TSG Contributors Summit One Year Later--The Dynamics of Successful Collaboration

(This is the second of a four-part series in which you will find excerpts from twenty participant impact evaluations provided one year after the February 15, 2011 TechSoup Global Contributors Summit. See the just published Stanford Social Innovation Review blog post for a Summit overview.)

One consistent theme that emerged in the participants’ statements was that the Summit presented an unusual opportunity to simultaneously engage directly and also to stand back and observe dynamics among other stakeholders. In a sense, the contributors could get a new perspective on the ecosystem, and their own place in it, and then collaborate more effectively based on that perspective. 

For Ed Bice of Meedan.net, a leading implementer of community-based translation projects, the ‘aha’ was dramatic.

“The essential insight we gained was that the non-profit (NPO) and non-governmental (NGO) sector is uniquely constituted to pilot important social translation initiatives… [This insight] opens the door to a set of translation solutions that tap mixed competency, distributed, networks of digital volunteers and low cost workers. We have been working since the Summit with Universal Subtitles and others to define and address a set of translation problems …The output from this work, our TranslateDesk project, is focused on facilitating social media translation for NGOs…”

For others, such as David Geilhufe, a program manager for the foundation established by NetSuite, the Summit was a way to calibrate the field.

“Even when you can identify the players, having a face-to-face opportunity to create a relationship can be the difference between a lasting collaboration and two ships passing in the night. The Summit and Techsoup Global's ability to bring together a diverse community interested in delivering technology to NGOs allowed NetSuite.org to both benchmark our plans and activities against other technology companies and to listen to the folks working with NGOs on the ground globally.”

For some, particularly funders, technology is a relative newcomer to their funding paradigm. Balkan Trust for Democracy Senior Program Officer, Nathan Koeshall, based in Belgrade, found the Summit as a kind of one-stop shopping experience.

“I came to the TechSoup Global Contributors' Summit … with the intention of learning about the practices and new ideas that have emerged from the IT sector in the U.S. and around the world, so that I could bring them back to the Western Balkans… to inform the grantmaking decisions that we at the Balkan Trust for Democracy (BTD) make with indigenous non-profits in the ten countries that the BTD serves… I found myself sitting in small groups jointly contributing to brainstorming and idea exchanges with both CEOs of IT companies and community-based activists from throughout the globe… What I brought back from the Summit and have incorporated into our daily work at the BTD has been a host of knowledge and tools that I have regularly used in conversations with current and potential grantee organizations.  I have referred to the Summit's participant list on dozens of occasions and shared the contact information and URLs of Summit participants with many organizations from the Western Balkans.  With this new awareness, I have engaged with other donor organizations in the region to set an agenda for how we as donors might be able to best provide resources to organizations that utilize an open data and data visualization approach in their work.  The ripple effect of the kernels of knowledge gained at the Summit have been significant…” 

As a fan of the annual Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) conference, a truly unique and compelling convening, I was fascinated by PdF co-founder, Andrew Rasiej’s, take on the Summit.  

“The Summit felt like a reunion of various branches of a family… but everyone present knew that they were part of a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. This energy present at the event created a remarkable sense of camaraderie in a shared purpose to make the TechSoup Global (TSG) ‘family’ stronger because it seemed everyone there believed that the way to help their own organization grow and be more effective was in direct relation to TSG’s ability to grow, evolve, and increase strength as a ‘state of the art’ community network. The leadership of TSG made it quite clear to all the attendees that TSG was facing significant challenges to its business model due to emerging technology particularly social media and cloud computing. TSG was also transparent about these hurdles without sounding defensive. In fact, TSG focused on the fact that the technology was creating a net gain of opportunities which, if acted on collectively, would not only significantly strengthen TSG's network, but significantly and positively impact the trajectory of each partner organization associated with it…This allowed me to make some new connections and to also see how TSG's network of organizations and people would be a great partner for Personal Democracy Forum (now called Personal Democracy Media) which is in the midst of an international expansion effort. I was also pleasantly surprised to meet a significant number of people representing civil society organizations from Eastern and Central Europe which provided me with confidence that a Personal Democracy Forum event in Warsaw in the fall of 2012 would be able to draw on a strong set of participants and partners.”

