#12NTC: How technology for nonprofits is like Alcatraz Island

What I learned at the Nonprofit Technology Conference

alcatraz profile

When you think of Alcatraz, you think immediately of a brutal, unforgiving prison that housed some of the worst of the worst because it was impossible to escape. But being a prison was not the original purpose of Alcatraz Island. During the gold rush, the American army established a base on the island as one of three used to defend San Francisco Bay. But rather than defending the gold, their objective was to defend the bay since whoever controlled it, controlled the American west which was the real treasure.

It transitioned to being a prison in the 1930s when the priority was to tame the violent crime associated with violent gangsters defying prohibition. In the late 1960s after being closed as a prison, it was abandoned until it became the centre of the native American rights movement. And today Alcatraz is used as a sensational historic site that helps bring the stories of its past alive.

I now see Alcatraz as a model of how our use of something reflects our priorities. It also shows how we can adapt something to take advantage of new opportunities. It’s also an example of how our first thoughts about something only begin to describe it and define it.

Technology evolves like Alcatraz Island does

I recently attended the 2012 Nonprofit Technology Conference (#12NTC) organized by NTEN in San Francisco. That’s when I had the chance to learn about Alcatraz. I also learned lots about how nonprofits can use technology to deliver on their mission and strive for their vision.

When we think technology, we often think first about hardware and software. And yes that is important and why we need good IT folks on staff. But technology now more than ever before is about connecting with people and building community so that we can change the world.

Upon reflection, I realized that the social profit sector’s use of technology is like Alcatraz. How we use something reflects our priorities. As technology changes, we adapt our use of it to do more and do it better. And one of the most powerful uses of it is to tell our stories.

How to make better use of technology

I went to San Francisco for NTC because I was attracted to the sessions on how technology can be used to help charities with advocacy, marketing, awareness and fundraising. I’m very interested in tools, tips, techniques and theories that help nonprofits do more, do it better and be cost-effective.

I wanted to learn how my clients and potential clients can use technology to make a transition to a new phase in how they operate and communicate. As funny as it sounds, I wanted to help them evolve like Alcatraz Island.

I am going to share with you four of my favourite sessions using Storify. I have done my best to include as many highlights from Twitter as possible and to connect you to the many resources that were generously shared by the presenters. By doing so, I am saying thank you for the gold rush of knowledge sharing while paying it forward so that others can learn how to evolve to enhance how they change the world.

Here they are in no particular order.

You need a strategy dammit

Are you tempted to jump into social media without a strategy? In this session, JD Lasica and Carla Schlemminger of Socialbrite help to explain why a strategy should come first. The presentation is also jam packed with lots of useful advice and resources.

Do you need a website redesign?

This session looked at whether your website needs a redesign and how to proceed if it does. Thanks to Fara Trompeter of Big Duck and Kira Marchenese of the Enviromental Defense Fund (EDF).

If you think you may need a new website, this chart created by Big Duck walks you through your decision-making process.

How nonprofits can visualize data

Beth Kanter started the session off dressing up like Darth Vader to illustrate how she was scared of data. As with many content creators, myself included, data is not in our comfort zone and we deal with it as necessary. But she’s embraced data and become what she describes as data informed.

Johanna Moriaru shared how to take raw data and make it visually interesting while Brian Kennedy of ChildrenNow shared examples of how he has done that in their materials.

Designing online engagement to collaborate with your community

This session focused on online engagement as a means to collaborate with your community. Askanase, Vanessa Rhinesmith and Amy Sample Ward lead this community building workshop.

Your turn

I hope you can find at least one tip to use from these presentations. What have you learned from these sessions that you can use to help your organization evolve? How?

What tools, tips, techniques and theories can you share on these topics that I haven’t highlighted?

4 comments
claire axelrad
claire axelrad

Great post. Makes me wish I was there! I really appreciate the Big Duck infographic on rethinking websites.

Amy Sample Ward
Amy Sample Ward

Thanks so much for coming to #12NTC and sharing these great take-aways back with the community! If it's okay with you, I'm totally going to use the Alcatraz metaphor in the future (with credit, of course). Hope to see you at #13NTC, too!

James Howe
James Howe

If you can make it to the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference, I recommend it Claire. I'm sure Farra Trompeter will be happy you like the infographic.

James Howe
James Howe

Sorry for the delayed response Amy! Somehow your comment got caught in my spam filter. You're very welcome. I really wanted to pay forward my #12NTC experience. Go ahead and use the Alcatraz metophar. I'm flattered you like it enough to do so. I certainly hope to be at #13NTC. I'll definitely keep involved with NTEN in the meantime.