Marc Osten (right), with Ami Dar (left). Photo by Beth Kanter.

Remembering Marc Osten: Nonprofit technology activist and early NTEN board member

On April 19th, our field sadly lost one of its early pioneers and passionate leaders, Marc Osten, who succumbed to injuries from a motorcycle accident. Marc served as a founding board member for NTEN and was influential in helping to organize the community that has now matured into the nonprofit technology field.

Photo via Mark Osten Consulting.

Marc had many talents and skills: strategist, social media specialist, planner, trainer, facilitator, provocateur and front-line activist that he put to use for environmental justice, nonprofit technology, and other causes. His specialty, as described on his consulting site, was “helping change the way we interact and collaborate to unlock the knowledge, human and other riches we need to win!”

He was passionate about everything he did in work and life and gave it 1000%, even in his leisure pursuits of cooking and gardening, as you can clearly see in his video blog, Marc’s Culinary Compass.

I first connected with him almost 20 years ago through a listserv for about 100 of us doing technology capacity building for nonprofits. We were called “Circuit Riders,” and the listserv was organized by Rob Stuart, a close friend of Marc’s and another early nonprofit tech pioneer we lost too early.

Marc was interested in the strategic technology planning work I was just beginning to explore and honestly, fumble through, at ArtsWire with arts organizations. He invited me to work with him at Summit Collaborative in 2000 to help develop a program for nonprofits. I worked with him on many projects from 2000 to 2009, even when he moved his family and business to France, we continued to work on projects, including one of our last collaborations, “How To Cost and Fund ICT.”

Looking back over the body of work (files, online references, and emails) we exchanged, I am grateful for the knowledge he shared with me about designing peer learning, curriculum development, and facilitator techniques. His mentoring on instructional design and delivery boosted my confidence as a trainer and built my skills.

Because of his brilliance and commitment to excellence, it was not always easy to collaborate with him. However, he was authentic, kind, and generous in sharing his knowledge. He will be missed by his colleagues, and we extend our sympathy to his wife, Colleen, and children, Daniel and Olive.

Marc had a strong commitment to building the community of nonprofit capacity providers in the early days before NTEN was founded and during the early NTEN years. I reached out to those who knew and worked with him to share their memories of Marc.


Marc at the founding board meeting. Photo by Gavin Clabaugh

Gavin Clabaugh, former NTEN board member: “Turn here; down there,” said Marc, pointing to the right, at a street that was barely one lane, even for France. “Are you sure,” I said quizzically. “Here?”

I looked at the incomprehensible street signs bristling like porcupine quills, poking out left and right, some stuck to the corners of the buildings. They all looked ominous.

“Uh, isn’t that a one-way street? That’s a ‘do-not-enter’ sign.”

We were somewhere near the beach, in Cassis, in the South of France, in the summer. Parking was a faint and hopeless dream. Cars were everywhere, parked scattershot on the curbs, strewn as if by Godzilla.

I looked at the corner where Marc was pointing. I looked at all those tiny French cars, headlights pointed directly at me. In my experience, that’s a good indication of a one-way street. That and, of course, the signs.

Sure, it’s France, where driving is an adventure, and the speed limit, per the guy on my bumper, is 20 KPH faster than what I am doing. I get it, the rules of the road are bendable. But going the wrong way, down a one-way, single-lane street, with cars on both shoulders, was pushing it.

“Trust me,” said Marc, “it’s not a problem. There’s a parking lot we can use just a few blocks down.” I looked at him. “This is the best way to get there,” he said. “And it’s fine. It’s not a problem. Trust me.” So, down the street we drove, slowly, with various pedestrians waving and motioning and shouting and pointing. It was all in French, so I feigned ignorance.

Not Marc. He stepped into the fray, not out. Forever the organizer, the catalyst, he rolled down the window, smiled and chatted with everyone along the way, in perfect French, explaining (at least I think that was what he was doing) that we were just going down to the parking lot, by the beach. Not to worry. “Ah,” said the peds, “Bien sûr.”

That was Marc. Marc would bend a rule with a smile—not break it—bend it, for the right cause, if the ends justified the means. He was right, of course, there was a parking space, just down the one-way street, right at the beach. Voila! We had driven down for the day from where he was living in Aix, families in tow. Marc was eager to share his beautiful family and their amazing French adventure with us. It was grand. Step up, step in, engage. Marc lived in the now.

I met Marc first at the 4th Circuit Rider Roundup (in Kansas City) in 2000. Jillaine Smith introduced us, but it was as if I had known him for years. We were fast friends within 10 minutes.

