I used to be a conference junkie. Then, in 2017, I went stone cold sober and swore off conferences thinking they were just a waste of my time. How many more panels could I sit through that were devoid of emotion, lacking story, and telling me things that I already knew?
Well, I went off the wagon this past March 2019, and attended the Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) in Portland, Oregon. Did I have trepidations about going? Yes. Was I too jaded to think I would learn anything new? For sure. Did I think I would be bored? Definitely.
And oh, how I was wrong…
My first engagement with NTC came about a month before the conference. I have to admit, I was curious to learn more about what I was getting into as all of their emails were thoughtful, useful, and written in such a compelling way that I began to look forward to their regular correspondence with me. With a few weeks to go, I downloaded the NTC application and was wowed from my very first experience using it. Not only was the User Experience (UX) intuitive, every single tidbit of information was useful for planning my trip, coordinating with attendees, and scheduling what panel discussions I would attend. But I still questioned the utility of it all.
On my way out to Portland, I met a few folks who were also on their way to the conference. Every single person I talked to was excited about going and delighted that I was going to be part of my very first NTEN event. They smiled at me and said, “this is not just some run of the mill conference – this is a get together of more than two thousand of the most passionate people around.”
From the hotel to the panel discussions to the happy hours and side events, every single moment of my four days at NTC was absolutely 100% awesome. Not just okay, not just great, NTEN was literally the best conference I have ever been to in my whole adult life. And why? The people and the care that went into creating an event planned by the people for the people. Communities were born and many were grown from previous NTCs. There was a positive spirit in the air. Attendees shared their expertise with the group. The organizers made sure that every session was interesting, useful, and practical. Even the food was stellar.
Since I have returned, I have been mulling over the fact that many conferences just don’t work and trying to figure out why so many of them don’t resonate with the people who have spent the time and money to be there. And, while I don’t think I have all of the answers, what I can say is about NTC’s success is that it was organized with its audiences in mind. In a sense, they used the principles of design thinking to create an event that year to year has thousands of repeat attendees. The three major principles of design thinking –Inspiration, ideation and implementation—were definitely in play. However, I would add a fourth principle, that of iteration. NTC has been successful year to year because they use a feedback loop for designing their events.
It is imperative that we all use design thinking in our work, and in our everyday lives, because when done well, like NTC, profound things can happen.
So, what’s next? I will see YOU at NTEN next year in Baltimore.
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