What leadership qualities improve a nonprofit’s impact through effective use of technology? I was co-facilitator of the Impact Leadership Track of NTEN’s Leading Change Summit in San Francisco in 2014 and I am frequently asked to speak to nonprofit leaders on this topic, so I share here four traits I have found to be vital to impact.
I have witnessed some amazing demonstrations of leadership from nonprofit colleagues when it comes to technology. For many nonprofit organizations, technology remains on the back burner, something only dealt with when it is absolutely necessary. Other organizations have taken the reigns of technology and harnessed it for the good of the organization, its mission and its impact – thanks to effective leaders.
Of the many leadership traits that support impact, four that stand out to me when thinking about technology are: Courage, Vision, Conviction and being a bit of a Rebel. Here’s how I’ve seen those work.
When technology has not traditionally been a strength of an organization (and/or its leader), it takes courage to make technology a priority and invest in technology initiatives. Tech projects sometimes have a hard-to-define Return on Investment (ROI), and there is a dearth of funding for these projects. Knowing the positive impact that well-placed, thoughtful use of technology can have, I am inspired by the courageous leaders I see that embark on technology projects despite the obstacles. Courageous leaders move ahead, knowing that no project is perfect. They also know that if you are not keeping up you are falling dangerously behind.
Having the vision of what the organization can achieve with smart applications of technology is vital to success. Along with a vision of how staff and stakeholders can step up to support even complex technical projects, this is a key leadership trait. I have seen folks for whom technology was a very foreign subject embrace it whole-heartedly because of the vision they have of a mission fulfilled. One of my heroes is a nonprofit staff member who learned HTML in her 70’s in order to manage the organization’s website. It wasn’t because she had a particular desire to learn it, but because of her vision of how the impact of their social justice work would be supported by an effective online presence.
When you are in an organization where technology has not been a priority, it takes conviction to advocate for engaging with technology. There are sometimes grueling politics to deal with, resistance to change and objections to overcome as well as plain old inertia. Changing the technology culture of a nonprofit from a reactive, non-engaged one to an engaged, proactive one is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes conviction to keep beating the “focus on technology” drum over the long term.
In order to buck systems that are not friendly to the embrace of technology, you need to be a bit of a rebel. An ability to push back against conventional wisdom, against the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude, against prejudices and fears against technology in a sustained way is required. Yes, technology projects can be expensive and confusing, but they can provide a positive ROI and improve efficiency in the organization’s work systems – which in turn free up resources for more mission-focused work. That is a big payoff which “quick-fix” approaches don’t produce. The smart rebel leaders I have seen know when to push back and be disruptive as well as when to step back and let the changes sink in. So including a dash of diplomacy with your rebelliousness is a good idea.
When it comes to Impact Leadership – demonstrating leadership in the service of generating greater impact for your organization – this combination of being a bit rebellious, having the courage of your convictions and having a thoughtful vision which you are working towards are an unbeatable combination for nonprofit leaders.
Flickr photo credits: Lion – ucumari/Valerie;
Lighthouse – kenyonsf;
Conviction – Raul Pacheco-Vega;
Rebel – 1banaan
Recently Kevin McCray, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Ground Water Association asked me “Do you offer a list of appropriate questions for board members to ask of staff/management when management is making a recommendation for a technology purchase? We can offer up our rationale and background, but we think they should focus on what questions are appropriate from their oversight positions.” As this is a question I know many organizations and board members struggle with, I wanted to share my answers publicly.
First I’d like to appreciate and highlight the phrase “questions appropriate to their oversight positions”. I have seen board members waste their time and the staff’s time delving into operational details when it’s unnecessary – and not helpful. Hire staff that you trust to do their job well, then let them do it. Nobody likes to be second-guessed or micro-managed. If there is a lack of trust or confidence in your technology staff, that is an HR issue to be addressed by management and not a good use of the board’s time. The board has an important oversight role that these questions can help spotlight.
While each situation might require slightly different questions, here are some of my suggestions for questions that focus on the high level, oversight role of the board when inquiring about technology projects.
- How is this project aligned with our mission and strategic goals?
- How are we measuring progress towards the organizational goal(s) this technology project supports?
- Will this project alter how progress is measured? What data points will you use to show progress on this project?
- How are you defining success for this project? Are there tangible and intangible results that will be reported back to the board about the Return on Investment (ROI)?
- What data do we as the board need to make informed decisions about this project regarding budget, policies, staffing or other role-appropriate decisions?
- What actions can we take to support this project?
