The following is a conversation between Amy Sample Ward, the CEO of NTEN, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: NTEN, founded in 2000, is a community for those interested in the use of technology to support nonprofit organizations and the issues in which they’re engaged. Its signature activity is its annual international conference, which is talked about by most everyone in the sector. This has been a time for a profound change, which includes the equity issues connected with the use of technology, both in the sector and in society at large. And here to discuss some of those issues, it’s a pleasure to have with us, Amy Sample Ward, the CEO of NTEN.
Welcome to the Business of Giving, Amy!
Amy: Thanks so much for having me and for opening up this conversation.
Denver: Share with listeners a little bit more about the mission of NTEN and how the organization got started in the first place.
Amy: Sure, happy to. It’s an interesting story – I think a little bit different than how other organizations have gotten started. So, I’ll start with how we were formed and move into what that looks like and what we do.
If you’ll travel with me in this time machine to the late ‘90s—
We were created by this community to convene and serve and resource them. And that means we can really only do our job in relationship to that community. So many of our processes and practices as an organization are: How can we convene the community and get feedback from them and be responsive to the needs as they change?
Denver: Oh, you’re a storyteller!
Amy: Yes, to the late ’90s… nonprofits and their use of technology – dramatically different than today. Not even every person in an organization sat at a desk with a computer. So, the relationship to technology was very different than now. The organizational culture around technology is very different. And a lot of staff didn’t have someone that owned technology in that way. So a lot of it was outsourced to a consultant or to an outside organization that would come in and take care of technology.
And that group of folks, those technology providers, those consultants, sometimes the people in a foundation or nonprofit that have that technology oversight or even have a vision of how technology was going to impact organizations in the years to come, tried to self-organize and share resource, vent, complain with each other – all those things that come with being a community.
And that community grew into the hundreds and reached a point where folks felt like this is really important. This is a sector – this intersection of nonprofit and technology. But we can’t self-organize, there’s too many people – the classic herding cats situation. And the community, at one of their gatherings of hundreds of folks, actually took a vote: Should there be an organization or not? And the majority voted: Yes, there should be an organization. And that vote created NTEN.
So, we were formed by the community that we serve. And so, many of those folks, 21 years later, are active in the community, are on the board, are speakers at the conference. And that has, of course, meant that we have a strong community, but it also meant that that community-centeredness is inherent to who we are.
We weren’t created and then went off on our own merry way. We were created by this community to convene and serve and resource them. And that means we can really only do our job in relationship to that community. So many of our processes and practices as an organization are: How can we convene the community and get feedback from them and be responsive to the needs as they change?
And so, our mission now, very broad, to make sure that all the nonprofits, regardless of geography or how big they are or where they are, what their mission is, that all nonprofits can actually meet their mission, can meet community needs, can go out of business because they were able to use technology strategically and in racially equitable ways to get it done.
We don’t focus on product. Microsoft or Salesforce and whoever – they’ll teach you how to use the products. But we’re serving a community that has often not had access to formal training around technology; has not been included in spaces where what does technology leadership… or leadership in general… look like inside of an organization?
So, a lot of what we are providing is the resourcing and the training and the skill-building, kind of a safe area to practice these skills that folks have never had access to before. So, that intersection of equity and our work is both in what we do and in our mission for the world we’re trying to create.
Denver: That’s a great overview. Every time I’ve had to deal with a nonprofit organization and I can’t quite get my arms around them, I invariably ask them to tell me their founding story. Because people don’t understand how the DNA is baked in at the founding.
Amy: From the start.
Denver: From the very start. We’re all trying to figure out like, “Give me the latest annual report.” No, no, no. Tell me your founding story, and if I were a detective, that will give me more clues than anything else.
Well, that founding story of the community, and now the community, as you said, is still there but it has grown and grown and grown into that annual conference that I’ve just mentioned a moment ago, which is probably where I first became aware of NTEN. You just had it I think back in March, this past year. It was done virtually.
Tell us a little bit about it, how the virtual conference went, and maybe some of the things you’ll take from that experience out to the future when we’re all getting together again.
