April 8, 2015

2015 NTC Report: The Wins, The Fails, The Plans for 2016

Only one month ago the NTEN team was packing up the last of the boxes and headed home from the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. In the last few weeks, I think every single staff person caught and recovered from an epic cold (apparently we like to share!) and have had a number of formal and informal debriefs together about the NTC. That’s all in addition to reading through all of the evaluations! Thank you to everyone who took the time to share feedback both in session evaluations and the overall NTC evaluation. Your feedback is key to planning for an even better event each year. Both in attendee feedback and in our own debriefs, we’ve identified a number of points that we want to formally share back out here to gather additional feedback and share some of our thoughts as we look ahead to 2016 (in San Jose, March 23-25).

15NTC Wins and Fails

First, a huge thank you to all of the staff, board, volunteers, and contractors that helped make the NTC run so smoothly. There is so much that I want to say, but no words to do it all justice (without crying! Gosh, now I’m crying!); thank you.

Plenaries

After last year’s successful Ignite plenary, and the overwhelming feedback from attendees, we expanded the Ignites to be on two of the three mornings. This meant 12 different presentations showcasing a range of voices, topics, and ideas. It is important to us that the NTC figuratively and the plenaries literally serve as a stage to highlight the diversity of this community. We will be continuing with Ignite presentations at the plenaries next year (WIN) and encourage you to start thinking about your ideas! Ignite proposals will open in the fall.

On the second day of the NTC, we had high hopes for a panel discussion that was less about a few people on the stage getting to have their say, and more about engaging the entire room in a conversation that could continue back in all of our organizations and beyond. It was incredible to see this hope come to life in the room (WIN). Thank you to everyone who attended the morning plenary and engaged in conversation at your table about diversity in our sector. Thank you! I also want to acknowledge that we had more on our list to discuss than we could have ever accomplished in the short amount of time we had together (FAIL). We purposefully scheduled the Women in Tech session to take place later in the conference as a carry-over space for some of these conversations. We could have done a much better job, though, of making the lunch table signs clear areas for continued conversation, as well as other spaces for attendees to find each other and extend the discussions.

15NTC was the first time there was no keynote at the NTC (WIN or FAIL?)- the plenaries had Ignites and the panel, but no traditional keynote. We would really love your feedback about this. Would you like a keynote? If so, what kind of keynote would you like to see on the NTC stage? You can leave comments on this post, or email me any time with your ideas, feedback, and suggestions.

Sessions

This year, we had 17 concurrent sessions each breakout time – that is a whole lot of awesome! It also meant it was a big ask for attendees to choose a session. That is, though, a great problem to have in our opinion! We are proud to have a program that is filled with great sessions and speakers (WIN). It took a lot of work to make that happen this year, though. The feedback from attendees and speakers proves that the work we put in with the steering committee and staff to ensure a great program was worth it, and we are working now to plan for a similar process next year.

We noticed during the NTC that many people weren’t changing sessions (FAIL). If someone attends a session and just isn’t what they thought it would be, or what they are looking to spend 90 minutes thinking about, we encourage everyone to go find another session that meets those expectations! We prepare presenters for that action and remind people that it isn’t a sign that the session is bad but more that each attendee is finding the best fit. When we noticed the limited number of attendees changing rooms and even connected with a few attendees who shared that they felt they shouldn’t leave a room, we made some real-time adjustments to welcome remarks at the plenary and posted to social media. That wasn’t enough, though, and we want to do a better job next year preparing attendees to make the NTC as absolutely great as it can be for their own needs.

Being in a convention center also meant that there were rooms of the usual breakout session size, and then there were some pretty huge ballrooms. We crafted the room assignments as best we could, trying to anticipate where people may gravitate and putting some sessions on larger topics in larger rooms. That was not a perfect science (FAIL) – by our own experience and by your feedback. We will be using a similar online process for posting the agenda next year and will encourage attendees to RSVP as much as possible ahead of the conference so that significant room size discrepencies can hopefully be addressed. Get ready: once you’re registered, we will be asking you to start looking at the agenda!

