Allan Benamer who writes the Non-Profit Tech Blog blogged about his announcement on the NY 501C Tech Club List to create a closed forum for frank discussion of vendors and to share experiences about their experience with IT vendors. The NTEN Affinity Group will be called NpTechHelp, verified by e-mail originating from a domain run by a 501-c3.
There was a quite a flap on the list and according to Allan it came from vendors and consultants who suggested that vendors and consultants were upset because "seems vendors think that we’re going to whisper behind their backs in the closed forum and use it for bitch sessions about them." And certainly, this misconception was further reinforced with blog posts containing words like "grip."
Allan's description doesn't like a complaint festival to me ...
You see, nonprofit tech workers have a bit of a problem. We don’t always have the time to make great RFPs nor do we have the time to know our vendors. We use software packages that are unique to our sector alone from Blackbaud’s Raiser Edge to Fund E-Z to CitySoft. Worse, we don’t have forums where the membership is comprised only of tech workers. There are no slick magazines like CIO, InfoWorld or NetworkComputing with tons of information about nonprofit software and nonprofit tech vendors. Worse, we don’t have a way to share what we do know in a private way with our peers.
It sounds like an efficient way to conduct "collaborative due diligence" ("Due diligence" is checking the reputation, viability, and business ethics of a technology provider through reference and background checks.) And, as my colleague Laura Quinn notes in a comment over here, it isn't about negative feedback - it is about sharing the knowledge to be more effective in using technology. I applaud that!
The other concern that was brought up as the artificial distinctions or definitions of vendor versus consultant versus nonprofit staff person. Michelle Murrain described this well in her recent post to the NTEN discuss list on the issue:
But, also, the nptech landscape is a multi-hued landscape. Some vendors are nonprofits themselves. Some consultants ... work part time inside of nonprofits. Some of us are, or have been, on the boards of nonprofits. Some consultants used to be nonprofit staff, some nonprofit staff used to be consultants. In some ways, I worry a little bit about artificial distinctions where perhaps there isn't one that's quite so strong and fast.
Like Michelle and a number of other people in our field, I'm what Michelle defines as a fence straddler. I've been working with nonprofits for the past 25 years, the last 13 of those in technology as either a staff person, a staff person paid as a independent contractor, or an independent consultant. I've also been a technology volunteer as well as a board member heading up a board tech committee. My clients have included nonprofit organizations, nonprofit technology service providers (including NTEN) and individuals who work for nonprofit organizations.
I also respect the forming of private peer groups, a place where folks can have a safe conversation if that's what is needed. Marnie Webb raised a good point in her post about the issue:
So, how is this valuable information going to get out of that closed forum and into a form and a stream where the people who are working to provide the services can change because of it?
This interpretation isn't quite right. All the people on the list are committed to giving feedback and elevating issues discussed on the list to the larger community, and we are working out the details of that—quarterly conference calls/briefings and summary posts discussing the issues are in the works. Let me also point out that we have a vendor list where vendors are talking to each other, and hopefully also consultants will have their own active groups. Here are my observations and suggestions. And let me be clear, I come at this from the perspective of lots of good faith – that on the part of nonprofits to get the best service AND have productive conversations about how to achieve that, and hat on the part of service providers and vendors to have informed and educated and discerning customers with whom it is easy and a pleasure to do business.
Verclas goes on to describe the issues faced on both sides of the fence, for nonprofit staff members and vendors. She also restates NTEN's mission and notes the following:
We are, as the ‘big tent’ umbrella for nonprofit staff AND consultants AND vendors, of course interested in providing the platform and space for all of the groups to form peer communities, exchange information, learn, and improve. We already host a vendor group which is, in fact, discussing issues pertaining to them as a cohort, and I believe we have a consultant group doing the same, so we would be very thrilled to have a professionally facilitated NPO group as well.
But I am also keen on lessons shared and JOINTLY as a field (and that we are) improving on all fronts—more capacity on the consumer side and better services and products, so I would welcome a process by which there are regular (every quarter or so) information sessions and discussion on relevant topics pertaining to both the NPO and vendor groups (effective RFP processes comes to mind, for example) with representatives from all three constituencies engaging in a conversation. I believe Allen and I are in the same wavelength with this and willing to make that happen.
Incidentally, NTEN will be conducting a variety of vendor satisfaction surveys in 2007 and will be inviting a small working group to help prepare those surveys. If anyone would like to nominate themselves for that working group (and work WILL be required), please let me know directly.
For me, the most exciting thing is the passion and dialog erupting around issues in the nptech field as our field matures. And the fact that we've all be catalyzed to talk about various issues (whether in private affinity groups, public forums, or our own blogs) is a healthy thing!