Amy: Great question. Because that convening piece was there from the very beginning; that’s always been a big part of our programming through the years. So, prior to the pandemic, we had a nonprofit technology conference every year. And it grew and grew over the years, not because we necessarily had a goal to grow it, but more people registered, and we weren’t going to say no.
So it got to the point where the last in-person registration that we had was over 2,400 registrants. So, definitely big. But our focus has been, regardless of how many people were coming: What is that community experience? How do you bump into somebody in the hallway that turns into this great new colleague or contact? How do you line up for the lunch buffet and end up having a really great conversation with somebody? How do we create, regardless of the size and number of people, spaces for personal connection… and having it feel like a great time?
The most common response we get from first-time attendees is: I found my people. I came to the family reunion I didn’t know I was looking for. People feel like they have arrived, and that’s where they were meant to be.
So, when we needed to move into a virtual format with COVID, that was where we spent 98% of our staff time, is: How are we moving into a format that it’s a family reunion for the people who are just arriving? How is it the place where they get to see their friends? Because they have come every single year… and for the last 10 years or something. How do we create space for that community and connection? Because outside of the conference, NTEN runs online courses and online professional certificates all year.
We knew – no matter what platform we go with, we know how to do a session, we know how to run an online program – but the place where we kind of need to make the mold for ourselves is that community piece.
And we have a really strong focus on accessibility. So a lot of the prominent tools out there that were being promoted as the way to solve for community at your virtual event are really inaccessible. You scroll your mouse over a circle, and all of a sudden, a video box has opened that you didn’t even know what’s going to happen; now your video is turned on to some random person. And if you didn’t know how to control that mouse, you couldn’t even go to them. There’s a lot of pieces that weren’t going to meet what we needed.
So actually, the conference went really well. We had a really strong showing. It was interesting if you’re a data person. So, NTEN’s conference in the past, pre-COVID numbers, it was always very close to 50-50 with a returning attendee and new attendee. And those new attendees, sometimes we found it was a returning organization, but the first time for that staff person to come.
Denver: Different person, right.
Amy: They share around who gets to go each year. And with the virtual, it was 70% new people. So that was kind of a data point that broke the mold. And we thought, “Well I guess it’s lower commitment or risk. I didn’t have to travel if I’ve never been there, and I don’t know how it’s going to go. Maybe easier entry.”
And we did a number of things for the community piece that I think are more interesting to share. So, one piece that we were thinking about is the way at an in-person conference, a lot of folks who, whether they think of themselves as an introvert or an extrovert, regardless of that, not everybody is a morning person.
We have a history of having general sessions in the morning, so that you can wake up on your own terms. You can sit and listen. There’s no expectation. You’re like up and networking and doing things. You had your coffee, and you can just listen. So we were trying to think of what that experience looks like online.
And we used these kind of “morning coffee sessions,” we call them, where there were five community members who were on video. You were having a conversation, but you just got to listen in. So it’s like you sat down at the conference, 8-person round table. And you didn’t want to talk, but you wanted to hear what—“Oh, you’re looking forward to that session,” or “You learned this yesterday.” So, it was kind of an easy entry. So we started the day with those sessions and with walking or meditation, something that was like “I want to start meeting some people, but I want it on my kind of terms.” And people really love those sessions. Tons of participation there.
And then, all throughout the day, we had opportunities where the conversations were already listed, but they could be anything. It could be like, “I love The West Wing TV show.” And “I’m looking to use this new CRM.” Or “I’m brand new in this job title.” And you could just show up into that virtual room and have conversations and meet people. No expectation that there’s a presentation, unfacilitated; just go connect.
Of course, we didn’t know people would show up, if that’s weird, or if people were just going to be alone in these video chats. But tons of participation. People would come. They would be messaging our support team, like “Where can I find the table for that?”
Denver: Oh, that’s great.
Amy: So we still found ways to have those community connections and community feel that people associate with the NTC, even though it was virtual. And that to us, more so than how many people registered or anything like that, that was for us the metric of success.
Denver: That’s all so interesting. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that you know how to put on sessions. So when you know how to put on sessions, you don’t have to obsess about the material you’re going to present. And when you don’t have to obsess about that, there’s room to be empathic and get into where your registrants are going to be, and try to say, “What would I like?” And therefore, it’s just so much more relationship-oriented than just trying to put on a good show from a video screen and things of that sort.
