John Kenyon, Beth Kanter, Jeanne Allen and me, before our 2017 breakout session about technology training. Photo by John Kenyon.

A first-timer’s guide to enjoying the 2018 Nonprofit Technology Conference

A version of this first appeared on and is reprinted here with permission.


The 2018 Nonprofit Technology Conference (18NTC) in New Orleans is coming up next month, April 11 – 13. I attended for the first time in 2007, and my employer has seen fit to send me back annually since then. 18NTC will be my 12th trip to this particular conference.

Thinking back to my first time at the NTC, I remember being in a state of ecstasy and overwhelm for much of the event. So many like-minded people! So many exhibitors! So many breakout sessions! Coffee breaks, receptions, luncheons, dinners, Birds of a Feather tables, Geek Games, NTCbeer, Plenaries, Ignite sessions… there was so much to see and do, it felt nearly impossible to absorb it all. I left energized but exhausted.

Therefore, I’m addressing this post to folks who will be attending the NTC this year for the very first time. I feel like I’ve learned a few things in the past decade-plus of attending this conference and would like to share it so you can hopefully optimize your conference experience and walk away feeling great!

Take a lot of business cards

Not only will you want to exchange them with people you meet, you’ll need a bunch for dropping at vendor tables (for networking and to enter prize drawings). I take a three-inch stack in my suitcase, secured by a rubber band and then keep about 20 at a time on my person during the conference, replenishing as needed. (Bonus Tip: I still forget to do this sometimes, so take a photo of your business card with your phone; then you’ll at least be able to text your card to people if you forget to bring paper business cards.) (Bonus Bonus Tip: If you forget even to do that, take photos of the name tags of people you meet—you can always look them up online later.)

Take notes on the business cards you get from others

Scribble notes to yourself on the back of business cards you collect from others. If you wait until you get home to sort through your cards, you won’t remember who you met where or what you discussed. Every few hours during the conference, I pull out the cards I have collected thus far and write notes on them (example: “WordPress BoF lunch table/Thursday/SEO plugins”). This also makes it nice that, when you find people later on LinkedIn or elsewhere, you can send a customized invitation to connect (example: “It was great meeting you at the WordPress Birds of a Feather table during lunch last Thursday at the NTC. If you’d like to talk some more about SEO plugins, please get in touch.”)

Make the most of breakout sessions

  • Don’t feel like you have to attend sessions in every single time slot available. There are times you’ll get into a great discussion in the hallway and that will end up being more valuable than the session you are missing for it. Collaborative notes will be available after the conference, and you can get content from people tweeting the session using the assigned hashtag.
  • Breakout session jumping happens at this conference. I rarely see this at other conferences, but at the NTC, if you are in a session and the content isn’t compelling to you, leave that one and try another. Everyone does it and nobody will give you the stink-eye for doing so (unless you leave loudly or obnoxiously, of course).
  • Along the same lines, if you are a first time breakout speaker, don’t freak out if people leave your session. It’s absolutely not personal or a reflection on your delivery or content, I promise.
  • If you have more than one session you want to attend in a given time slot, just pick one and write yourself a note to look up the collaborative notes for the others later.

Visit exhibitors, but plan your strategy in advance

My treasure trove of exhibitor swag from 2017!

There are simply too many exhibitors at this conference to visit them all in the time given. I tried it one year: it took me four straight hours of greeting booth staffers and having short/shallow conversations to pull it off. It’s much better to look at the exhibitor listing in advance and make notes of those you absolutely want or need to visit. Make these your priority the first day, then spend the rest of the time cruising the exhibit hall to visit the others. Oh, and leave extra room in your suitcase if you can—most of the exhibitors have a lot of cool swag you can take home, but you’ll need room in your luggage to do it unless you are driving to the conference.

Dress is casual

Yes, you’ll see a few people in suits, but not too many. Dress ranges from jeans and geeky t-shirts to business casual. Wear what makes you comfortable as long as it’s clean and becoming; nobody will look down their nose at you at this conference for not wearing a suit. And bring/wear shoes that you can walk in for at least 8 hours—your feet will thank you later. Finally, check the forecast in advance and bring a sweater or light jacket in case the hotel session rooms are chilly. Packing an umbrella this time of year isn’t the worst idea either, even without rain in the forecast.

Meet as many people as you can

The NTEN community is filled with members who are incredibly friendly. You’re not likely to click with every single person you meet, but if you talk to 100 people during the conference, you’re bound to make a half dozen deeper connections and come away with some new friends.

If you suffer from social anxiety the way I do, keep in mind that we are largely a bunch of geeks (I mean that in a loving way) and that the person sitting next to you may be feeling as awkward or shy as you are. There’s nothing to be lost by smiling at someone and saying “hello, how are you enjoying the conference so far?”

Disconnect from public wi-fi (or turn off your wi-fi on your devices) when not using it

We crash the wi-fi nearly every year because over 2,000 people are connecting through multiple devices. It makes connectivity better for everyone if you are conscientious about connecting. It’s become better in recent years, but the network can get really slow, even if it doesn’t crash altogether.

Try to avoid checking Twitter just before going to bed

The Twitter stream at the NTC is vibrant and compelling. I have missed out on hours of sleep from checking it before bed, getting sucked in and ending up very tired the next day. You’ll need your sleep to make the most of the conference – there’s a lot to see and do each day.

Listen to your mind and body

If you find yourself overwhelmed, skip something and go for a walk or find a quiet corner and meditate for a bit. If you are hungry, find something to eat. Drink a lot of water so you stay hydrated throughout the day. If you are tired at the end of a day, go to bed early instead of going out drinking. A little self-care will go a long way towards helping you have a great time.

I’m sure there are more, but these are my best tips off the top of my head. If you want to get in touch with me during the conference, Twitter (@cindy_leonard) is best—I check my feed throughout each day. I look forward to seeing everyone next month!

Cindy Leonard
Consulting Team Leader
Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University
Cindy Leonard joined the YWCA Westmoreland County as Executive Director in September 2018, bringing over 20 years of nonprofit leadership and management experience. The YWCA endeavors for social justice by working to eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. Previously, Cindy spent 12 years at the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management, working with the director and consulting team to enhance the Center's consulting and technology programs. She also performed community organizing around technology through the Center's popular Bagels & Bytes meetups and annual TechNow conference. Before that, she managed IT for Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful. An experienced speaker and trainer with a highly engaging, interactive style, Cindy has successfully worked with groups as small as 10 and as large as 200 on a wide variety of topics. She has presented and trained at over 100 conferences and classes, including conferences by Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, Nonprofit Technology Network, Nonprofits LEAD, Alliance for Nonprofit Management, Association of Fundraising Professionals of Western Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Library Association. Cindy presently serves on the board of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, a Master of Business Administration, and a Master of Education, all from Seton Hill University. Raised in Blairsville and Derry Township, Cindy has had a lifelong love affair with the Laurel Highlands, and currently resides in Youngwood with her husband Rob and a handful of very spoiled felines. She blogs about nonprofit management and technology at