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This fall I had a chance to attend my first TAG Annual Conference. This one was in November amidst glitz and swarms of tourists in Hollywood, very near the fabled Walk of Fame. Very fun. It was a pretty interesting look at what grantmaking foundations are thinking about and doing with their technology.
The Technology Affinity Group (TAG) is the very active community for foundation techies with something under 800 members. The project grew out of a Council on Foundations conference in the late 1990s and became its own nonprofit in 2006. TAG is mostly an online community that discusses foundation technology on the TAG listserv and blog. It also offers its members educational webinars, and it holds in-person regional meetings in various parts of the U.S.
This year, the 13th annual TAG Conference attracted just under 300 techie members. Lots of them, it looked like a majority, were women, which is somewhat unusual for a tech conference. The members I talked to about this didn't seem to think anything of it. It is 2015 after all.
The theme was "Knowledge: From Collection to Protection." Foundations are paying attention to the dramatic increase in information coming from diverse sources. They want to harness it to inform their grantmaking and to get a better understanding of their grant outcomes, something of a perennial quest for grantmakers. Also, everyone is understandably concerned about cybersecurity.
To judge from the keynote addresses, there is considerable interest in the future of philanthropy technology.
Sue Gardner, noted former executive director of Wikimedia Foundation, provided a bleak Dante's Inferno-type picture of our future Internet. She maintains that both privacy and security on the Internet are an illusion. The very business model of the Internet is surveillance. We are paying for it with our personal data.
She is calling for a convening of stakeholders to create a Magna Carta for Internet users, work that charities like Free Press and Creative Commons are pursuing. She is calling for at least part of the Internet to be an authentic public space, rather than a wholly commercial enterprise.
The other keynotes covered the future of knowledge and emerging technologies. Lisa Rau of Confluence Consulting told us that we need to bring our offices in line with the sensibilities of millennials, who became the majority of the U.S. workforce this year.
Mark Bolgiano and Timothy Dechant told us about new technology that will transform our lives in the next few years called the Blockchain. It is a secure transaction ledger database currently used by the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. This software could become the basis for our financial transactions. Who knew?
I did a presentation on the future of the cloud, a hot topic. According to the most recent TAG survey that came out just before the conference, grantmakers are accelerating their movement to the cloud:
I came away from the TAG Annual Conference with the impression that foundation techies are surprisingly aware of technology limitations and concerns, both for their foundations' grantmaking and their grantees. Foundation technology offers an interesting glimpse into the way philanthropy functions. Multiple sessions at the TAG conference touched on common ground between charities and foundations in the areas of data collection, measuring grant impact, and content collaboration.
Of course, grants management software is at the center of foundation IT. The TAG Conference is increasingly attractive to the grants managers who run these systems.
Jeff Brandenburg, TAG manager of conferences and communications, explains:
"TAG is a member-driven organization primarily composed of technology people from grantmaking organizations. Our organization is changing from being strictly IT or technology members. We have executives who require technology for their work.
"Lots more grants management people are coming now. TAG reflects the changing roles of foundation staffs. In the past we covered things like cloud versus on-premises solutions. Now with cloud computing here, there is less configuring of software and so a wider diversity of people are coming to this conference."
If like me, you like to explore the uncharted territory between foundations and charities, this is an interesting conference indeed. TAG is open to nonprofit organization techies as well as foundation techies and grants managers. If you'd like to see what others have to say about the event, check out #tagconf on Twitter. Next year, the event will be in November at St. Pete Beach in Florida.
Images 1 and 2: TAG
Image 3: Frank Schulenberg / CC BY-SA