And you also took some chances, which is also great. You had to say, “Maybe nobody’s going to show up.” And you say, “Well, what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? Well, just shut it down and we’ll see which ones are working.” So you have to have a little bit of audacity to say, “So what?”
You mentioned you did more than this conference, and you talked about training, and I know you have members as well. Just so listeners who are not familiar with NTEN, just give us a little idea about how you go about the work that you do.
Amy: Great question. I should have said that before. So, NTEN’s community is tens of thousands strong. You’re welcome to join. And we have membership, but we have membership kind of like in an NPR model. So, we try to make sure that as little as possible that we do requires or assumes you’re a member, but being a member, of course, does get you discounts on other registrations.
But it’s really a way of saying you want to be a part of what we do. You want to be aligned with the beliefs that we have. And so, we have a few thousand members as well….and grateful for their support. But outside of the conference, we have online courses all year. And those are really for anybody. You don’t have to have technology in your title because it’s 2021. Every single person in an organization is using and managing technology.
Denver: And for that matter, every organization now is a tech company. That’s just the way you got to look at yourself.
Amy: Exactly. So we have courses that we have tagged them so that if something’s about data – well, it could look very different if it’s for marketing, versus if it’s for IT. So, we have tagged them with the kind of departments in an organization so you have a sense, but anyone is welcome to take any course.
And we have two professional certificates, and they are the first and only professional certificates we know of in the world focused on nonprofit technology management and on digital equity.
So, opportunities, again, for folks who’ve never had access or background or formal training in these topics, these are places where you can learn. But you’re also practicing these things you’re learning so that you’re leaving with a portfolio and a credential whether you want to get a raise, or you want to go to a different team or even a different organization. We see so many of the folks that get their certificates, coming back six months later being like, “And now, I’m the– whatever. I was able to prove I really do have these skills.”
If you don’t have a plan, that means every decision you’re making is reactive. And that’s never when we do our best planning. Our best decisions aren’t when we’re up against the wall trying to figure out how to get out.
Denver: Always nice to identify a gap in the marketplace and be the ones to fill it, and do so in such a fluid way. So what are some of the challenges nonprofits typically face when it comes to using technology?
Amy: Oh my gosh.
Denver: It’s a tough one.
Amy: One of our programs is called Nonprofit Tech Readiness. It’s a six-month cohort program. So, folks are in there for a long time. They’re getting training, but they’re also getting coaching and support. And cohorts open all the time. If you’re interested in that, you can check the website. It’s free to participate.
But so many folks come into Nonprofit Tech Readiness thinking, “We need a new website. We need a new branding. We need something shiny and fun.” And what we normally see is, folks— we say, “Yes, that’s fine, and maybe that’s the answer. But just hold that thought for a minute. Get into some learning.” And as folks really start to learn about all that technology management in an organization means, they themselves actually reprioritize what is most needed for their organization. And the number one most common project that folks leave NTR with is actually creating the organization’s first IT roadmap.
We have organizations who have existed for a hundred years, and they have never had a roadmap for what technology they think they’re going to need to get that they don’t have yet, or when they’re going to need to improve a system. They’ve never planned it. So, if you don’t have a plan, well, it’s really difficult to say that you’re managing technology equitably or inclusively, or even in line with your mission.
If you don’t have a plan, that means every decision you’re making is reactive. And that’s never when we do our best planning.
Denver: No, no. Absolutely.
Amy: Our best decisions aren’t when we’re up against the wall trying to figure out how to get out.
Denver: You’ve got thinking fast and thinking slow. And you’ve got to have the plan to think slow. Because we’re going to make better decisions when we do it deliberately, and we’re going to make pretty bad decisions when it’s just at the spur of the moment and by your gut. And I do think, though, it’s a bit of the American way – I got a technology problem. I’m running to the solution. I’m not even thinking–
Amy: We’ll, there’s an app for that. You Google it and, poof! You have a whole page of search results that say, “This is all you need.”
