Last week I traveled to Denver to attend the 2023 Nonprofit Technology Conference, known around the internet as #23NTC. It was the first in-person multi-day conference for which I traveled in years. In fact, since Charlotte and I started Raise HECK in late 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, it’s the first full conference I had attended in person since I became a consultant.
Here’s the summary: it was AMAZING and INSPIRING. I had a few reflections!
1. The More Technology Changes, The More Some Things Stay The Same
25 years ago when I worked at a nonprofit we struggled with technology best practices, defining roles and business operations, competition and tension between departments, and trying to figure out how to do more, better. Sometimes we switched our tech solution because we believed it would solve those problems.
- Guess what nonprofits are struggling with today? Mostly the same things.
- What’s different? The options for tech solutions are SO MANY MORE. 25 years ago there were maybe 5 options (I exaggerate, but not by much).
These days, there are literally hundreds of solutions nonprofits can choose from. With so much choice, it’s hard for nonprofits to know the full scope of what’s out there, much less what would be a great fit for their organization.
The sheer length of time I’ve spent in this industry has given me a front-row seat to observe what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. Here’s what’s true: technology is great, but it won’t solve your problems.
- First, you need to get your house in order. Define and document your roles, business operations, processes, and relationships.
- After that, you can choose the tech solution that’s the best fit for your people, goals and mission.
2. Your Relationships Are Your Greatest Treasure
I saw some people at #23NTC that I’ve known for literally more than two decades. Very few of us are in the same jobs, companies, or organizations as we were in 1999, but we’re all still here trying to make the world a better place through the intersection of nonprofits and technology.
- That means keep in touch! Even if someone leaves a specific job or a role, chances are you’ll encounter them again.
- It also means it’s also a small world. Don’t burn your bridges. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it, apologize, and learn from it. I’ve made so many mistakes. When they are properly addressed, they can become your greatest learning opportunities (and some fun stories, too).
- New relationships are equally awesome. At #23NTC I met a lot of people for the first time, as well as people I’d met over email or Zoom during the last 4 years. It’s awesome and inspiring to meet new people and make new friends.
3. Conferences are a Chance to Connect
I had so many great conversations and interactions at #23NTC. Sometimes it’s easy to feel shy or overwhelmed in situations like this. Here are some tips that helped make it easier for me.
- Try to get enough rest. Connecting with people can be very draining. Getting enough sleep will help you show up with enough energy to keep going strong throughout the whole event.
- Smile, make eye contact, and project friendliness when meeting new people (if you can–this is not easy or natural for everyone, especially neurodivergent individuals). The truth is, everyone feels a little awkward at events like this in the beginning. If you can be a friendly, welcoming face then that can put others at ease.
- Ask people about themselves. Be curious about other people and ask them about their organization, their role, and any other questions that flow naturally during the conversation. You’ll learn a lot by focusing on the other person rather than trying to make your whole pitch right off the bat. I also love learning about other people, so this isn’t even a strategy so much as it is a way of life.
- Practice your elevator pitch and make it shorter. An elevator pitch is the short summary of what you do, as if you’re telling someone about yourself during an elevator ride. This is useful whether you’re a company or a nonprofit. People at conferences will ask you what company or organization you’re with and what you do, so be prepared. When we started Raise HECK Charlotte and I joked that our elevator pitch was best suited for a ride up all the floors of the Empire State Building. After four years, we have it down to one floor. (If you’re curious, here it is: “Raise HECK helps progressive nonprofits choose and use CRM and digital tech solutions that are the best fit for their people, goals, and mission.”)
- Think in terms of “How can I help you?” rather than “How can you help me?” Sometimes there might not be an immediate business connection at a conference. Not everyone I talked to at #23NTC needed what we do at Raise HECK, but there were quite a few conversations where I could be a connector for people and make introductions or suggestions for the thing they were interested in. And others did the same for me.
- Be yourself. Be exactly who you are. If you like cats, or constantly make awesome puns (heyooooo!), or love to knit, don’t suppress that. We all deserve to show up to work as our full, authentic selves. (As a sidenote, the #23NTC Code of Conduct was incredibly clear, well-written, and reasonable for making a safe and respectful space for all attendees.)
4. NTEN Staff Are Awesome
The NTEN staff worked really hard to put together a cohesive, educational and fun conference. If you’ve ever put together an event like this, you know how taxing that can be physically, mentally, and emotionally. Throughout the entire event, every NTEN staffer I talked to was consistently friendly, helpful, compassionate, and all-around awesome. They did an amazing job.
Special side note: I so appreciated that there was space in the exhibit hall to play ping pong, pickleball, cornhole, giant Jenga, Skee-ball, and other types of movement games. Taking breaks to play games is a double bonus: I met new people, and the activity helped my brain absorb all the new information.
5. Travel Tips
I used to be a seasoned traveler, but I was out of practice. Here are some tips I made a note of for next time:
- Airport screening can be a hassle. If your workplace will pay for you to have TSA Precheck or Clear, it can make this step less painful. Liquids, laptops, shoes, jackets, and shorter lines are worth it. This is a privilege that not everyone can afford, but I think any business or nonprofit that asks employees to travel should cover the cost.
- Bring a clean, empty water bottle in your carry-on. Once you’re through airport security you can fill it up and use it throughout the entire conference. This was essential in Denver–it was arid!
- Get snacks! When you arrive at your destination, stop by a drugstore or similar so you can have snacks on hand in your room. Then not only can you snack if you need to, if you get delayed and miss a conference meal you won’t go hungry.
- Comfortable shoes and extra socks. When you’re at a conference, especially if it’s in a large space where you’ll be walking distances between the exhibit hall and session rooms, comfortable shoes are a must. By the last day, I had switched to full-on running shoes because I needed the support. As for socks: better too many than too few.
- Tip well and often. If anyone in a service position is doing something to make your traveling experience easier and more pleasant, tip them. This includes restaurant servers, curbside baggage handlers, taxi/Lyft/Uber drivers, food delivery workers, coat and baggage check staff, and hotel housekeeping staff.
Next year’s #24NTC is in Portland, Oregon March 13-15, 2024. I’m already brainstorming session ideas! Hope I get to see you there.