Jean-Louis Robadey, vice president for innovation at Waggener-Edstrom, is another seasoned habitué of conferences who found something different at the Summit.

“One of the things that stood out for me was seeing some corporate CSR reps in a different setting than I’m used to seeing them – as guests of an NGO-led event, as opposed to the more traditional, corporate-driven CSR conferences, and it helped me to appreciate a fundamental dilemma that these corporations face: their representatives are obviously very much in synch with the social sector, and were able to let their guard down a bit more than they are able to incorporate conferences; at the same time I could truly sense (through conversations and presentations) how  difficult it is for them to translate this message within their corporate walls.  In turn, it’s affected how I approach my work on the corporate side: I am less skeptical of individuals’ intentions in regards to social change initiatives; at the same time I am more aware of some of the strategic/organizational barriers that they face.  It’s probably made me a more effective consultant, on the corporate side, as a result.”

Holly Ross, who directs the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN), seized the opportunity to create synergies within the nonprofit technology sector.

“Those of us doing nptech work have only a small understanding of our impact as individual organizations, and no understanding of how our collective work is impacting the sector. I wanted to see us have a basic understanding of how many nonprofits we reach, and how we are reaching them. To that end, we got TSG, NTEN, NPowers, Idealware and Network for Good together to share some data and start to answer that question. Ideally, looking at that data, we can see areas where we're all working, and areas that none of us are working in, and work together to make sure that we're getting the sector the right mix of services to move their missions forward.”

Bill Unger is a venture capitalist who works with a number of important nonprofits, including the Anita Borg Foundation and CARE, on both of whose boards he serves.

“I learned that many non-profits, including ones I work with, take much less advantage of resources that are available to them, than I had thought. Not only the hardware and software availability, but the opportunity at the Summit to link up with more aggressive/experienced users, and the value gained by the knowledge sharing and content offered. Even more valuable was the network of people I met and the opportunity I had to share in their learnings. Techsoup Summit is much more "Silicon Valley" than other events I have attended, more about doing rather than studying, about meeting people and opening up rather than screening and protecting. An eye opener for me and a great experience.”

Gregg Vanderheiden, a University of Wisconsin professor who has been a leading advocate and activist in the field of assistive technology had this to say.

“The meeting was one of the great learning experiences for me.  I attend numerous planning and brainstorming meetings a year but none really provided the opportunities that this meeting did to learn about networking particularly in and with developing countries.  The meeting also allowed me to meet face-to-face with Nicholas Reville from Universal Subtitles project -- which led to our collaborating on the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure work and their joining the Raising the Floor Consortium.”

Juan Negrillo, who is organizing Campus Party – USA was able to use the Summit to both reassess previous Campus Party efforts to link young geeks with social change and to gain a foothold for the organization’s effort to enter the U.S. market.

“The single most important lesson we learned--thanks to the insight provided by the Summit and in ongoing conversations since then with Tech Soup Global--was that the volunteer campuseros were not relating to the projects they were aiding as much as to the H4SB movement itself, feeling a part of a great project that was helping others and to which they were contributing as proud geeks, members of that community.  That idea is key to our future progress….The constant exchange with Tech Soup has raised many important questions for us as to how to adapt to a new environment such as the US after so many years working in international but Latin communities only, helping Campus Party to go deeper on strategic issues.  And as a result of that exchange we are growing an invaluable network of contacts with other organizations from whom to learn and exchange, such as RHoK, PDF, Telecentres and others.”

And, finally, Miguel Ramilla, executive director of Telecentre.org Foundation, put it succinctly. “Hard to explain, but I feel that TechSoup in a way creates a common language, and a common platform that connect minds, people, and resources. It's great!”

(This four-part series on the TSG blog about the Contributors Summit continues tomorrow. For a Summit overview, see the just published post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog.)

photo by Clara Azulay

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