21NTC Field Notes: Day 1

This is post 1 of 7 in the series “NTC Field Notes”

The Nonprofit Technology Conference is my favorite conference. It brings together an amazing community for thought-provoking and engaging sessions. And it’s about way more than just “technology.” If you work with or for a nonprofit in leadership, technology, communications, fundraising, or program delivery (so basically everything), there are sessions and people here for you.

At each NTC, I share my notes and key takeaways. What these notes lack in polish, they make up for with interesting things to ponder and excellent screenshots. They’re written for scanning, so I recommend you find one or two sessions that seem interesting and focus on those.

Keynote: Ruha Benjamin “Race to the Future: Reimagining the Default Settings of Technology & Society”

Professor Ruha Benjamin, Princeton University. I clearly need to read her book.

“Not all speed is movement.”

Toni Cade Bambara

Technology Innovation ≠ progress.

We can look back at history and see where technology was used to do harm—IBM helped the Nazis track Jewish people—but it’s harder to evaluate the present, much less the future.

We often think about ways of using “Do-Gooding Data”. For example, St. Paul planned to use data and technology to track “at risk youth”. But all the data they planned to use was from sources that are already discriminatory (suspensions, CPS, incarceration). So the outcomes would just reflect racist assumptions of society.

When we present data showing racial disparities, it can backfire. Stats that show racial disparities can make people assume there’s a natural reason for disparities rather than those disparities resulting from discriminatory practices.

Because of technology’s ubiquity, a discriminatory algorithm can be more harmful than explicit discrimination.

The New Jim Code. Coded bias + imagined objectivity. Innovation that enables containment.

A clarifying and inspiring conclusion: We are all “pattern makers.” When our actions are influenced by bias—conscious or unsconscious—then AI trained on our behaviors, data, etc. will produce “race blind” and biased results. But this puts the power in our hands. We can make new patterns. We can choose to live in new ways. If we do, technology can follow.

How can we be subversive rather than complicit in technological systems of oppression?

Don’t focus solely on those who are harmed. Focus on the institutions that are doing harm (and usually benefiting from it). Example: The Anti-Eviction Map focuses attention on predatory landlords rather than those getting evicted. If we want to change a system, supporting those harmed by it—while very necessary in the moment—doesn’t challenge the power of those causing and enriching themselves from that harm.

Ask: Donate to the Digital Defense Playbook.

Changing Nonprofit Structures to Further Equity

Elicia Gonzles from Women’s Medical Fund and Sam Chenkin from Reclaim the Sector.
Collaborative notes for “Changing Nonprofit Structures”. Slides for “Changing Nonprofit Structures”.

This session was fabulous and really pushed me to reflect on how my career has in many ways benefited by my participation with inequitable structures.

Boards are a very corporate way of managing organizations and many (most?) board members come from corporate environments. What if institutional nonprofit leaders had to earn their power directly from their communities? Would my job exist? How would it be different?

I love this list of examples of types of power. It points out how hard it is to give power to people.

Kinds of power: needed expertise, flexible life/schedule, confidence, lived experience, physical & financial safety, money, making decisions without getting fired, sufficient health (all kinds) to easily focus, ability to easily comprehend what is being said, information/access other don't have, charism & positionality to set social norms, firing people, finding it easy to speak up

That’s why they talk about naturally shifting power to others by changing structures. “Structures” are “how we get stuff done” (hiring, program delivery, fundraising, etc.). It’s scary to change structures because it threatens the ability to work in the ways we’re used to. Here are many types of structures that can reinforce the status quo (which, remember, doesn’t benefit most folks):

Think about your organization. Who do these structures give power to? Is it equitable? Org hierarchy, employment time (full time vs. part time), budgeting, meeting design, intake process, job descriptions, compensation, board power & participation, funding requirements & expectations, fund sources, physical space

Structural is different from “Conditional Permission”. Structural change doesn’t require asking permission for power or needs, and those things can’t be taken back.

Structural change: doesn't rely on permission. No takebacks. Allows additional people to shape reality. Lives on even when people come and go. Is specific enough to allow accountability.
Who has the last word? Structural change vs. conditional permission. Consensus or democratic decision making structures vs. invitation to come to the meeting, discretionary budgets vs. "Tell me what you want to buy", Taking "stack" in a meeting vs. "You've been quite, do you have something to add?", Salary transparency vs. Secrete conversations about salary, boards with reserved community seats vs. "We have 2 black board members", elected executive team vs. listening sessions, a "Change team" with concrete power and an org-wide mandate vs. DEI training

For example, the Community Centric Fundraising model is one that seeks to make a new, more equitable funding structure for the nonprofit sector.

