April 18, 2014

2014 NTC Report: The Wins, The Fails, The Ideas for 2015

I can’t believe that just one month ago we were wrapping up the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Washington, D.C. In the last month, NTEN staff have rested and recuperated (Jessica even traveled to China!), launched into planning and logistics for the inaugural Leading Change Summit (coming this September 3-6!), and debriefed a whole lot of the NTC. We also read through all of the NTC evaluations! Today, I have a full report back about what went well and what we want to improve, and even what we want to flat out discontinue.

I apologize in advance for the length of this post. We didn’t want to split up these post-NTC conversations so have sacrificed brevity in the hopes of completeness. I’m excited to hear your feedback!

14NTC By The Numbers

We know you love data. Here’s a run down of some of the numbers we were interested in about this year’s NTC:

  • Registered Attendees in DC: 2,120

  • Speakers: 276

  • Online NTC Attendees: 71

  • Countries represented: 21

  • 14NTC tweets during the conference: 20,344

  • Karaoke songs with NTEN staff embarrassing themselves: At least 3

  • Links shared: 870 (on Twitter at least)

  • Photos: 1,145 Twitter photos, 190 Instagram photos, 66 Hootsuite photos

  • Videos: 25 Vine videos

  • Evaluations submitted: 422 conference evals, 1,473 session evals

  • Number of educational sessions: 108

  • Number of events in the agenda that were added to attendee schedules that were meals, beer, salons, awards, or plenaries: 42

The Wins and The Fails

Spoiler alert: many of these topics and conversations can’t be separated as simply a win or a fail. We found wins even in big fails and found opportunities for further improvement even in some of the big wins. So, we’re sharing these with both/all angles together.

You: The Community

The community will never NOT be #1. Talk about generosity. From the legacy of volunteers who have created a separate note-taking doc for every single session, to those of you who agreed to be on camera in between sessions and say hello to the OnlineNTC participants, to the number of you who gave constructive feedback through our conference and session evaluations (and via phone call…and Facebook thread…and over cotton candy at the Geek Games…), the generosity of NTEN community members is almost overwhelming.

Part of our decision making process when thinking about the NTC – from the name badges to the menu to the signage to the microsite – is finding ways for all those who’ve been in the NTEN community for a while and even been to the NTC before to meet up and have fun, as well as create just an inviting and welcoming space for those fresh to the community and the conference. We don’t always succeed. It is inevitable that we say something that sounds a bit too “had to be there”, or includes components to the agenda that aren’t fully explained to a new attendee. We hear this feedback and will continue to work on improvements.

As one of you noted in the survey:

My favorite thing about the conference is how open to sharing everyone there is. As a consultant working for an agency, sometimes there can be some issues with sharing “institutional knowledge” but all of the presenters I saw — orgs and agencies alike — were totally open and honest and it is a delight to be in that kind of company.

Side note: This is one reason we feel comfortable asking the speakers to share their slides publicly ahead of time. We know this is a little unusual, but so many people walked up to us to thank us for this. “I couldn’t decide which session to attend!,” they’d say, or “I can’t wait to share the slides from the breakout I just attended with my team back at the office.” You can find most of the session materials here: http://bit.ly/14NTCresources.

Science Fair

For the first time, we stretched the Science Fair over two days, giving you the chance to speak with more than 152 organizations and vendors. We heard from so many people about how they found their dream vendor at the NTC, or weren’t even sure how to get started on a critical project until they had a conversation at a booth. We expanded the Science Fair to be over two days with the intention that it would enable both attendees and exhibitors to attend sessions together, start a conversation, and then head back to their booth to keep talking. We totally failed in delivering a clear enough message to exhibitors that they really could leave their booths and enjoy the rest of the conference, whether in sessions or meals or just simply walking the hallways. We’ve already made notes in our agenda planning, exhibitor resources, and other communication templates to make these options and times as clear as possible.

We also heard and very much experienced ourselves the frustrations and limitations of the physical space housing the Science Fair. Although many attendees reported enjoying a larger venue and especially having the NTENer Center in the middle where they could find people and walk the aisles from, it was an underwhelming experience for many exhibitors to say the least. Please know that we take this feedback extremely seriously, have already voiced your and our feedback with the hotel, and want to do all that is in our power to make the Science Fair, well, awesome – for everyone.

Despite some of the restrictions of the Science Fair reported, when asked about your favorite moments of the conference, here were just two replies of several:

As always, the Science Fair is tremendously helpful for our organization to hear ideas and start forging/reinforcing relationships.

