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December 16, 2020

How can your values help during challenging times?

Amy Sample Ward

Does your organization practice its values in tangible ways? Listen to this podcast to gain insight from NTEN’s CEO, Amy Sample Ward, on how to center your strength using your values during difficult times.


Sarah Durham: Welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Sarah Durham, and I’m joined today by Amy Sample Ward from NTEN, Welcome Amy.

Amy Sample Ward: Hi, thanks for having me.

Sarah Durham: I am very excited that Amy is here today. She’s NTEN’s CEO and has worked at NTEN for a number of years. For those of you who don’t know NTEN, they envision a world where nonprofits fulfill their missions through the skillful and racially equitable use of technology. Their mission is to support organizations by convening the nonprofit community, offering professional credentials and training, facilitating community skills and resource sharing. And if you aren’t a member of NTEN, you probably should be. You should also for sure, be going to the NTC, which is NTEN’s annual conference. It is absolutely one of the best, if not the best conference out there. And it’s not just about tech, it’s really the place where you’re going to hear what’s new, what’s important in communications. It’s just a great place to be, and to go. Driven by a belief that the nonprofit technology community can be a movement-based force for positive change, Amy’s prior experience comes out of the direct service world policy and philanthropy and capacity-building organizations, and those have fueled her aspirations to create meaningful, inclusive, and compassionate community engagement and educational opportunities for all organizations. She’s a very inspiring leader. That’s why I asked her to join us today. She works with NTEN’s staff and partners around the world and helps them really think about community generated change,, in particular how technology can be used by the nonprofit sector to help them achieve their missions. You may have run across Amy and other places too. She’s a regular conference, presenter and keynote speaker. She’s been on all kinds of podcasts like Nonprofit Radio. She’s a contributing author for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, or SSIR, Fast Company, a lot of other great places. She co-authored a book, Social Change Anytime Everywhere. What else have we missed? Amy? What else do you want to add?

Amy Sample Ward: I have a super amazing four-year-old and a very silly Muppet of a dog and an incredibly supportive partner and get to work for the very best team.

Sarah Durham: That’s awesome. Yeah, it is a great team. And we are recording this in mid-September of 2020. So we are sheltering in place and you will quite likely hear household sounds and other animal sounds in the backgrounds as we record. So we hope wherever you are, you are safe and well as you listen to this, I invited Amy to join me today because in my experience, many nonprofits state their values publicly, but often they don’t seem to actually walk the talk. They don’t always, at least from the outside, seem to practice using those values in really tangible ways. But NTEN really stands out as an exception. And through the many years I’ve known Amy and known NTEN I’ve seen this over and over again, but particularly this year in the pandemic, there have just been some things that NTEN has done under Amy’s leadership that have been especially strong examples of this. So I want to talk about that a bit today. I want to start by talking actually about the conference about the NTC. The NTC in 2020 was originally scheduled for when was it? Late March, early April, Amy?

Amy Sample Ward: Yeah, our convention center times were March 22nd through the 26th in Baltimore, Maryland.

Sarah Durham: So this was one of the conferences that was in the first wave of conferences where organizations had to decide, are they going to try to go ahead? Are they going to try to close? So Amy, take us a little bit on the journey of how you decided what to do with the NTC in 2020 and how you communicated about it.

Amy Sample Ward: The NTC is a pretty big conference. We were expecting 2,400 people. Plus this year. A conference that big, planning starts a long time in advance. And we have people that come from 20 different countries. We’ve got sponsors and service providers coming from all over the world. So it’s a lot of logistics. We started to hear a lot from the community as it got closer and closer. So at this point, it’s now into March and we’ve put out at that point, at least one video saying we know about COVID. We know about potential concerns. We’re taking this very seriously. Here’s how we’re talking to these experts every day. Here’s how we’re going to be making these decisions. But we started to hear from attendees and that’s really what made it so difficult is that there were so many people emailing me and leaving me a voicemail saying, please don’t cancel.

Amy Sample Ward: I know that you’re going to get the pressure to cancel, please don’t. And it was like, Oh my gosh, like, that is so much harder than just thinking this is a, you know, kind of straightforward decision, which ultimately we made it a straightforward decision for ourselves and prioritized health. But the reasons that people were asking, pleading, even, for us not to cancel, I think also reinforced to us why the conference is so important to our mission, and to our community. And not that it’s just like one more event in a convention center, but it is more than that to us and to our community. And people were saying, this is the only professional space where I can talk about new tools that others in my organization don’t want to use. This is the only place where I can really be my full self. So that felt incredible, but also that much harder to feel like we were taking it away. And ultimately we weren’t, COVID took it away from all of us, you know?