Online NTC

After feedback from attendees last year, discussions with steering committee members, and a review of overall goals and needs with staff, we decided to prioritize more content available online over content being livestreamed. As such, the 15NTC online content doubled in size this year (WIN) to includ 28 sessions and all three plenaries (Ignite videos are public, if you want to share!). We are excited to move in a direction that enables more content to be captured and shared from the NTC, as the online component allows for people near and far who are unable to attend locally to still have access to the conference. There’s always more we can do, though. We would love to keep talking with you all about how to capture content in a way that you will access post-NTC to ensure we can plan for changes or contractors necessary to meet those goals.

The difference with this year’s expanded program is that it did not include interstitial content (interviews, and session highlights), and it did not engage people online in live discussions (FAIL?). It may be that the session content is more valuable than the live interviews or discussions, and it may be that the live chat isn’t of interest to online attendees (especially when the #15NTC hashtag engages people online already), but we would love feedback to better understand how those aspects may contribute to your experience and interest in accessing content from the conference online.

Food

We take the food and drinks (all the coffee, please) at the NTC very seriously; after all, we have to eat to make it through all those sessions! We are regularly told by catering teams that the NTC food order has the highest number of vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, and kosher meals of all the events they do each year. That takes some planning to ensure dietary requests are accounted for and made available. It is really great reading so many evaluations that include a note of thanks for having clear labels on the food, having food options that people need (especially when they are used to not being offered something that meets a dietary restriction), and that is different each day. One thing that’s missing (FAIL) from the order that we will ensure is called out in the venue’s meal plans next year so attendees can sucessfully find food that meets their needs is a halal option.

This year, we significantly increased the coffee order (WIN); you’re welcome. We noticed you still drank it all.

The awards lunch on the final day of the NTC was a difficult meal for many people, given that the food was so slow to be delivered to tables. We heard from many attendees that they ended up heading to sessions without having a full meal (FAIL). That is certainly not our plan and even more certainly not the food order we’ve placed! Next year, we will try not having a plated lunch at all, so hopefully everyone can grab the food that they want and find a table without worring about getting a meal.

Progressive Parties

The Progressive Parties were packed this year – all despite it being a severe storm for Austin with startingly low temperatures. We heard so much positive feedback this year about the locations of the parties, both in proximity to the conference hotels and in relation to each other (WIN). We will be using a similar process of scouting and securing the venues ahead of time and providing those options to the Progressive Party sponsors as they sign on. This isn’t meant to limit creativity of the sponsors but really to ensure that the experience for attendees is as great as possible.

One aspect of the venue negotiations we learned needs to be reviewed in-person is the accessibility options for the physical location (FAIL). We really need to go ourselves to assess whether what a venue says is accessible meets our standards for providing equal opportunity to all NTC attendees to participate in the big social evening of parties. I sincerely apologize to those attendees who were unable to join with peers in all of the parties because of restrictions of the physical venue. Staff are headed to San Jose next week for site visits and will be visiting potential Progressive Party locations to review accessibility before we consider using the venue.

Convention Center

This was our first year in a convention center for the NTC and, all in all, we think it went pretty well! The key: We don’t have to use the entire convention center! Attendees were still able to pass in the hall or say hello at central locations (WIN) because of the concentration of rooms in one area of the convention center. We are working with the San Jose Convention Center (next year’s venue) to look for similar options with the space. Similarly, we are working with the San Jose Convention Center to include gender neutral restrooms again this year (WIN). We are sensitive to the feedback that these options were sourced only from traditionally labeled women’s restrooms this year (FAIL), so will work to make sure there’s a more evenly distributed number of options next year.

A huge win that was not celebrated nearly enough this year: YOU DID NOT BREAK THE INTERNET (WIN)! Finally, a year in which our collective agenda-checking, frequent tweeting, and breaking of the one device rule did not bring down the entire network. That’s a huge benefit of being in a convention center. Thank you, Austin, for giving us the gift of Interwebs!

The biggest win, of course, was you: The NTEN community is what makes the NTC (and every other program, event, and article throughout the year) so amazing. We are inspired by and honored to work with all of you. NTEN is, first and foremost, a community. Thank you, all, for being part of the community, showing up (at the NTC and every day) to share and learn together, and for letting us help. Looking forward to seeing you in San Jose for 16NTC March 23-25!

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.
Interest Categories: Community Management
Tags: Community