We say that product donation needs to really be thoughtful because just giving a product away is actually not necessarily helpful. What is needed is actual resourcing for this work. Giving money away. Giving skilled labor away, not just the product. Especially when that product, again, wasn’t meant for us.
Denver: There you go! And I don’t even have to know the problem because I got a solution to probably the wrong problem.
Well, Amy, I think that one of the more notable contributions of the sector in recent years would be the Equity Guide for Nonprofit Technology. And of course, this applies to both the nonprofit sector but also the technology sector. And let me start with the latter, if I can, about technology at large and that would be: Who is technology being built for? Who is it being built by? And what is it being built to do?
Amy: Such a good question. This is where the interview turns pessimistic. No.
Denver: I’ll try to get some down music for this. OK. We’ll insert it.
Amy: Yes, exactly. We need some background…like it’s getting spooky in here.
I think what we are seeing—and the Equity Guide was created by the community with us in partnership, so this wasn’t like Amy’s opinion or something. But what we see out there is so much of the technology that our community groups, mutual aid groups, formal nonprofits, anyone who’s working on addressing community needs, so many of the technologies that they have to rely on—because the options don’t exist to rely on something else—weren’t made for them. Their use cases were not even on the table when those products were created. And if they were, it was probably a second thought as like the charity effort to give the product away.
Even in the Equity Guide, we say that product donation needs to really be thoughtful because just giving a product away is actually not necessarily helpful. What is needed is actual resourcing for this work. Giving money away. Giving skilled labor away, not just the product. Especially when that product, again, wasn’t meant for us.
And I think folks feel like that’s maybe not a big deal. But when you think about a nonprofit working to address hunger in their community, and they’re using a database to try and track donations, and maybe they need to have folks qualify for certain access to their programs, all those things, and every one of those community members who they’re trying to meet where they’re at and see as a human, and uplift so that they can move out of this need is being called a customer in their database. Every single time you’re interacting with that data, you are influencing the relationship and the way you talk to that community member.
Denver: Nomenclature is pretty important, isn’t it?
Denver: Language is everything.
Amy: Especially when you think about a database that a community member has access to their own profile to import or manage their data, and they’re also seeing that they’re called a customer. That doesn’t feel in any way aligned with what we’re doing. And that’s like one tiny field label in a database example.
Denver: I had the CEO of the Population Services International on recently, and they help family planning, underserved women around the world. And what they decided to do, Amy, is that they call all the people they help, Sara. And what they wanted to do was not serve a demographic, not serve a problem, but think of the individual woman and who she is and the problems that she has when she gets up every day. And they’re all different problems based on the woman.
They picked Sara because it’s good in any language. Everybody can say Sara. But it’s a little bit of what you’re talking about, that these are people, and you’re helping new people. They’re not customers. They’re not a demographic. They’re not outcomes. You know what I mean? They are human beings. So I do think that nomenclature thing that you talked about is so damn important.
Amy: And I think just having technologies that were built first for community support and service is very different than a product that was built for sales. The pipelines, the logic, all of those things are trying to guide you as the user to an end that is not the same.
I would like those technologies made with the nonprofit sector and community efforts as the intended first primary audience. And I would love for those companies to employ people who have worked in nonprofits as the product managers, as the developers, as the people guiding those decisions so that they’re bringing their own lived experience in the sector into the product from the start.
Denver: Right. So order a pizza with one click, you know what I mean? And then it’s not like, “Well, my problem is not pizza.”
But I do think, and I want to get your take on this, it’s the poverty mentality that nonprofits have. Somebody with a big name is offering us something for free. So, instead of saying, “eh eh,” we tend to say, “Oh, thank you for that. We’ll tell the board that we got this for free,” but it actually sets you back.
Amy: Well, and nothing is free. We live in a capitalist world. Nothing is free. It was free so that you then had to pay for everything that comes with it. Especially free products that weren’t built for the nonprofit sector, that means you’re probably paying at least as much as buying the product just to customize it for your own use. So that it even makes sense for you to use.
And then if you, as we see so many times in nonprofits, do all of that investment outside your organization through consultants or agencies or whatever, you’re not building up the staff ability to then maintain and manage those products. Well, now you’ve got a continued effort to invest in some outside person instead of your own staff being able to manage it.