In my experience, once questions get beyond this level into discussions about specific tools or operational procedures, the focus on oversight begins to blur. If you are a board member or are presenting information to a board, trying to redirect the conversation to oversight-related questions like these can help keep the dialogue away from operational details and on track.
I’d love to hear about other questions that folks think are useful for board members to ask about technology projects.
flickr phto: sfllawRead More
I’m a Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) veteran who has attended almost every NTC since 2004 and these are my top tips!
1. Get Organized
Review all of the activities online before you arrive. Don’t waste precious time on site with so many interesting people to talk to looking through lists of sessions. Try to schedule as much as you can beforehand using the handy schedule tool then put them into your calendar. You might change or revise based on new information onsite, but having a basic plan provides a solid foundation. You’ll hit the ground ready to connect.
2. Pace Yourself
I find conferences to be exhausting. Avoid burnout and brain death by finding ways to pace yourself. Take twenty minutes every morning and afternoon to do nothing – no email, no voicemail, no networking, no consuming anything work related. Go for a walk, sit quietly in your room or find a coffee shop with a quiet corner and just relax.
3. Take a Tech Break
You are at the conference to connect with other people IRL (In Real Life). You can stare at your phone anytime, this is the time to put your phone and laptop away, walk up to the nearest person and introduce yourself. Having a phone or laptop in your face puts up a barrier, so invite conversation by disconnecting from your tech when you can and opening up to conversation.
4. Have a Tagline
You can easily meet up to 100 people or more over the course of the conference. You will be more memorable if you can state clearly and concisely where you focus – or want to focus. “I help nonprofits make good strategic decisions about technology” is much better than “I do a lot of different things for a lot of different organizations”. While your tasks may vary widely, it is easier for others to grasp if you can say it simply and concisely. If you are looking to adjust your focus, the conference a great place to practice stating that intention and helping it become your reality, i.e., “I am moving into doing more coaching of executive directors” or “I’m looking for a partner to write a book on integrating technology in strategic plans”. Introduce yourself with a personal tagline.
5. Learning Goal(s)
Your goal may be to finally meet that person whose blog you never miss, or to finally understand the differences between Tumblr and Slack. Give some thought to the goals that are your priority in the coming year and ask people about those goals. Have a website revision coming up? Make it a goal to talk to three people in similar size organizations who have been through it recently. Interested in moving to the cloud and want to know the most carbon-neutral options? Ask everyone you meet if they know the answer. Having some set questions also helps you move from just making small talk to having a more meaningful conversation.
6. Skip One Session Slot
While there is no shortage of outstanding education sessions, some of the best conversations happen in the hallway. You run into that person who asked a smart question in the last session, or you catch that person you’ve followed forever on social media. Look for a slot with sessions you are least excited about and skip that session slot. Walk around the halls, talk to vendors or conference staff, pull up some floor next to a fellow attendee and just talk. You can only absorb so much information, so your brain’s learning center will thank you.
7. Hit the Town
Keep your eyes out on the listservs, online and onsite for the many social events that happen around the conference. From informal get-togethers to tech specific gatherings to other ways of Making Connections, there are a lot of opportunities to connect with others in a casual, relaxed environment. You can spend time with your co-workers anytime – connect with people you don’t know. If you’ve never been to the host city and want to see some sights, take time to reflect on what you’ve been learning while you enjoy the town.
8. Be Comfortable
While we all want to look professional, try to find your most comfortable professional looks – especially shoes as you will do a a lot of walking. Skip the sweats and flip-flops but also avoid high heels or restrictive clothing. Hotel conference rooms are notorious for not being the right temperature for everyone and by the time someone corrects it, your session is over. Take control of this by wearing layers. A short sleeve shirt under a long sleeve shirt under a sweater or pullover gives you a lot of comfortable options.
9. Be a Responsible Learner
These are your sessions – don’t just let the presenters craft your learning experience, ask the questions you have. If something is unclear or they went over it to fast, stop them and ask for clarification. Ask yourself how you might use the concepts you just heard about. Imagine applying them to a situation you have or expect to encounter – what questions might arise when you go to implement this idea? By the same token, please don’t derail the session trying to get advice on a question that is not of interest to others – talk to the presenter afterwards.
10. Keep in Touch
In 2004 the conference was smaller, around 400 people. That made it easier to spend time with and meet everyone I wanted to meet. Now that attendance is pushing 2000, with such a large crowd I often only see people in passing I wanted to sit down with. Consider keeping list of folks to contact after the conference to set up a call or meet in person. If you think of it, when you get a business card from someone, write a few words on the card to remind you what topic you wanted to follow up with or what resource you offered to share.