Sarah Durham: Absolutely. And if the people who are listening to this podcast can kind of rewind. Odds are good, whoever you are and whatever you were doing, you probably had some conferences you were planning to attend in the Spring of 2020. And you were probably trying to figure out if they were happening? Would you get your money back? If you couldn’t go, et cetera. And I want to rewind to something you just said, Amy because this is the crux of what I thought was really interesting about how you handled it. It was that many of the conferences that at least I was scheduled to attend in spring, really weren’t communicating, they had a page on the website where they said the conferences are on with no acknowledgment of COVID or, or no clarity that there was a discussion happening about it. You just mentioned that you made a video. So let’s go back to that because a lot of our listeners are communications people. Why did you make a video? How did you decide? And if the video is still on your website, actually we’ll link to it in the show notes. I think it’s really interesting to watch, but tell us why you made a video instead of just posting like a little, you know, Hey PS, we’ll let you know about the conference later kind of thing?

Amy Sample Ward: Yeah. I think we actually made three or four videos. The first one was after we had some amount of information on the site that said, we know what COVID is and we’re watching. And the conference at that time was still on. I think that was maybe in February when we first started talking about it. And then the first video, I think is one we have heard from the convention center in Travel Baltimore and they were very like, no one else’s canceling. What are you talking about? Why do you think you would cancel? And so that first video, if I remember correctly, through the tears and trauma was mostly focused on what we actually could control at NTEN. That we were requesting that Travel Baltimore install additional sanitation areas. We were requesting the Travel Baltimore, more hire additional food service staff so that people weren’t sharing utensils at the food bar, et cetera.

Amy Sample Ward: So really just trying to make transparent the efforts we were taking to go beyond what a quote-unquote normal year would have been like. And I think it’s the hardest part of being a leader is that you have to be really okay with the truth. You said yesterday, changing. I know a lot of folks are resistant to that. I guess I’ve had enough experience in my life with change that it doesn’t bother me. One of those videos was like, don’t worry, we’re still on. And then the next video was we’re canceled. And this is really awful. For us, having it be a video was the slightest step toward getting to be in person like we would have had for a conference. The very least we can do is have you seen my face when I tell you this because we don’t get to be in person for the conference. Anyway.

Sarah Durham: One of the things I’ve been kind of obsessed with for a few years, and I wish we saw more of in the nonprofit sector, is the idea of having a chief experience officer, and the reason I’m obsessed with it is that I think that so often when we work inside organizations and particularly teams that are stretched thin and trying to do so much on such limited resources, we tend to have a very organization-centric point of view. And so how we communicate is often very organization-centric. The function of the chief experience officer is to take off the hat that we wear within our organization or business and put on the hat of the person on the other end. And I think your point about using video, but also about making sure that you were messaging this in multiple ways because your audience wanted to take in this information in their own way is a great example of you centering your communication around this significant thing in your community, on the experiences and the needs of your community. So maybe a CEO, you’re actually the chief experience officer too.

Amy Sample Ward: Well, you know, it’s interesting you bring that up. I immediately started thinking about just to kind of reference NTEN’s values, which for us are very much alive. Something that people talk about in reference, in conversations regularly. That is part of how we talk and how we make decisions. And one of our values is community and humanity. And what that translates to in practice is that we ask every staff person to come into conversations that we have in the organization, not as who they are as a staff person, but as what segment of the community they interact with, and can be speaking on behalf of so that we are really having conversations that invite perspectives from across the community, just in every conversation we have. And so the day that we canceled the NTC, the evening before, when I was riding home from the office on the bus, I texted Andrea, our conference director, and just said, my gut says, we’re done, and we’re just going to tell people tomorrow, and it’s going to be the absolute worst day, but I’ve made the decision. Let’s just move forward. Draft up all the fines, draft up all the fees. Let’s talk tonight. Even if it’s 10 o’clock at night and figure out like how much money this is going to sink us short, answer all the money, $500,000 plus, but like, let’s just do this. So the next morning we came in and sat with the whole staff, canceled all meetings, and just said, we’re going to sit here together as a team, go through as many emotions, you know, in that like kind of cycle of processing things. We can all be angry together. We can be sad. We can do whatever we need to do, but like, we’re going to stay here together until we’re ready to go figure out who we need to talk to and how we’re going to talk to those people.

Amy Sample Ward: And people, even in that time, when literally all 15 of us were just sitting there crying for, I think an hour and a half before we felt ready to move forward and people could say, I work with the speakers. And I’m just so sad for what this means for folks who this is their first time doing public speaking. And you know, other people saying I’m on the accessibility committee and I’m so disappointed for what this means for folks who were planning so many logistics in order to be here. And it’s important, I think, to make those connections and acknowledge where your values are or are not showing up in your really hard conversations, because to me that’s the most important place where they can be. And if, as an organization, you think about a really hard conversation or a really hard time, and you don’t feel like your values were present. That’s the opportunity for change and growth.

Sarah Durham: Absolutely and thank you for coming back to the way you used your values to guide the decision and to talk internally because that really comes across loud and clear in those videos and in your narrative about the journey that your team goes on. I want to talk about those values in action in another context this year, which was your decision to have NTEN boycott Facebook. In July, you wrote a blog announcing that decision and for a technology organization, that’s a big move, a gutsy move. A lot of nonprofits use Facebook very, very actively. I’d love you to tell us a little bit about why you boycotted Facebook, how you used your values in action, then how you made that call.