So, it kind of goes in a circle. And what we would love to see— I’m not trying to say technology companies shouldn’t exist. Yes, I would love technologies still, but I would like those technologies made with the nonprofit sector and community efforts as the intended, first primary audience. And I would love for those companies to employ people who have worked in nonprofits as the product managers, as the developers, as the people guiding those decisions so that they’re bringing their own lived experience in the sector into the product from the start.
And then the way that those tech companies work with the nonprofit users that come on board to say, “Hey, let’s not hurry. Let’s do this together. We’re going to make sure you all are trained and can take this on once it’s set up. And that there’s real investment in those organizations owning and leading their technology solutions.”
Denver: So true. We don’t do that enough across the entire sector. How often do impact investors sit down with NGOs, much less the beneficiaries, and talk to them and learn from them about what’s happening on the ground? Hardly ever. And you stop and think about it, and it is really insane.
Talk a little bit about the Guide. Maybe you can pick something that really stands out to you because you certainly talk about equitable tech and staff training. You talk about data use, the common data model. And you also talk about procurement. Maybe just pick something from that in terms of what you really think would be an important point to get across to listeners.
Amy: I think an important point to me– and I think as an opportunity to unlock a lot of thinking for listeners– is to center on self-determination. What does it look like to implement technology solutions in your organization if you’re focused on self-determination?
That means you’re not telling staff how they have to use a tool. That you’re making sure there are multiple ways to accomplish any tasks so that they can do the way that works for their brain. It means you’re implementing technologies where your community members are telling you how they identify. They’re not choosing only your three, potentially already problematic demographic options. You’re enabling them to tell you who they are, the programs they want, the way they want to be interacted with.
And I think when you use that self-determination lens about any technology decision you’re making, it really challenges you to let go of this idea that was false anyway, that success comes from kind of hunkered down, centralized control, because then people aren’t using it anyway.
So, ask yourself: How am I honoring every user, every community member’s ability to determine for themselves what data they give us or what their goal was for participating in that program? Not just us saying, “You show up to this, and you’re going to learn this thing.” Maybe that’s not what they’re after, but they learned something else that was what they wanted. How can we ask ourselves: How are we honoring self-determination and have that shift the relationship we have to the technology decision or the technology itself?
Denver: Get away from that broadcast mentality. And switching over to business for a second and the customer, I’ve just talked to so many people who say that companies have no idea why the customer is buying and doing what they do. They think it’s one reason, and it’s another reason. So, this idea of just this broad participatory effort is also going to provide insights. And it’s going to allow you– the first thing is that it’s going to be helpful to you, but it’s also going to just make you that much more responsive.
Well, speaking about equity, let’s talk a little bit about white supremacy and capitalism. And you said that they are pretty inextricably linked, and we have to address the former before we’re going to be able to address the latter. So talking about capitalism, how do you think it should be reimagined or replaced altogether?
Amy: Great question. One of NTEN’s core beliefs is that in community, in relationship with each other, we have everything we need. And using that as our guide, I think to this question helps say, “Great. Well, then what are the unnecessary intermediaries forcing us to think we don’t have what we need when we work together?”
Well, certainly capitalism, but more tactically than that, well, we think we need to go through and compete for funding from foundations. So, foundations need to shift and say, “Actually, the thing I have is money or other resources or access to other resources.” Just put it in. Like put it on the table. We’re all sitting around the table, seeing everything on the table, and then we’ll have all of our parts to remake what we have.
What else interferes with us feeling like we have everything? What you mentioned before – this mentality that we don’t. And so, we’re not even looking at the table and all the parts that are on it because we’ve already walked away. We’ve already assumed we don’t have what we need.
And I think part of this, and I’ve had some really interesting conversations recently, is the privilege to have space just to imagine different realities is so needed right now. Because the more space – and that means time, it means protection, safety, feeling like it’s OK to not just be producing something at all times, but just to sit back and say, “Let’s scratch that.”