The idea of losing power can be scary if you’re used to having power. (I can very much relate to this feeling as someone who benefits wildly from the status quo.) It is important to embrace the fear of power and move to embracing the beauty of divesting power. If we’re feeling fear, then we’re probably approaching a real change.

Beware of “checkmarks” that can be used to outwardly show how “great” an organization is. Structural changes and divesting power take time and are ongoing processes that are likely never finished.

At the end, I shared my fear of causing harm to people of color, LGBTQ+, and any other marginalized group by inviting them into an organization or social group without making that a safe space first. The presenters both kindly engaged with this and pointed out the challenge of having to balance inclusion with the safety of those who join but lack in power. The key takeaway: the best path forward is inclusion with plans to acknowledge and correct screwups openly.

Consentful UX

Johanna Bates and Clayton Dewey from Dev Collaborative
Collaborative Notes for “Consentful UX”

“Intrusive patterns” (aka “Dark patterns”) are more than just annoying.

The presenters start with popups, modals, and notifications. These are not inherently bad. For instance, interrupting users to confirm a destructive action (like permanently deleting something) can help people avoid making high-cost mistakes.

Why do people do this? You can usually get a short-term bump in metrics like email signups (a “vanity metric”). But are also measuring how many users you annoyed or how many fake email addresses were submitted? Hijacking user’s attention derails them from the reason they came to your site.

Johanna makes the great point that popups with bright colors and motion take advantage of biological processes—attention goes to things that are bright and move—to get us to do things we might not want to do. This leads to “cognitive overload”.

When we use these designs, we don’t respect our users ability to authentically engage with them. Instead, we can use their concept of “Consentful UX”, based on the concept of consentful tech.

Consent: "FRIES" acronym - Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, Specific
Freely Given: Coercive vs. Consentful. 1. Pop-ups, modals, interstitial videos vs. newsletter sign up in flow of content, header, or footer. 2. "Manipulinks" & coercive copy vs. Call to action appearing at the end of an article. 3. Autoplaying video or audio vs. Light use of animation, play button, pause button

So how do we convince stakeholders to drop these patterns? Here are some talking points to use:

  • Google penalizes sites on mobile search if you interrupt visitors immediately.
  • Trust and respect is good for business. These patterns don’t build or communicate trust and respect.
  • Real success isn’t measured in vanity metrics (petition signatures, website visits, email signups). Acknowledge that there are negative consequences of using these patterns. Focus on measuring real impact and engagement.

Designing Accessible Data Visualizations: 10 Quick Wins

Ann K. Emery, Depict Data Studio
Collaborative Notes for “Designing Accessible Data Visualizations”

  1. Color Blindness
  2. Color Contrast
  3. Uppercase and Lowercase
  4. Text Rotation
  5. Legends and Labels
  6. Alt Text
  7. Alignment
  8. Reading Level
  9. Numeracy Level
  10. Icons

5. Legends and Labels

For point 5, her tip was to remove legends and directly label . Can solve problems for people with color blindness.

A 4-line line chart with the labels for each line aligned to the right of the chart. Each label is vertically lined up with the last point of the line it labels.
A stacked bar chart with labels inside the segments of the first bar and the Total label listed above the bar. The next 3 bars have values but no labels.

Don’t rotate labels! Horizontal text only!

9. Numeracy

A good slide showing how to simplify the display of data. A good question: “Will the decimal decision help someone make a decision?” Probably not!

Lower the Numeracy Level: Decimal Places (33.26%), Rounded (33%), Fractions (1/3), Fractions in a Sentence (1 in 3)
Often the best way to communicate data is with frequencies. I read an entire book in college that was mostly just about how frequencies help communicate better than almost anything else. So use them!

I also learned about the amazing font Wee People from Propublica. It’s a font you can use to type out silhouettes of people for designing graphics. Because it’s a font, you can color it or change its size really easily!

Data visualization: "Lower the Numeracy Level. 1 in 3 participants agreed that the program was a good use of time." 3 people icons appear with one green and two light gray.

WordPress Community Conversation

We ended the day with a fabulous WordPress Community Conversation. We only had half an hour and we all wished it could have been longer! We talked about the pain of migrating out of Squarespace and “builder” plugins like (Make, Elementor, Divi, WP Bakery). We also talked about focused redesigns (aka “refreshes”) where you start with an existing design and what is already working well and make a site even better. Everyone on the call was hugely in favor of using vanilla WordPress to build sites that were both easy to manage and easy to migrate in the future.

I’ll be back for more tomorrow!

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