Bonus Tip: Thank Your Hosts
Putting on a conference of this size is a massive undertaking and would not be possible without the dedicated, hard working NTEN staff. Sponsors and the vendors at the Science Fair are also crucial to the conference. Pleas join me in thanking these folks for their hard work and support whenever you get the chance.
I always look forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones at NTC, I hope you find some of these useful and would love to hear about any tips you have!
An updated description of the professional services I offer is available to download via the link below. The pdf lists my educational and consulting services, along with details of specific offerings in those categories.
My goal is to build the capacity of nonprofits to use technology in intelligent and effective ways. While I most often work with networks, coalitions and funders’ grantees to amplify the impact of my work, I also work with individual consultants, vendors, nonprofits and stakeholders.
I attended the Teacher Technology Showcase put on by the School of Education at Sonoma State University in the fall of 2013 (for info, see http://facebook.com/ssusoe and http://twitter.com/educationssu ). I learned so much from talking with teachers and students about different ways technology is being incorporated into learning. While aimed at K-12, I found seven things that I look forward to incorporating into future education sessions. Since I primarily teach nonprofit staff about technology, I found these especially useful and relevant:
1. The Exploded Classroom
Forget flipping the classroom, Northwest Prep Charter School explodes it by putting the student at the center of a project-based learning model, giving them self-paced assignments they follow and then post their resulting work in an online space. The student body gathers and works on projects individually and in teams, with all the teachers in the space to provide assistance, rather than the one teacher/one topic/one class model. Adopting this for adult learners could lead to wiping away the decades-old uninspired lecture model. http://www.northwestprep.org/
2. Technology Coaches
Some school districts who have the resources employee technology coaches to support teachers to integrate and experiment with technology in their learning models. What a great thing it would be if networks of nonprofits, funders or other organizations provided technology coaches not only to assist staff but to act as hubs for gathering and sharing stories. These come from a school in the town of Kentfield in Northern California. Academic tools list for Kentfield teachers:
3. Twitter for Transparency
I met an awesome first grade teacher, Mike, who uses twitter to share out what students are working on, discussions they are having, etc. not only to help parents keep up to date but for his principal and superintendent to know what he is doing in his class. A great way for nonprofit programs to share with stakeholders or other programs to spread excellent practices. Twitter teacher resources (also from the Kentfield school):
4. Stories of Excellence
Edutopia, already one of my favorite resources for educators, does research into schools and programs getting excellent results. They investigate and create video and other media to share these stories and help improve educational models. Relevant topic include High-Impact Professional Development and there Power of Collaborative Learning. http://www.edutopia.org/schools-that-work
From discussions about using blogging as a reflective practice to helping teacher trainers give voice to their stories, ( see http://voicethread.com/about/library/Language_from_Carla_Arena/ ) Voicethread provides a way to enhance discussions in collaborative learning environments. It provides a "virtual seminar table" for discussions of material. http://voicethread.com/
6. KQED Education’s Digital Tools
While I knew the KQED Education site was a great resource, I was exceited to learn about the Digital Tools section This part of the website provides helpful “how to’s” on topics from “How to Make a Zeega” to “How to Make a Meme” to “How to Make a Prezi”. Good stuff for any of us teaching about using technology tools. http://blogs.kqed.org/education/category/tools/
7. The Maker Mindset and Movement
Bringing tinkering into the educational space sparks creativity and imagination no matter what the age of the student. Taking things apart, understanding how they work, how things work together all of these can open up understanding in unique ways. From a low barrier to entry to being accessible to everyone to learning from failure and more, tinkering can be a powerful learning too. One makers video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXgL6TiXJjs&feature=youtu.be. More resources: http://www.makered.org/Read More
The AmazonSmile program, where a small percentage of sales is given to a designated nonprofit, is a nice sentiment but will likely prove a net loss for most participating organizations.
The sentiment is admirable – provide exposure to nonprofits on the popular shopping site and donate a portion of sales to worthy causes. Unfortunately, for years I have seen nonprofits waste time, energy and hope on similar online charity malls, where supporters must shop through a certain website that then gives portions of proceeds to participating organizations. My issues with them – and with AmazonSmile – are that they are not very generous, they only benefit nonprofits with a large supporter base and they usually have a negative overall ROI for organizations that participate.