Let me just imagine what it would be like to have a different kind of partnership for our organization. Or, what would it be like to have a different relationship to our community or to our funders? Any of that helps us then kind of track backwards and say, “Oh, well this is where we’re at today.” We actually can do that now. Nothing is stopping us from having that different relationship.
But we don’t have a lot of that expansiveness, again, because of capitalism, white supremacy says your value is tied to what you produce, that you need to work all the time, that we don’t have the breathing space to actually reimagine a different relationship with each other.
That’s a huge privilege, but also it should not be. And organizations that have that privilege, whether it’s a CEO that can say to their staff, “This is your work time. Go do that reimagining,” or it’s foundations giving out financial resources so that staff can take a break and do that work – that is a big missing piece that I think is very actionable and something people can do for each other right now.
Denver: I think we have it as individuals, too. I’m an executive coach, and I talk to people, Amy, and you just look at their limiting beliefs. And then what you’re saying is society has created these rules or whatever to put limiting beliefs on people or organizations, to think that they can’t do things. And you need to change those rules. And once you change those rules of what success looks like, the definition of success, you can then change those limiting beliefs and get them to imagine.
Amy: And it even goes back to our previous conversation and question around tech equity. So many nonprofits have internalized this idea that the only people who know about technology are technology companies. So they feel like even though no technology exists that is kind of a direct match for their need, that they couldn’t possibly build that technology because they’re not the ones. They need to wait for–
And then again, that’s not the case. What if you and other organizations with your mission… or the problem you’re trying to address in this technology solution… actually just go and build it and get the funding, instead of some tech company?
Denver: Well, as I always say, if you really want to innovate, stay the hell away from experts. That’s a little bit of what you’re saying there. Because otherwise, to them, they’re a hammer and everything’s a nail. And they’re going to go down, and you may be going into a different, different place, and as you say, to be able to do the dream.
Well, there have been a lot of discussions in the sector about racial equity and racial justice over the last year or two. What is the conversation that is not taking place, Amy, that you would like to see occurring?
Amy: That is a great question. This is something we’ve actually been talking about internally. The number of– we’re recording this July 14th, in case things in the world change between when people hear it.
A year ago, at this time, all of last June, organizations were taking turns saying publicly, “Here’s our paragraph that says we,” I don’t know, “support Black lives” or however they framed it. Even more general than that. “We support equity.”
And then, 13 months have passed. Here we are. Many of those organizations just kind of took down that homepage banner that said it. Let that statement go away. Or the number of organizations who didn’t even make a statement and said, “We’re going to do some internal work before we do,” and never even did the internal work to get to a statement.
So where are we at? And I think a part of that conversation that we’re having at NTEN is yes, technology maybe feels like one piece of the pie when we think about nonprofits and operations and all of that. But technology impacts every single program, every single staff person, every single community member at this point. So, if it feels in your organization you’re not getting traction, and you can’t build power around conversations about equity for equity’s sake, then start having technology conversations because no one in the organization can opt out.
Everyone is using technology, and that becomes kind of a lever into these bigger conversations that say: The way we just made this decision is completely reflective of how we’re going to make every other decision. And maybe your community didn’t even get to be a part of it. And that’s an access point for conversations about racial equity. The more you add community members in, the more you can build power, too. Because it’s very different in a staff meeting for somebody to kind of play a hierarchy card and be like, “No, we’re not doing that,” or whatever. You fill that room with community members? That power goes away because the community brings a different kind of accountability than you can as a staff person.
So again, even if you can’t get in like a conversation about equity for equity’s sake, bring in community members. Especially community members that are maybe not represented by race or gender or disability on staff and say, “Great. You all are like partnering with me on this project, and you get to come to the meeting.” Force inclusion, and it opens up conversations for folks that are otherwise not willing to have the conversation.
Denver: The only way to change the power dynamic. There’s no question about it. And you’re right about technology. A lot of this diversity, equity and inclusion and belonging or whatever, can be pretty airy-fairy. There’s no action taken on it. There are statements that are taken on it. And there’s really nothing that comes on it.
In many places, the CEO can just decide to do these things, but instead we got task forces and committees. You like the idea of taking something real like technology, and you’re right, it’s emblematic. The way you do that is the way you do everything else.