Visiting all of the trade show booths. It was interesting to see the wide variety of technology companies and what they offer.

Guts and vulnerability

With all of that generosity on display, we’d have to be robots not to show a little emotion. We took time as a group to remember the irreplaceable Bob Russell, we cheered for all of the other award winners, and we laughed and cried watching the finalists for the DoGooder Video Awards.

And as we read through the evals, we lost track of how many people gave Sue Anne Reed props for her deeply personal Ignite talk. Here’s just one:

Sue Anne’s Ignite. I knew she had worked long and hard on it, and it was a huge leap for her to do it. She rocked it, and it rocked me. I was so proud of the community for being a place that she felt comfortable sharing her story and that it was a place of support for her.

Whew…for a “technology conference,” this certainly is a heart-fest. On the flip side, we recognize that so much personal story telling and familiar sharing can be a lot to take in at a conference, especially as a first-time attendee. Although it can be a difficult balance, we are dedicated to listening to your feedback and creating a conference that provides opportunities for all the ways we want to talk about our work and ourselves.

Ignites

In 2013, you told us loud and clear that these talks were placed too late in the day and stacked against too many other offerings. We also wanted to build a plenary line-up that showcased diverse voices and ideas throughout the conference. So this year we placed these during our plenary kickoff on Day 1, with six community members sharing their five-minute talks instead of a single presenter. We are so happy we listened to you, and from the responses to the eval, it looks like you were, too:

I enjoyed the ignite sessions – something for everyone, delivered in a manner which differing individuals could absorb in their own way.

The opening plenary was wonderful – a big surprise for a tech conference. I realized that NTEN focused on people, not just technology, and I felt very welcome.

Want to re-live the magic? Watch Rich Dietz, Steve Heye, Leanne Pittsford, Craig Sinclair, Sue Anne Reed, and Cheryl Contee light up the room. We are also always interested in your feedback and suggestions for creating valuable conversations and sparking new ideas during the plenaries, some of the only times that so many in the community can be in one room together.

Presenter Combinations

One bucket of feedback we’ve heard and felt in the past is that the NTC is a valuable platform for many voices in this community – from people that have never had an opportunity to professionally present but have lots of great ideas and experience to share, to community leaders who many are eager to hear from. We are constrained to some extent by the physical venue’s room numbers and the recognition that the more sessions we offer at each time slot the more frustrated attendees are that they can’t clone themselves. In an attempt to provide both returning speakers and new voices to the NTC stage a chance to present this year, and as a response to the vast number of session submissions by different people that were incredibly similar (for example, there were 5 that even used the same words in the title!), we accepted sessions with the clause that they collaborate.

In some instances, this didn’t work. Flat out, fail. But in many instances, it brought together people who hadn’t otherwise known each other or at least hadn’t worked together to create a more dynamic session, where attendees were able to hear from more than one experienced presenter, and really create a valuable addition to the agenda. We heard great feedback about the successful sessions and critical feedback about those that didn’t go well.

We still believe that sessions with more than one viewpoint are important, especially on the topics covered at the NTC. We will be working with the steering committee to have clear suggestions and context in the session submission form for 15NTC, and will have a much closer touch with all speakers well in advance of deadlines this year to support collaborations and help presenters design great sessions.

Registration

Can I take this opportunity to share, again, that this year’s NTC was the biggest one yet? We had 2,120 attendees – that’s a lot of name badges, tote bags, and “welcome to the NTC”s. Even with opening registration the day before the conference started, we were absolutely blown away by the number of people who were onsite and ready to check in. Usually, there are people who skip a day or two on either end of the conference so registration is heavy on the first day and then slows over the next two days. This year, we could have basically closed registration on the second day!

We’ve heard great feedback about the ability to scan, print your badge, and head off to sessions or food or networking. So, in 2015, we’ll be setting up kiosks to allow attendees to walk up, self-help style, and be on their way. We will also separate the stations for name badges, totes bags, and questions or support to make those long lines disappear (or try to make them much, much shorter!).

Scholarships

At the risk of repeating one word too often (ahem – starts with “G” and rhymes with “schmenerous”), the NTEN community contributed over $33,000 to our NTEN Challenge fundraising campaign, which, in part, allowed us to help make the conference more affordable for 50 attendees. This is just a start, of course, and we are very much interested in other ways to create accessible entry points for all those that want to participate.

One recipient wrote to us after the conference:

Wanted to thank the NTEN community for providing scholarships to the NTC. Because of which I was able to attend, connect with peers and subject experts, as well and refresh my perspective leaving with some pretty awesome tools and resources.