Amy Sample Ward: Yeah, sure. I also appreciate you naming the nuance of being a technology-focused organization. You know, I think sometimes that feels difficult because there’s a very fine line between being platform agnostic, which we say we are, we’re not necessarily in the business of recommending products. The fine line between being agnostic and being against something that can be tricky for us to navigate. We actually have internally through our equity team and through the entire staff have had a lot of conversations about Facebook over the years. Summertime of 2019, actually as a team, had had conversations about, does Facebook seem like a platform that as an organization we want to be using? We kind of came to the conclusion, you know, a year ago that the answer was no, but it didn’t feel because of certain other priorities in the sector and things going on, that it needed to be something we were necessarily vocal about.

Amy Sample Ward: So, we started deprioritizing the platform and for us, that meant really not paying attention or posting a ton, not putting money into it, et cetera. But we still had it there in the background. And then this year, of course, with so many other things happening with the increase in hate speech and trolling, and ads, mostly generated and connected to all different campaigns at different levels. It felt like, hey, this is it. Like we truly don’t feel this is okay. And when some organizations that we really respect and partner within lots of different ways launched the Stop Hate Campaign, we thought perfect. And NTEN’s messaging hierarchy is always “Can amplify someone else first.” It’s not “What does NTEN have to say on something.” So it felt like a perfect opportunity to be more vocal about it ourselves because we could center and amplify, a bigger campaign that other organizations we really respect we’re running instead of trying to act like we started something or we were leading something.

Amy Sample Ward: So that felt like a perfect time and opportunity to broadcast that more. And of course, the messaging we put out, didn’t just say, we’re part of this campaign, you know, we really try to use our own values in place within the decision what was going on for NTEN, our like monthly newsletter had that message as the intro. And we got a hundred replies people saying, I wish that I could do this at my organization, but my leadership doesn’t agree. Or, you know, we don’t know what else to use if we don’t use Facebook, or good for you, you’re so privileged you get to do that, but my organization doesn’t have those privileges. You know, and we said from the beginning, this is not a straightforward topic. Like NTEN doesn’t need Facebook. And so we’re going to walk away, but we’re going to make clear why we’re doing it. But for some organizations, especially really small nonprofits, Facebook is incredibly important. And we’re not saying that everyone has to make the same decision as us, but really wanted to use our values to guide our own decision on that and invite other people to use a similar process, regardless of what their answer was.

Sarah Durham: So Amy, as we wrap up, I would love to get from you any guidance or suggestions that you would share with other people in the nonprofit sector, as they think about decision-making and communicating in a values-driven way. What do you know now that you wish you knew then, or that you would like other people to think about?

Amy Sample Ward: The very first thing that comes to mind is to actually look at your values and see if they serve you. If those are the values that you want to have driving your decisions. The world is different. Do you work at an organization where those values have been on your website for 20 years? They’re either so generic that they’re irrelevant or they’re topically irrelevant. Not to say that you should change your values every year, but if they’ve not been made current to who works there and who’s in your community and how you’re going to do your work, then they can’t be the tool that they need to be to help you navigate any decisions big or small in your organization and how you do the process of re-envisioning those values. You know, I’m not here to recommend that process, but I do think that that’s a place to start.

Amy Sample Ward: I see so many nonprofit websites where the mission statement, isn’t something that’s active enough or specific enough to really make your decisions on. The values are like “smart and bold.” Okay. What’s guiding you in that? So really inviting you to let go of those things. And then we made a new set of values a number of years ago now, and it was truly the most catalytic process for some team building because no one liked the old values. I don’t know the history of how they were created or who created them, but they included things like we are practical dreamers. What does that mean? How is that a value? You know, I don’t know what valuing practical dreaming means. So everyone just felt so good getting to say, as a whole team, these don’t serve us and we’re going to pick the things that we really care about. It brought everybody together. It made it that much easier for everyone on the team to know them and practice them and name them in conversations because they were our values. We created them. So really think about what that could mean to do something like that for your team.

Sarah Durham: Thank you. I will link to your values in the show notes. And as you were talking about your values, I heard two things. The first is go through a real process for developing them. I recorded a podcast with Cecilia Clarke. Who’s the CEO of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, talking about how she went through a process with her community, with Brooklyn, basically to surface Brooklyn’s value. So I’ll link to that, which might be a good reference. And then the other thing I’ve heard in your remarks throughout this conversation is that both the process of creating them so that they are alive and useful was critical. But then also you’ve developed some ways that you’re bringing them into every meeting, into every context they’re so alive at NTEN. And when you visit the website, you definitely see that and feel that, and you feel it at places like the NTC.

Sarah Durham. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Amy Sample Ward: Thank you so much. I so appreciate you and all the work You’re doing right now.

Sarah Durham: Thank you.