I’ve always said, when people have looked for a job, and they’ve been hired and it’s really been a horrible hiring process, but they want the job so they say, “Oh, that’s just the way it was.” It’s like, no, no, no, no, no. That’s the way this place operates. Don’t fool yourself.
Amy: But they’ve already shown you who they are!
Denver: That’s not the exception. That is the rule. This is the way they operate.
Let’s talk about your leadership. How has this crisis or multiple crises affected your leadership? And what do you think you’re going to take away from it that’s going to inform the way you lead in the future?
Amy: I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about things in that kind of formal like leadership mind way.
Denver: Well, that’s what I’m here for.
Amy: Last March, which is when— I think the end of January, talk of COVID was in the news… but like from other places. And it kind of slowly started to build, but it wasn’t until March, really for most people in the US, that it was like a real thing, that places were shutting down or anything else.
And of course, that’s when we had our conference scheduled for March. And when we decided— we decided before states had shut things down and kind of taken out events. But internally, we came to the decision of: This is really hard. This could end NTEN. And the right decision for our community is that we cancel the conference, and we have to just face the music of the financial penalties of doing that because it is the right decision.
And for that whole day, when all of us just like spent 24 hours crying and processing the potential ending of everything, the thing I just kept saying was: We can do hard things because it isn’t about any one of us. We can do hard things because we’re doing them together. We’re doing it together as a team. We’re doing this hard thing because we know it’s right for the community.
And so, it de-centers any one of us from the hard thing and gives you like this padding that it’s going to be OK. Even if it wasn’t going to be OK, it was still the right thing to do. And so I think that it’s interesting because, of course, I’d said that to myself and to the team many times prior to that day, but that day I was like, “I can’t believe I ever thought I did a hard thing. This is the hardest!”
Denver: This is the one!
Amy: And ever since then, of course, the world has gotten harder. And it’s only been hard for 16 months since then, and yet I find myself still saying to the team or even other team members saying to each other: We can do hard things. We know we can do hard things. Remember when we did hard things before, and look, we are still here.
And so I think that’s a piece of this – whether it’s my leadership or it’s what I hope is the distributed collective leadership of the team – is we can do hard things because we do them together, and we do them for the community. And if they’re feeling really hard, it’s because they’re either not for the community or they’re not together. And that is the place that we can fix it. Not that we can’t do the hard thing and we should walk away.
Denver: And this is also, it seems to me, a great opportunity for storytelling because you know you’re looking for a culture in the organization, and you’re always trying to build. And there is something about these last 16 months that those stories you almost want to capture for people 20 years out, to be able to say that “This is what we went through, and this is the way we did it.” And it kind of builds up a folklore as to “This is who we are.” Sort of as an extension of that founding story you talked about before.
Well, now, the maudlin music is completely over, and we got some happy music going. As a matter of fact, in the background we’re playing “Here Comes the Sun,” OK? It’s kind of upbeat.
Denver: You do so many incredible, interesting things, and worthwhile things that have impact. Is there any one that you are just so particularly excited about at the moment?
Amy: What a kind question. I am excited for opportunities for us as a team to—it’s so funny, you used that word storytelling a second ago—to tell more of the stories about what it looks like to operate differently.
I just hit my eight- year-mark on being the CEO, which feels wild. When like previous to that, I never had a single job for more than like two or two and a half years. Now, I’ve been here for eight years. I’m like, how many lifetimes have I had in the last eight years?
But the biggest focus of my time as CEO has been to support a team in creating a collectively-led organization. I don’t make decisions. I didn’t even make our fiscal year budget until it went to the board. And I was seeing it with them. Because I’m not doing the work of all those departments, why would I make their budget?
And as we get stronger and stronger in our practices that are outside of white-dominant systems, we, I think, feel committed to in our responsibility to share what that looks like to work in these other ways, both maybe to inspire somebody else or give them fodder for how they might want to change their organization, and also to be pushed even further to continue changing and evolving how we work as a team.
So I’m excited for finding— we’ve started having these conversations internally about different staff, getting to share in their own voice, their own story of what operating in the ways we do looks like for them and feels like for them, and what it has meant for them. And see what that collection of stories… kind of both to what you’re saying… does to document like for posterity for ourselves, but also how those stories contribute to opportunities with our community to hear more or learn or try new things.