In case you’re feeling moved, you can always donate to support conference scholarships and membership access to those who would otherwise not be able to afford to participate.

The OnlineNTC

This year, with the generous support of Salsa Labs, we were able to broadcast all three plenary sessions and 13 breakouts, along with several exclusive interviews. We had over 70 people tune in live from offices and homes near and far, and were lucky to have BJ Wishinsky, Beth Johnson, and our own Bethany Lister (who’d started on staff one week prior!) co-hosting.

By streaming sessions and scheduling interviews while those onsite are mingling in the hallways, it is our hope that those joining online can have a chance to connect and network, and benefit from some of the great content in the sessions. We recognize, though, that we can continue to improve here. We would love to be able to stream (and thus record) all of the sessions! That comes with a pretty big price, either offset with additional sponsors or many more registrations. We’ll be working on plans for 15NTC to investigate options for expanding the streaming/recording capacity.

The Internet, Always

You’ve broken it every time. With all of your check-ins and photos, work email and online agenda checks, there’s never enough bandwidth. This year, we had more than double the bandwidth (plus a backup reserve!) as last year. We thought we’d finally have an NTC with perfect wifi (though, to be fair to ourselves, we had a fear it wasn’t achievable). Despite our best efforts, the wifi still went down a few times during the conference. It also was down for the computers at registration (though not the badge printers!). Staff and contractors were ever vigilant on the uptime status and even when it went down, they were already working to get it back up. We have tons of data from this year’s usage and you can bet that it is a huge part of our conversations with future venues.

The Conference Guides

If you’re going to bother spending money and using paper to print a guide, you want it to be really, really useful – almost to become an extension of someone’s arm throughout the event. And if you’re going to spend time investing in a new tool for your online schedule and integrate it with your conference community platform, you want that to become everyone’s mobile phone home screen for the week. Overall, we were proud of the print guide, with its handy pull-out map and chronologically ordered sessions—shout-out to our Marketing and Publications Director, Joleen Ong, and our talented, thoughtful designer Philip Krayna!—and pleased with Sched.org, which we used for the online guide.

We kept a close eye on the data for the MyNTC microsite (looking at how many people activated their profile, connected with other attendees, posted messages) and Sched.org (looking at how many people created an account, managed their schedule, which sessions were getting RSVPs) and think we have some data-informed insight into areas that were hurdles, including the fact that Sched.org required a separate account from an attendee’s NTEN profile credentials. We also heard from many attendees about ways to better highlight certain aspects of the agenda and feature valuable content about logistics on the site.

The Unsung Heroes

There are a whole bunch of humans behind the scenes who help the staff stay on track, the meals start and end on time, the name badges print with attendees’ titles of choice, and so much more. Huge thanks to Steph Routh and Max Ward, both of whom were behind the tech table during the plenaries each morning; NTEN Colleague Emeritus Mimi Cook, who can juggle tasks and sing “Sweet Caroline” like nobody’s business; our A/V contractor Mike Towers; the good people of Brede (one attendee wrote in her eval: “Brede service desk was very helpful – especially given that we were not using them!”; Dave from ExpoLogic (who made sure your name badges were printed swiftly and who fielded tons of questions unrelated to his job, by virtue of being placed behind the registration desk); Trav Williams, our photographer; Brady Richards, a friend of the NTEN family who designed that awesome Nerd Bingo shirt; and the staff at the Marriott Wardman Park.

The fail on our part here? Making sure we find as many opportunities as possible to thank everyone contributing the NTC’s success as often as possible, in real-time, and very publicly. This post is the least we can do, and we will keep saying thank you!

The Opportunity to Move Forward…Together

It’s always a little wistful to pack up the boxes and head back to our offices, but we find inspiration and enthusiasm knowing there’s so much more we can do together the rest of the year and beyond!

And, that’s not even all. We have gathered so much great feedback from the evaluations, our own experiences, and from many post-conference calls and emails. We are so thankful that we have the opportunity to work with and serve such a passionate and engaged community. Thank you! We can’t wait to see you all soon!

Amy Sample Ward
Driven by a belief that the nonprofit technology community can be a movement-based force for positive change, Amy is NTEN’s CEO and former membership director. Her prior experience in direct service, policy, philanthropy, and capacity-building organizations has also fueled her aspirations to create meaningful, inclusive, and compassionate community engagement and educational opportunities for all organizations. Amy inspires the NTEN team and partners around the world to believe in community-generated change. She believes technology can help nonprofits reach their missions more effectively, efficiently, and inclusively, and she’s interested in everything from digital equity to social innovation.
Tags: NTC