Reflections from NTC Plenary Panel on Innovation | Beth's Blog

Reflections from NTC Plenary Panel on Innovation


Flickr Photo by Julia Smith

I had the honored of moderating a free wheeling plenary discussion on Day #3 of NTC on “Innovation and Nonprofits.”   The panelists included Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Meg Garlinghouse, Greg Baldwin, and Brian Reich. You can find the description and bios here and if you want to the video of the whole session, you can find it here.     The conversation was non-linear, insightful, and allowed for debate on different points of view from the panelists.

Source: Rally Graphic Recording

I kicked it off with a provactive question, “Is innovation like porn – we know it when we see it?”  (a nod to the Mapplethorpe/NEA controversy from the 1990’s).       As Rally noted on its blog, “Beth Kanter kicked off Day #3 of NTC with a session characteristically full of zingers and tweetable one-liners.  But the session wasn’t just about soundbites; it was full of insight too.” Rally did a graphic recording of the content and summarized the takeaways as:

  • Innovation doesn’t come from organizations. It comes from individuals with ideas. However, one person cannot create innovation if s/he isn’t part of a team that’s willing and ready.
  • It’s hard to find funders who will fund a risky idea – they usually want case studies an proven techniques. So philanthropists have a huge responsibility to rethink and innovate around their relationship with nonprofits, no matter what their gift-size is.
  • The stakes for failure in the nonprofit community are so much higher in the nonprofit community than in the for-profit community. If people fail in marketing a product, a few people lose their jobs. If people fail in an intervention model, you can destabilize a society.
  • Innovation is driven by iteration.
  • Sometimes great innovation comes from not knowing any better and being unaware of the status quo. It frees you to think differently and pull ideas from new places.

I’m so glad that there was a graphic recording because when I’m moderating a discussion panel, I’m processing so many different things (audience feedback, watching the clock, intensely listening to panelists to summarize and cue up the next topic or bring out different points of view, etc – that focusing on a content synthesis is difficult without having someone else take notes and do graphic recording.  It is also wonderful to have other people blogging about the session, like this post from the Pew Center.

We got great feedback on the session from the audience, including many people who came up after the session to say how much they appreciated that it wasn’t a boring and polite panel.    Several colleagues asked me, “How do you prepare for a conversation like that?”    That got me thinking about my prep process.     I spent ten years as a focus group moderator so I think that experience was invaluable to learning how to facilitate wide ranging discussions, learning to listen intensely, and bringing out different points of view.   I have also been studying and practicing “unpresenting”  with Heather Gold, plus improv and stand up workshops with others.   But here were my specific prep steps.

1. Think about the end first

What action or new way thinking do you want your audience to embrace. If you doing a plenary discussion panel at a conference, it is a good question to ask the host. One of the first questions I asked Holly, “Why do you want a panel on this topic?”  This panel was design to have a conversation that unpacked innovation for the nonprofit technology field – openly discuss barriers and share inspiring examples.

2. Scaffolding Questions and Diverse Views in the Answers

Next, it is important to think about the framing for your topic. I almost always start with a set of neutral questions that try to pinpoint the divergent perspectives related to the topic. These questions included:

  • What does innovation really mean? Is it big change or small changes?
  • What are some examples of innovative nonprofits and technology? Why do think they illustrate innovative ways of working?
  • Why is innovation so hard for nonprofits?
  • How can funders and others encourage innovation in the nonprofit sector?
  • What are some of the processes and practices in the for-profit (or already exist in the nonprofit sector) that nonprofits can embrace to be more innovative?
  • Prompts (transparency, failure, scaling, partnerships)
  • What can people in this room put into practice in the next week or year to be more innovative?

With questions formulated, it is now time to think about who should answer them. The first obvious criteria is to pick people who have spent many years thinking, speaking, and writing about the topic. Or as I said in my introduction, “Eat innovation for breakfast.”

The question in my mind was – how can we get different points of view so could learn through the discussion. I wanted to make sure that we had diversity in gender, but also from different lens including business, a nonprofit, philanthropic, and social investment.   We also had different lens on the innovation topic – from sector/systems view and within organizations or businesses.    It is also great to find thinkers and who will disagree (respectfully) with other panelists.

3. Just Enough Preparation To Avoid Anxiety, But Not Too Much So It Isn’t Boring

I’ve organized a lot of discussion panels so this advice varies depending on your speakers. I usually set up a google document for the panel that includes the script, online interaction design, timings, and logistics (when to arrive for the AV check, etc). We have a preparation call and I ask panelists to add their bullet points (in different colors) to the questions in the script and suggest different ways of asking the question. Depending on the panelists, I schedule a second call to have the discussion close to the panel using the bullet points, making refinements in the questions, etc. For this panel, we didn’t do that given the caliber of speakers and I wanted to keep some spontaneity in the discussion.

I also ask the speakers to include links that would provide good background for someone who didn’t know anything about the topic as well as links that represent their point of view on innovation. I also did a quick and dirty literature search on practical information about innovation from people who write for the nonprofit audience. I used this for my own preparation as well as for resource blog posts or if I’m really prepared, I share the list of links in a google documents or delicious with live Tweeters.

