I flew home to beautiful Portland, Oregon for the 2019 Nonprofit Tech Conference (NTC). The conference provided me with a chance to test many of our theories with a crowd that personifies PIT. Though the work of most NTC attendees falls on some point on the PIT diagram, the practitioners I met had varying levels of familiarity with the concept. PIT-aware or not, they all shared a dedication to applying tech for governance or vice versa.
During group activities and breaks, I chatted with a range of folks about the work we’re doing here at Harvard related to the New America Public Interest Tech University Network. In addition to 1:1 chats, some attendees were kind enough to complete a PIT survey I developed.
A few key points emerged from their feedback.
→ Public Interest Tech is known by practice but not by name
The folks I talked with — like Sara Lopes at 360Civic and Jesse Swingle at funnelback — recognized that there’s a lot of work being done to bring tech-centric thinking together with governance-, human rights-, and ethics-centric thinking…but they weren’t referring to this work as PIT before I introduced the concept.
→ Nonprofit tech organizations need “multilingual” employees
Many of the organizations at NTC have fewer than ten employees. A small staff means that nearly every employee has to wear multiple hats and be able to speak both “tech” and “social science” or “mission”. The latter languages are particularly important. The effectiveness of these organizations depends on how well they mobilize their external and internal stakeholders around accomplishing their mission.
→ Organizations don’t have the time nor the capacity to teach tech or governance/human rights/ethics skills
Recruiters, trainers, and human resource folks at NTEN told me that they spend too much time trying to teach current employees how to function in the “other” world or work with those that occupy it, i.e. training tech workers in social science fields. These operational staff told me they’d support higher education institutions more intentionally preparing students to develop skills in both “realms”.
As we previously mentioned in Entry IV, members of the Harvard community have similarly struggled to find the perfect partner for their PIT project. Transaction costs — as simple as walking to another college — and asymmetric information can hinder the formation of collaborative teams. Universities and nonprofits will have better luck establishing PIT work when they have created more ways to connect with and learn from other community members.
→ Funding nonprofit-based PIT work requires creative thinking
Marketing and fundraising sessions at NTC were filled to the brim with nonprofit leaders trying to learn how best to connect with their current and future donors. In general, these sessions conveyed the importance of asking donors to support tangible projects with explicit outcomes. This approach to fundraising begs the question of what an explicit PIT project would look like for a nonprofit and what it would take to inspire donors to help make it happen.
→ PIT is for all sectors
Nonprofits, for-profits, academics and all sorts of organizations attended NTC. While making laps around the conference floor, I found great examples of organizations and individuals from all of these sectors doing PIT work. What’s more, when I chatted with these representatives, they almost uniformly mentioned that PIT-related work is not sector-specific. This broad understanding of PIT opens the way for PIT-focused collaboration among all sorts of organizations.
Lavanya helped me glean even more about PIT in the “real-world” from my time at NTC. She took a look at the NTC agenda and graphed the number of sessions held by category (see below). From this agenda analysis, Lavanya also sent over some notes about the timing of different sessions by category.
Here’s what stands out from her analysis:
→ Public interest work requires intentional outreach and fundraising
The high number of marketing and fundraising sessions, which totaled to 39 percent of total programming, evidences that public interest organizations are always looking for financial support for their research, outreach, and teaching.
→ Even at NTC, there’s difficulty facilitating connections between tech-centric and less-tech-centric folks
Analysis of the timing of different events by category reveals that attendees generally had to make a trade-off between attending a more tech-centric session or the alternative.
We’re eager to hear your thoughts on what a session emblematic of PIT would look like — Who’d be in the room? What would the content look like? Is PIT-content in a dose as small as single session helpful?
→ The distribution of sessions may reveal what PIT organizations need from a talent point of view
One attendee said that nonprofits working with tech or in tech did not need more technologically-capable employees. Instead, they contended, these organizations need more leaders that could facilitate conversations between tech-focused and non-tech-focused team members. Perhaps this rationale explains why leadership sessions were a plurality of all programming.
What PIT-related conferences have you attended? How did their agendas and sessions reflect PIT thinking? Let us know your answers to these questions! Feel free to send feedback and other comments.
(@hks_digital @daeaves @kevintfrazier #PublicInterestTech)