Recapping SXSWi: Do Nonprofits Need a Place at the Web's Biggest Event?

Anyone hoping to find the next new standout consumer tech star like Twitter or Foursquare at this year's South by Southwest Interactive Conference was probably disappointed. Nothing this year truly captured everyone's imagination, or pointed to the next new toy nonprofits will be using to engage supporters.

But this doesn't necessarily mean tech has reached a plateau, says SXSW's Hugh Forrest, it may just mean that today's SXSW audience can't recognize tomorrow's breakthrough tech.

It also means that SXSW -- a truly massive event with more than 20,000 attendees -- lacked an immediate focus of attention and conversation this year. That could be one reason why many of us who represent the nonprofit technology world spent a lot of time at SXSW this year talking about, well, our own role at the conference. Certainly from my own perspective I'd say three things really stood out... and they all had to do with the "place" that nonprofits inhabit at SXSW.

Who Moved Our Cheese?

For many of us, the awesomeness of SXSW is that it's usually the best chance all year for social good tech proponents to get together with leaders in the wider worlds of technology, media and marketing. Nonetheless, after years of growing awareness about the great work that nonprofit do to make tech a platform for social good, there's still debate about what role we should play at SXSW.

As nonprofits, is it enough to come to a conference in order to learn new things that will make our work more effective, or is it also necessary for us to arrive prepared to contribute to the conversation? That is, are we at SXSW to soak up knowledge, or are we primarily there to help the wider community of techies learn how to use their skills to make a difference?

This year the debate began in earnest with the shake-up of session tracks and it only grew louder as the conference went on.

With so many sessions, panels, meetups, events, and screenings happening at once, finding sessions that apply to your field or interests has become a significant challenge for some people at SXSW. For social good fans, the problem was exacerbated this year as SxSW organizers did away with "Greater Good," the track which cobbled together sessions on topics related to tech in civic participation, community engagement, online social actions, tracking and measurement of public improvement, and interactive storytelling to inspire audience to make a difference.

Instead of Greater Good, SXSW participants had to wade through hundreds of session descriptions in theme area like Community and Activism, Social and Relationships, Design and Development, Health and Medicine, and Government and Civic Engagement in order to find talks that may specifically apply to nonprofit management or executing on a complex mission.

For some people, this dis-"integration" was just a nuisance, while others thought that any complaints would be par for the nonprofit course.

For others, the shift may reflect changes in the relationship between nonprofits and SXSW. As Beth Kanter writes in the comments of this blog post, there was a noticeable dip in "social good and nonprofit peeps" at SXSW this year.

For others like Brian Reich, the big issue at SXSW these days isn't that nonprofits aren't participating, it's that they aren't having much of an impact at the conference. By not getting organized, by not speaking with one voice to demand more representation, by not leading conversations about social change and technology, nonprofits are opting out of the chance to take advantage of SXSW as a forum for pushing the tech and media worlds to do more to solve real problems.

Or as Reich's artfully titled blog post "What the f--k are we waiting for?" puts it:

...Change will only happen if we want it to. It won't happen on its own. The organizers won't figure out how to properly push a conversation about philanthropy and social good/social change without help. The technology, design, media, and other communities won't magically show up and participate in a conversation about changing the world without being invited and challenged and pressed for better answers and ideas. People will continue to pass in the hallways, fail to connect -- and leave events like SXSW without a different lens through which to view the challenges that exist in the world, and without projects and partnerships that have game-changing potential for the future of our society.

The Lounge with a Conscience

But while the debate flared up on Twitter and in blogs, most at SXSW were happy to come and go to various events with social good themes. Fortunately, there was plenty of that going around. For starters, it was the best year ever for one of my favorite hangouts at SXSW, the Beacon Lounge.

The Lounge is a grassroots effort to give nonprofits and social change folks a place to hang out and turn on to each other's work. This year Beaconfire, the Washington, D.C.-based agency that curates the Beacon Lounge, did a great job arranging special programming about technology trends, solutions and social good.

Hanging out in the lounge I was able to see hundreds of conference-goers come in, look around, make new friends, and fire up their laptops to show off projects and get work done that's changing the world.

VolunteerMatch sponsored the Lounge this year along with Groupon Grassroots, NTEN, Salsa Labs, and a few others, and I was fortunate to be invited to join with Beth Kanter, Beaconfire's Lynn Labieniec, and NTEN's Amy Sample Ward in a discussion on measurement.

In previous years SXSW let Beaconfire promote the Lounge with a schedule of events out in the hallways. Folks would pass by and get inspired, then duck in for a snack and good discussion. This year, for some reason, signage wasn't in the cards and it wasn't easy to get the word out to conference-goers. Nonetheless spirits were high, collaboration was solid, and those who found their way to the Lounge inside the Austin Convention Center were uniformly impressed.

Hopefully SXSW can do more to help the Lounge connect with the wider audience of SXSW -goers next year.


Also sidelined at SXSW was GoodxGlobal, a day of panels and talks on "local and global power of social good, technology and entrepreneurship" put on by the World Food Program USA, United Nations Foundation & the Social Good Summit.

The well-organized showcase took place at Austin City Hall, instead of the Convention Center. And because it didn't appear in some parts of the SXSW program and website it seemed like a lot of folks were unclear on what GoodxGlobal's official relationship was to the conference and whether it even made sense to depart SXSW venues to take in more programming.

I took the gamble and I'm glad I did. The 10-, 20-, and 30-minute talks I saw on technology for effectiveness, tech for women, using data, storytelling and the future of the Social Good Summit were fascinating, if short. Although I left wanting more, I made some good connections while I was there. And the packed lecture made it clear that there's a big audience still at SxSW for a dedicated discussion of issues about tech and nonprofits.

Other Reports

But enough about my experience! For a wider view, a few others at SXSW did a great job reporting on day-to-day activities of relevance to nonprofits. Peter Panepento and Cody Switzer kept up on things for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Definitely read their reports to get a better feel of the event.

As for me, I'll be looking forward to going back to SXSW next year. In the meantime, how was this year's event for you?