That Roundup was where the seeds of NTEN were planted, through no small part by Marc. That’s what he did: incubated, nurtured, created. Those seeds planted in Kansas City sprouted the next year in Denver. NTEN owes its beginnings (and its early leadership) to both Marc and Rob Stuart—those pioneers of world domination through technology for the social good. We are so much poorer that they have left the world: first Rob, and now Marc. I can only smile though, that he left this life riding a motorcycle. That’s Marc.

Marc was forever a rule-bender. A righteous man. A man of convictions. A friend. An ally. A man with a heart, a man with a soul. He lived life big. He held strong beliefs and strong convictions. He had an enormous generosity of spirit, always sharing food and wine, always looking to the greater good. Like that crazy trip to beach, he was never afraid to take an unconventional route and always knew where he wanted to end up. He was someone who, through a lifetime of service to the world, bent the rules, and changed the course of history.”

Jon Stahl, Salesforce: “I didn’t work directly with Marc all that much, but what I remember most about him was that in a community filled with large, colorful personalities, what I remember most was how he managed to embody both gonzo energy and soulful wisdom.

In 2001, there were folks who thought that NTEN—then in its infancy—should focus on “professionalizing the field” by issuing “nonprofit technology consulting” credentials. Marc spoke instead of the deeper wisdom of investing in community, convening, and doing the critical work of building human relationships. I think Marc accurately foresaw that the market was going to do just fine with the transactional aspects of technology and that we’d be wise to focus on the human elements. NTEN chose to take that path, and in doing so, gave birth to a movement that is vital and alive and constantly evolving.”

Sheldon Mains, Cycles for Change, Seward Towers Corporation and Sheldon Mains Consulting: “Before there was NTEN, there was the Circuit Rider’s Roundup (a yearly event hosted by Tech Rocks, formerly Rockefeller Technology Project). At the end of the 2000 Roundup in Kansas City, everyone got together to talk about the future of the movement. Lots of flip charts were filled—and a task force was formed to decide what to do next.

I served with Marc on that task force. Let’s just say that Marc and I had different opinions, We tended to clash on the conference calls. (I even remember “pre-conference calls” with some other members of the committee to talk about “dealing” with Marc.) But Marc always did a good job of challenging other’s ideas in a kind and thoughtful way. Without Marc on that task force, NTEN would not have happened. Thank you, Marc, for everything you did for NTEN and nonprofit organizations around the country.”

Carnet Williams, former NTEN board member: “Marc is a spark plug of energy… his voice, his excitement, and his passion for whatever the topic. I remember when he joined the NTEN board, it was time for a change—things were a bit stagnant with the founding board getting busy doing our own things.

This is probably strange to say, but one of my fondest memories of Marc is when he called to fire me as a board member. He called to chat about how things were going with me personally, what projects I was working on, where I saw NTEN moving to, and throughout the whole conversation I realized it was time to resign my board seat so that new people, energy, and ideas could come to help Marc move things along. He did it in such a gentle, cordial, and respectful way that I actually felt good resigning.

Marc will be missed, but for everyone he came across, his energy and passion will live on through our work.”

Michael Stein, Chief Strategist, Oakwood Digital: “When I think back on Marc Osten’s contributions to the nonprofit technology sector, I think of someone who had a profound impact on bringing people together and creating a collaborative learning community (now known as NTEN) for individuals and organizations to harness technology for social good. I worked closely with Marc to produce a content series for which chronicles the early years of nonprofit technology. Marc had a passion not just for how to harness technology, but for how people were learning and changing as a result. He was fascinated with human motivation and human creativity, and was always pushing himself and others to learn and explore. He made me a better writer, a better creator, a better human. I’ll miss him deeply.”

Marc Osten at the UK Riders Conference 2008, Birmingham. Photo by John Kenyon

John Kenyon, John Kenyon Consulting: “There were so many resources that Marc Osten contributed to and shared with the nonprofit technology community over the years; he was a good resource of knowledge and information. Marc and I met in 2001, through Michael Stein, when Michael and I were writing The eNonprofit: A Guide To ASPs. Michael and Marc wrote a series of articles and started an e-newsletter that covered topics related to those services. Marc helped us with writing the book by reviewing drafts and providing feedback. I worked with Marc again in 2005 when I helped Holly Ross at NTEN with a regional conference in Boston, where he did a plenary session on technology planning with Beth Kanter.

