Techsoup Global Contributor's Summit, February 2011. (Photo courtesy of Clara Azulay)

Three vectors inform the work of many organizations, including TechSoup Global, in today’s world:

  • Technology-driven innovation
  • Collaboration
  • Globalism

While it is possible for these vectors align, they rarely do.

There are so many obstacles to true alignment. For example, innovators tend to be individualists, not instinctive collaborators. True collaboration also demands scarce resources and can feel far less “sexy” than innovation. Meanwhile, globalism is honored far more in theory than practice, for all kinds of obvious reasons.

Still, the biggest impact results from true alignment of all three vectors. When innovative ideas harness new technologies, gain the engagement of all the needed stakeholders, and transcend the barriers of geography (language, culture, politics, income levels, etc.), we can start to imagine that our species might just possibly surmount its grievous plight.

Techsoup Global’s Contributors’ Summit, in February 2011, was our swing at achieving this alignment, in the context of both the TechSoup Global Network (TSGN) of 36 partners serving 40 countries, and a larger, small-“n” network of contributors—individuals and organizations whose work was already making our own work better. These contributors included foundations, corporations, technologists, nonprofit capacity builders, developers, and social media mavens. This post reports back on the extent to which we succeeded.

To provide some context: A key part of our organizational methodology is to periodically convene the TSGN face to face. This has become more productive (and also more challenging and expensive) as the Network has grown. By the winter of 2010 it had been more than a year since the prior convening and we felt overdue to engineer the kind of intra-Network dialogue that only occurs in person.

And this is where the plot thickened. It struck us that the TSGN had evolved into such a rich, rare, and very global resource that we could, in effect, use the 36 partners as “bait” to attract and convene a dynamic cross-section of our contributors as well. (Read a full “how the sausage was made” report on the conference).

Back to the three vectors.

We felt well positioned on globalism and innovation. Our Network is global by definition, and we have been cultivating innovation and innovators since our first NetSquared Challenge in 2007.

Collaboration on the other hand… We talk all the time internally about how much we want to collaborate, and our hearts are pure. But do we do it? Really? Well, not nearly as often or as successfully as we’d wish. I could go on and on about why we fall short of our collaborative ambitions, but the simple reality is that, when push comes to shove, the collaborative impulse can morph into, “Why don’t you collaborate with what we want to do, and do it on our terms”—and that is not really collaboration at all.

I am not saying this to indulge in an orgy of self-recrimination. Did I mention that collaboration is hard? Did I mention that we’re a nonprofit (and tend to want to do about ten times what we have funds to do)?

So we decided to organize the TSG Contributors’ Summit, primarily around collaboration. Our premise was that our crowd had plenty to collaborate around, and our job was to create the optimum structure within which they could both discover collaborative possibilities and be strongly motivated to act on those possibilities.

We asked the participants to put away their gadgets, share freely what they knew, and based on that sharing, articulate collaborative projects that could be implemented in the real world. We told them to be careful about what they articulated, since we would be on the case to turn those articulations into action. We said that the single clear goal of the summit was that there would be change directly traceable to the collaborative work we would all do together during those few days. 

Hosted at Microsoft’s Mountain View facility and brilliantly guided by Aspiration Tech’s Allen “Gunner” Gunn, we ran ourselves joyously ragged for two days pursuing an agenda that had been developed in pre-Summit consultation with about 70 of the participants.

We have spent the last few months reconnecting with participants to discover if, after a year, we had achieved our goal—of generating positive change based on actively fostering collaboration among a wide range of necessary actors.

I hereby claim success. We didn’t fully save the human race from itself (that will occur at the next summit) but we saw that if you put collaboration front and center, and put everyone on notice that the bar is set at results, some amazing stuff can happen.

There are a variety of necessary ingredients, of course. There has to be enough complementarily; identical actors compete more than collaborate. There has to be participant ownership coming in. There has to be dynamic facilitation. There has to be proactive documentation to establish a clear record of commitments. There has to be follow-up.

Mainly, though, there has to be a commitment to the need to take action toward impact (not just to listen to inspirational speakers) and to do so together (because we can’t get there separately).

The results span quite a gamut. A few examples:

You can read the full evaluation statements from Beth Kanter, Noel Dickover, Todd Khozein, Andrew Rasiej, Holly Ross, Joaquin Alvarado, and 14 more external contributors here, or excerpts from these statements grouped around common themes. You can also see what resulted within the Network, catalyzed by the gathering.

It goes without saying (though I’ll say it) that not every aspired-to collaboration came to fruition. Often, in our post-summit research, people told us that despite best intentions, the big collaborative idea that they discussed at the summit didn’t hatch or hasn’t hatched yet. But we saw what is possible when the focus is collaboration and the crowd is engaged.

I’ll close by just noting that while all the Summit participants were passionate about technology, and its capacity to abet or even drive positive change, the event itself was curiously non-technological. By asking people to disconnect, we lodged them in a specific time and place with a specific collaborative agenda. It seems like a principle that could guide a wide array of convenings!

(I really can’t close without a thank-you to Microsoft, for what they did and for what they didn’t do. They did host the event completely and impeccably, and participated throughout. They didn’t interfere in the slightest with our agenda-setting or guest list. Thank you to a great partner.)