We Think Differently

Innovation in the Nonprofit Sector

Daniel Pink’s FLIP Manifesto

Eric Reis, The Lean Start Up

Seth Godin on Nonprofit INnovation

Innovator’s Dilemma

Brian Reich’s Interview About the Panel

Infographic on Innovation

How To Innovate More? Practice, Practice, Practice

Innovation/Culture of Play

Mary Joyce

4. Design the Audience Interaction

I had initially designed something more complicated, but decided to keep it simple. The complicated design involved the use of text or online flash polls that could be shared on the screen and have the audience take the poll.  These would have questions that allow their audience to share their experience or attitudes about the topic or a speaker’s particular point. This works well your discussion is going to be linear and ours ended up as a non-linear format, so I decided to ditch the live polling.

Instead, we used the conference hashtag and asked people to tweet their comments and questions. Holly Ross was moderating the stream and captured the questions. These were shared on a google document that was projected on the speaker screen.

I would have added some offline audience interaction. Typically, I like to incorporate some “share pairs” some reflective questions that people in the audience can share with each other. I opted to keep this simple. If this was smaller audience (we had seating for 1750), I would have requested a wireless handheld mic and wandered into the audience.

5. Knowledge Capture and Reflection

It is important to have someone capture the conversation in notes and graphic recording (I’ve been arranging my own for many years, but NTEN has Rally sponsor this at the conference).  With every presentation, panel, or workshop, I do knowledge capture and reflection.   I review what I learned about the topic, what new insights were shared.    I also do an after-action review – even if it ends up being with myself (that’s when I get to use my many magic markers to draw out reflections).  This gives me ideas and areas to improve the next time around.

6.  Use Good Facilitation Practices

I practice facilitation which is listening, thinking on your feet, and allowing for discussion all the time — from small meetings to when I’m facilitating a training.   Some specific techniques include:  respecting diverse communication styles, paraphrasing, drawing people out, mirroring, gathering ideas, stacking, tracking, encouraging, balancing, acknowledging feelings, intentional silence, listening for common ground, listening for different points of view, and summarizing.     Over the many years I’ve been doing this, I have practice each technique actively until I don’t have to think about it.   It has taken dozens of years, but that’s how you master the craft.

During the final question about “What is one thing you can put into practice in the next year?” – one panelists suggested embracing failure and making sure there is a #13NTC panel on the topic.  Failure and learning is a topic that I’ve been wanting to dive into a deeper way – so in preparation for that panel submission, I’m going to continue write about it and curate resources.  I would love to see a plenary, interactive fail fest at NTC, perhaps not possible – so at least count on a fun panel submission on the topic next year.    If you’re interested in joining me, sign up here.


9 Responses

  1. […] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 9:36 […]

  2. Jan Gunter says:

    Beth – great panel. Re: failure – that is a brilliant idea!

    Here’s something where we “failed”. We were early adopters of mobile donations, and we did not make it work. We lost money on it and abandoned it at the one year renewal point.

    We learned a lot in the process, and fortunately we have a culture of innovation, so it was seen as a learning process, not as a disaster.

    These stories are helpful to share and to hear!


  3. Amy Quinn says:

    Dear Beth-
    THANK YOU for the tips on moderating and a summary of the panel discussion. It was a lively conversation and worthwhile. Since I facilitate Tech4Good forums in Denver (with help from an awesome Advisory Board), your advice on managing a panel was excellent. Hosting a call is a great idea…haven’t done that yet beforehand. We’ve been using Dropbox for corralling preparation documents.

    In November we also are planning a “Fail Camp” for our Tech4Good Denver forum. Perhaps all the 501 Tech clubs/Tech4Good groups could host this type of event in November and then share the experiences with you for the “Fail” forum.

    I’m looking forward to sharing a link on my blog to your multi-faceted post.

    The interviewees in my upcoming book confer that innovation comes from individuals working towards common goals in a progressive open environment. They also talk about innovation originating from “cross-breeding” so to speak…sharing “methodologies” across sectors to find solutions.

    As we briefly discussed, I’d like to mail you a pre-copy of Fundraising Innovators for your review. Please let me know the best place to send it. A digital version is available but think the hard copy, in hand, is better in this situation!A Big

    Congratulations on the plenary but also your breakout was excellent, tooI learned tons from your breakout.
    Best, Amy S Quinn

  4. […] } #themeHeader #titleAndDescription * { color: black; } – Today, 1:54 […]

  5. Robin Mohr says:

    Thank you Beth for these notes and the ones on facilitating a multi-lingual workshop a few days ago. I am coordinating a bilingual (English-Spanish) workshop as part of an international Quaker conference in Kenya this month and I have been sharing your posts with our planning team – very helpful.

    Today the main thing I took away was the need for some kind of graphic recording during the sessions. I think that could make a difference both in the sessions and for communicating “what happened” afterwards to people who weren’t there.

  6. Kevin Monroe says:


    Love the dual track to this post — highlights from the actual session on innovation PLUS the “behind the scenes” planning and preparation you do to facilitate a great session. Some folks think that flow just happens, but I love your approach as an architect, engineer, and conductor to create the framework that allows flow to occur and then nurturing it as it occurs.

    You illustrate that great facilitation is both art and science.

  7. Kim says:

    Beth, Thanks for the sharing the “behind the scenes” prep work done for your part of being on the panel– in the moderator role. It ads another dimension for me to process and synthesize the conversation.

  8. […] Photo by Nielio   Note from Beth: Innovation was the buzzword at the Nonprofit Technology Conference!   I ran into the good folks at Idealware […]

  9. […] Some thoughts on the Innovation and Nonprofits Plenary panel … including a renewed sense to curate and write about failure  […]