How It Works
I had been shopping on Amazon recently and did not notice anything about AmazonSmile until Beth Kanter mentioned it on Facebook. As you see, at smile.amazon.com you can choose a charity. That charity then gets a donation based on how much I spend while shopping.
$5 of every $1000
Through Amazon Smile, .5% of a shoppers total purchase is donated to a designated nonprofit. That means I would have to spend $1000 to generate a $5 donation. While I like to think I”m generous, I don’ t plan on spending anywhere near $1000 for gifts and no matter what I spend, the resulting dontation amount is not as generous as I would like to see. Considering the amount of profit that the company makes on each purchase, .5% seems like less than a pittance. Rather than an altruistic gesture, it comes off feeling more like the classic baiting technique used by retailers for years. Sales, “Buy one, get one free” or “Free gift with purchase” promotions all work on the principal that once they get you into their shopping environment with the bait, you will not just buy the sale item but will spend much more than the retailer loses through the promotion.
Despite being positioned as a donation, since this is actually a purchase, donors don’t get the tax benefit. A read through the “About Amazon Smile” section reveals that “Donations are made by the AmazonSmile Foundation and are not tax deductible by you.“
In order for this promotion to generate any serious dollars, organizations need many supporters spending thousands of dollars. It is doubtful that any but the top nonprofit brands will be able to do this. Whether large in size or in name recognition like American Red Cross or DoSomething.org, the advantage will go to the larger and more well known brands rather than smaller, less well known nonprofits. I have nothing against the better known brands, I just see the Smile program as doing little to mitigate their advantages.
This is akin to the controversy over Popularity Contest Philanthropy that arose in 2010 around contests by Pepsi, Chase Community Giving and others. See also this interesting study that mentions the costs vs. benefits of one such campaign.
I saw only large national brands like Nature Conservancy and charity:water on the main page, so I did a search for my small town in Northern California to see if any local agencies were listed. While local nonprofits came up in the search, it says Amazon will contact them to see if they want to participate. Seems like a way to get customers to provide Amazon with an excuse to contact nonprofits to enlist the organizations help in promoting Amazon, with little return on their effort.
Many charity malls have required that nonprofit staff spend considerable time setting up the system, marketing and promoting their participation. To be fair, the reports I have heard say that it is easy to sign up to participate in AmazonSmile. But the resources used to sign up is only part of the equation.
If an organization decides to promote their participation, time is spent in writing up and distributing the message. If on average a staff person spends 2 hours in setup, promotion and data management and if that person is paid $20 per hour, there is $40 in investment. Supporters would need to spend $8000 to generate the $40 donation needed to break even. I think there are other intangible costs as well including diluting the year-end fundraising message of the organization and the disappointment that comes with the realization that the effort did not pay for itself.
On a more global level, one could argue that using Amazon results in a net loss for the planet that is not offset by the donations generated. Greenpeace has criticized Amazon, among others, for “heavy use of coal-derived power for their massive data centers.” Using Amazon instead of shopping locally does not support your local small business community and likely results in your purchase having a larger carbon footprint because of the delivery. Convenient, yes, but conscientious? Not so much. In my research I came across the site Green Shipping which provides a way to make shipments carbon neutral.
I agree that there is a public relations value to participating organizations in having Amazon reminding shoppers about those worthy nonprofits. I also think Amazon benefits by way of association much more than they pay out in donations.
From my point of view, a more equitable way of helping nonprofits would be for Amazon to choose a group of charities – a mix of smaller and medium-sized organizations – to receive donations. They then would distribute 5% of their profits earned from November 15 – December 31st evenly among those organizations. Same net PR gain for Amazon but greater impact on organizations that may be less well-known. Even include some of the big names, as long as there is a more even playing field.
I would welcome having my theory of most organizations losing money be disproved. I look forward to hearing from participating organizations to see what their results have been in dollars gained vs. effort spent. I hope I’m wrong and it is a financial boon to most, but I doubt that will be the case for all but the largest, most well known organizations. Hence the frown :(.
Update 01/15: Even with my reservations about the program, I have continued to use Amazon Smile when I shop there. I do like that they continue to run the program year-round and not have it just running during the holiday.
I did hear from a nonprofit professional, Sandy Masuo of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, who agreed about the downsides, and shared what I think is an excellent point – “The nonprofit I work for recently signed onto this program, and I’m trying to figure out a way to make $5 on every $1,000 seem inspiring to the many middle class families who are (our) members :-/”.
I remain hopeful that Amazon will find better ways to support our nonprofit community.Read More