissam, Tech Networks of Boston, and 501Partners. I will be one of 21 nonprofit technology mavens! This event is currently booked to capacity, but you can put yourself on the waiting list by following this link.