And I feel like I am so excited by growing. Every day, the idea that I’ll wake up tomorrow better than I was today? I’m like, “Let’s go to bed right now, team. I am ready to be the better person I will be tomorrow.” So I think being excited to grow and change means that as a team, we’re like, “Yes! What is next? How much better can we be? “
And that has helped us through I think these hard times, too, because we can put them in relationship to what they are. They are not everything about us. We know that we are good at growing and changing, and let’s welcome that change.
Denver: And it seems to me that the heart of all these stories that you’re talking about is trust. There’s just trust with each other. And it’s assuming trust. It’s assuming best intentions and not earning trust. You have to lose trust almost. I’m assuming you’re trustworthy. We hired you here with that trust. So you assume that, and that’s why you can go to your board with a budget you haven’t seen because you trust. You know what I mean?
Amy: And I think what comes with that, too, in relationship to trust, is resourcing. Staff were resourced to make a good budget. I didn’t say, “You’ve never seen our budget before. Good luck. Go make it. I’m not part of it.” It was, “You all are looking at our budget every day of the year. You all talk to each other and negotiate, ‘Hey, can we have some of this funding for this thing?’” I’m never part of those conversations, so you’ve already been resourced and practiced to make the next one.
Denver: Let me close with this, Amy. This has been such an incredible year, with COVID and racial equity and racial justice, not to mention January 6, and we haven’t even touched on that.
How do you think this confluence of events is going to shape philanthropy, and particularly as it relates to technology over the next decade?
Amy: I want to be really hopeful to end on something good. But the thing that I think, at least I see right now, as it relates to shifts in philanthropy for the next decade is the last 16 months have shown that philanthropy was only changing because collectively, we demanded them to change. And that together, we do have a voice. No single organization is the one who is going to petition “Philanthropy” to change their ways.
And different groups of nonprofits have different grantee relationships with different foundations. But the more we– again, we said this earlier. When we are together, we have everything we need. So the more we can work together as an entire sector to shift the entire sector of philanthropy, the further we will get those shifts to happen in 10 years.
And I see there’s lots of tactics already being formed in the community of, “Let’s tell the stories about individual funders who’ve done well. Or let’s try and find the worst offenders and call them out.” And all of those tactics are all naturally going to be part of things, but the more we together focus on collective requests or changes or pushes, I think the stronger we’ll be towards success.
Because then you get rid of those externalities of it being one organization or one foundation, and really stay in this kind of space together. So that we’re saying, “No, all of philanthropy.” This is what we are saying. I think that will be what it takes. And that’s the place where I’m seeing power building.
Denver: I think you’re right. It’s a tipping point. And often, when I’ve been involved in things like that, and people say, “What was the thing that took you over the top?” You say, “I don’t know.” It wasn’t any one thing. It was just this perseverance and this audacity across the board, but you can’t even point to it. It just ultimately happens at some point.
Tell us about the NTEN website, some of the information you have on it, and how people can help support the organization or become a member.
Amy: So, NTEN is nten.org. And like I said earlier, you don’t have to be a member, but we welcome you. And being a member really means that you are aligned with our beliefs and want to support this community. And also membership is a sliding scale, so you can pay what you’re able to.
But you can browse all of the courses or sign up for courses there. You can learn more about the professional certificates. We also have tons of research, reports and resources that are all completely free. We do about five of them a year, and you can browse all of them, whether you’re wanting to use some data for your own learning, or you want to use some data to convince your board to do something.
And something we didn’t talk about today that I really encourage folks to check out is we have a tool called Tech Accelerate, which is completely free and is a comprehensive technology effectiveness assessment. So you take all these, answer all these questions, but then you get a customized report that also prioritizes for you areas of needed risk and investment, so that you can have kind of like your list of the things that could become your IT roadmap and get prioritized in your next budget even. So a great resource for folks to see where you’re at, and where you might want to go next.
Denver: Great stuff. Well, thanks for being here today, Amy. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show!
Amy: Thank you so much. It was really fun.
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