All nonprofits are tech nonprofits

“all technology problems are ultimately leadership problems.”

Leigh Kessler, VP at CharityEngine,  asked on LinkedIn: “A Key theme from #14NTC, the NTEN conference, was ‘all nonprofits are tech nonprofits.’ Any tips on how people can become better technocrats, even those to whom it doesn’t come easily?”

(By the way, if you are unfamiliar with NTEN or its conference, you should know that you have a great resource available to you.

My response to Leigh was this:

One of the tips came up in Saturday’s keynote, and in many informal conversations I had throughout NTC: listen to everyone. Most people know how they’d like to do their job more efficiently and effectively than YOU know how to do their job. Those we serve need to be empowered more to help themselves. The key frustration of young people at NTC (and there were so many young people there!) was that they feel they have limited voice within their organizations, yet they need to drag their organizations (their words) into higher levels of technological capacity.

Leigh then pressed me for ways to empower those younger techies in our nonprofit organizations.

First, kudos to the organizations that invested $2500 or more for their young people to leave the office for 3+ days and attend NTC. If they want to realize a return on that investment, they need to expect those young techies to present a 30-minute talk on “what I learned at NTC and how it relates to us” to a wide swath of the nonprofit organization. NTEN works because there is almost no hierarchy — members talk to each other directly. As Michael Enos said on Friday, “turn your org chart sideways, because work gets done between the lateral boxes, not up and down the chart.” (view the entire discussion here.)

Specifically, how can young people be heard? We older people need to ask them hard questions, then shut up and listen. Then, instead of saying “that won’t work because…” we need to say, “that might work, if…” We need to let them try. Even Yogi Berra got it: “A fellow can observe a lot just by watching.”

This leads to my belief, first considered at the first NTC I attended in 2005, that all technology problems are ultimately leadership problems. Organizations that lead well, that cultivate leadership at all levels, will implement the technology ideas brought to them by young people at NTC, as well as from other sources. “Top-down” theory X organizations will never hear the ideas.

A large food bank leader explained that he’s trying to use technology to enable his food suppliers to work directly with the soup kitchens and others who use the food. This is leading to more direct deliveries, bypassing the food band completely in some cases.

“If we can get out of the business of moving food around, we can focus more on the business of finding fresh food and getting it to the people who need it,” he said. Mobile GIS-based tools (which is a part of every smartphone) and better communication networks will make this possible.

What are we doing in healthcare, and specifically in healthcare fundraising, to use technology to listen more to our donors, to connect them with the specific causes they want to fund, and to show them the results of their “investment?”

As I wrote for The NonProfit Times, ( and  technology won’t fix the problems your nonprofit is trying to solve. It will enable your people to tackle those problems in new ways that might be much more efficient than your old ways.


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