In 2007 Marc, Beth Kanter, and I all gave presentations at the UK Circuit Rider conference in Birmingham, England, where the picture above was taken. Later that year, Marc and I worked together on creating a set of principles for nonprofit technology professionals in the US, based on work he did in the UK in the same vein. In 2008 I led a discussion through an Affinity Group provided by NTEN to craft a code of conduct that nonprofit technology providers could agree upon and had a session to discuss them at the 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Marc always hoped they could be widely adopted, but despite good efforts they were never officially recognized.

Marc could be difficult to work with because of his passion and stubbornness. I never heard anyone say he was a joy to work with, but he was very smart and knew his stuff when it came to nonprofit technology. He did good work and I learned a lot from him. He was always on top of his game and striving for better when it came to the ways nonprofits could use technology strategically. I am in debt to him for helping to create a solid foundation of good practices that inform my work even today.

Besides being Yankees, we had in common a love for music. Marc loved the Grateful Dead and this lyric of theirs comes to mind for him: You must really consider the circus/ it just might be your kind of zoo/ I can’t think of a place that’s more perfect, for a person as perfect as you….”

Sarah Lord Soares, Lasa, London: “Marc inspired me. He exuded great energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm that filled the room. He stepped in without hesitation to chair our NPTech conference in Birmingham, UK in 2004 when I realised I had chicken pox, and did a brilliant job, as always.”

Terry Stokes, Lasa, London: “We have lost a great friend who was integral to our developing and raising awareness here in the UK about the importance of tech for nonprofits. We certainly would not have advanced as quickly and purposefully without Marc and the immense experience and passion he brought to his work with us. We were standing on the shoulders of a giant and the world is a much poorer place without Marc in it.”

Ian Runeckles, former Circuit Rider, Lasa, London: “Marc was a huge inspiration to the UK non-profit tech community. He helped us run workshops and conferences with massive energy which led to the establishment of circuit rider principles and skillsets, questioning at each step what we were doing, keeping us on track with, in Marc’s words, a “laser beam focus”. He will be much missed – happy trails, Marc.”

Michael DeChiara, Senior Program Officer for Capacity at Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts: “When I first met Marc Osten in 1985, we were using cutting edge technology – Kaypro portables with CPM operating system and IBM XTs with MS-DOS. When I later connected with Marc around 2004, he was deeply involved with NTEN and thinking deeply about social media and online strategy. The throughline between these periods and what remained consistent over those many years was Marc’s passion to make the world a better place and his commitment to strategic use of tools and communication to advance that lofty and powerful goal. Marc was intense, smart and intentional. He made an impact.”

Allison Fine, Author, Matterness: “Marc was a joy to work with and to know as a human being. In those early NTEN days we were all mesmerized by the toolset, all of these shiny new tools for working together! But Marc always reminded us of the importance of holding on to our humanity, and encouraging others to do the same, and not to get lost in the wizardry of our new world. I will miss his passion, his heart and his goodness.”

Eric Leland, Principal, FivePaths, LLC: “One of my first paying nptech projects was in partnership with Marc Osten. It was not my favorite project, and my partnership with Marc was challenging. I was in over my head, and Marc took substantial time to mentor me through it. Marc taught me the strengths, and weaknesses, of unbridled passion towards a cause. Marc was quick to acknowledge what was working, and what was not. Marc and I could disagree, and confront each other in a way to quickly address and resolve the issue, bettering ourselves and our work on the project. It had to be this way, otherwise I would not have learned so clearly how to succeed in this work.

I learned an enduring appreciation for working with people fully committed to a shared purpose. I could never question Marc’s commitment and passion for getting it right and I knew, no matter the issue, that this would bring success. Marc did not always turn the passion off, and I learned my own personal limits from working with Marc. I learned how to take care of myself at an early stage of work, how to check my energy at the end of the day and make plenty of room for myself and my family.”

Beth Kanter
Master Trainer, Author, and Speaker
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Beth is an internationally recognized thought leader in networks, digital transformation, philanthropy, wellbeing in the workplace and training. Beth has over 35 years working in the nonprofit sector in capacity building and has facilitated trainings for thousands of social change activists and nonprofits on every continent in the world. She is an in-demand keynote speaker and workshop leader. Named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and one of the BusinessWeek’s “Voices of Innovation for Social Media,” Beth was Visiting Scholar at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation 2009-2013. She author of the award-winning Networked Nonprofit Books and The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout ( published by J.Wiley. She writes “Beth’s Blog,” one of the first nonprofit blogs. Her clients include foundations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations.