Takeaways from the 2019 Nonprofit Technology Conference

ECHO at 2019 Nonprofit Technology Conference

Takeaways from the 2019 Nonprofit Technology Conference

The nonprofit technology community is big, diverse and hungry for knowledge. Over 1,600 attendees were at the Nonprofit Technology Conference this year, many for the first time, including ECHO! ECHO has been serving nonprofits since its inception, so it was about time we went to NTC (held in Portland this year) to see what the buzz was about. And we are so glad we did, because it was an absolute pleasure and great learning experience. Why?  

Social impact and mission-focused organizations employ nice people, and when you put so many nice people together – it creates such a friendly, positive environment. No big egos boosting about their accomplishments, just a community of people hungry for knowledge and interaction. After three days of attending immersive sessions, sharing insights and learning from fellow techies, we have surely come back better-informed, more aware and even more excited to be part of this community! Here are our biggest takeaways from NTC: 

  • Most technology work is done by brave people who don’t necessarily have all technical or management chops but do have passion for what technology can do for their organization and their mission. As we know, you don’t need a tech background to become a techie, and it’s often the end users who are pushing for better systems and tools to help them do their daily work. This championing of technology, no matter who it’s coming from, is necessary in any organization, and we urge those champions to seek each other out and continue the dialogue. 

  • When we asked attendees what the biggest challenge is within their organization, a huge majority said it was convincing their management team to invest in technology. How do you make the case to executives and board members to invest in new tools, systems, and infrastructure, and help them understand why technology is so crucial? This is an issue of change management, a recurring theme at NTC. We heard that one effective way is to show them. Literally. Take a video of what your staff is doing. How many clicks, how many steps, or how much time does it take for your staff to process an application, pair a volunteer with a partner, or run a simple report? This challenge is tightly coupled with user adoption of technology. If your staff doesn’t know why the technology is crucial, you can’t expect them to adopt it. Change management starts before a project even begins. It should be an engaging process but often is not.  

  • The nonprofit starvation cycle is real, and no one knows it better than the people attending NTC. Nonprofits are pressured to limit their overhead costs, which includes the organization’s infrastructure and technology systems as well as training and office space. It’s agreed that this overhead is essential to run a nonprofit, however most nonprofits do not spend enough on it. Why? Technical and other non-core initiatives are seen as too costly and are often given meager budgets to do anything to make an impact. As a result, the nonprofit falters and starves due to poor fundraising efforts and poor core services operations based on inadequate technical infrastructure and tools.

  • This led us to the largest takeaway from the conference. The technology vs. business chasm still exists, and there is a long way to go in adopting the strategic mindset that technology impacts all areas of an organization, including mission and management. Technology is a business asset, and it needs to be approached strategically across the entire organization, whether you work in programs, development, finance or HR. But you can’t adopt technology in siloes. Executives must start seeing technology holistically in order to ensure they are investing wisely to make the most long-term impact. 

ECHO’s headquarters are in San Francisco, and the Bay Area certainly lives in its own technology bubble. It was great to step outside of that bubble and learn about different ways nonprofits talk about and approach technology. This was ECHO’s first NTC but definitely not the last.