I am excited to be attending the NTEN Non-profit Tech Conference in San Jose this week. Ahead of the main conference (which starts Wednesday), there were three concurrent Drupal, WordPress and SalesForce days with a fair amount of ability for attendees to mingle regardless of their primary interest.

As the sessions started to blend together, I started listening at a higher level and ended up with two major take-aways. One positive, and one very much not.

A plea for creating clarity

I’ll start with the bad news first.

While there are a lot of smart, well-meaning, interesting people at this conference, I couldn’t help but feel like there were some key missing people. These people are the CEOs, vice presidents, and other chief stakeholders of organizations that set agendas and make life either wonderful or miserable for the digital teams who largely made up the group of attendees.

So many stories that were shared here had to do with the by-product of internal organizational confusion, or a constant unwillingness of an organization to let go of the old while breathlessly chasing the new.

There is a weariness among many attendees here. They are often excited about the potential of new technology, but worn down as their enthusiasm is thwarted by their organization’s inability to clearly articulate what its primary strategic goals are.

This sounds like a simple observation. And it is. It’s also far from easy. However, that is the precise reason why addressing it is so vital.

When an organization is able to be open and honest with what it is doing well, what it’s not doing well, and is able to establish a clear understanding of what its priorities need to be, the results can be borderline miraculous. It can turn literally turn a beleaguered digital team into an energized, focused, world-changing army.

When orgs are not able to clearly articulate these objectives, it effectively creates a vacuum. That vacuum is filled by a thousand requests a year for quick, easy, and often redundant web projects that only meet the needs of fewer than five people.

Put another way, if non-profits were as good at monitoring the percentage of digital work that aligned with their strategic goals as they were about articulating the percentage of donations that actually went to their stated cause, the world would be a much better place.

It’s for this reason that I wish more non-profit course setters were in attendance today. And since they weren’t, I thought I would speak some truths to those powers.

It’s a role we’re accustomed to playing at Taoti during the discovery phase of projects, but it doesn’t mean we like that it’s a role that needs to be played.

The good news … powered by open-source

The other big take-away from Drupal Day is just how much open-source has not only firmly established its bona fides, but how many organizations are sounding as strategic and savvy as many Fortune 500 companies when it comes to describing their digital projects.

While there were obviously the demonstrations of effective story telling that has been a staple of non-profits for ages, what stood out this year to me was how many attendees and organizations are looking well beyond that as a baseline.

From Salesforce / CRM integrations to creative engagement opportunities for target audiences to web security, the ability of non-profits to tackle the challenges of the future, in many instances, seems to rival many larger for-profit entities.

In a conversation I had with a payment gateway vendor, we talked about how the willingness of non-profits to fully embrace open-source solutions to these challenges is no coincidence. By embracing the ability of open-source tools to enable smaller organizations to pivot and provide more tailored user experiences, they are also able to pivot in ways larger organizations that more closely resemble aircraft carriers can only dream of.

In another conversation with a donation plugin creator, we talked about how the culture of open-source, and the willingness of developers to share solutions to security issues, has created a situation where open source can provide a more secure solution than many proprietary solutions that can often be slow to move on vital security improvements.

I mention all of this because of how different the world seemed to be in this space even five years ago. Back then, an embrace of open source technology was seen as more rebellious than responsible.

Now it seems that the “rebels” are laughing at those without a clue.