In the beginning of April, a handful of Pro Bono Net staff attended the 2012 Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), a gathering of over 1,500 nonprofit professionals, in San Francisco. The conference, which takes place annually, focuses on the intersection of nonprofit work and technology, and creates a space for networking, collaboration, and innovation. With attendees from all over world and many different nonprofits, it was an opportunity for Pro Bono Net staff to share lessons from the justice community with the larger nonprofit community and more importantly, for us to gain insights from other nonprofits.

Matthew Burnett presents at NTC

At one of the many NTC breakout sessions, Pro Bono Net staff members Liz Keith, Matthew Burnett, Claudia Johnson, Jessica Stuart, and Jillian Theil gave a presentation entitled, “Maximizing Program Impact Through the Use of Technology.” The session addressed ways in which technology is being used to improve client service quality and program efficiency in the legal aid context. It explored Pro Bono Net’s use of LiveHelp online chat and LawHelp Interactive with state partners, the new CitizenshipWorks site, and multimedia tools being developed in the legal aid community. Due to the diverse representation of organizations at the session, it proved an interesting challenge for the team to frame their presentation in a way that could translate to other nonprofits of different size, community involvement, infrastructure and technology capacity.

In addition to sharing our experiences with the nonprofit community, we had the opportunity to learn more about our nonprofit peers and their organizations’ projects. During the breakout session, “Doing More With Less: Innovation in Service Delivery,” presented by Laura Quinn of Idealware and Rick Birmingham of MAP for Nonprofits, attendees gathered to learn about a framework for innovation. Specifically, the four-part framework defines ways in which nonprofits can use existing and affordable technologies to address their own organization’s needs and to produce better results for more clients, with less money. The framework involves:

1) identifying needs

2) understanding technology

3) connecting needs and technology

4) effecting change in the organization.

From the presenters and audience comments during the session, it was clear those organizations that lack these elements can and do struggle with innovation.

So, what was the take away from this session for Pro Bono Net? How can we use this framework to analyze, evaluate, and learn from our strengths and weaknesses in the arena of innovation?  As an organization that works to build and strengthen relationships within the justice community through the facilitation of technology initiatives, Pro Bono Net’s work is inherently built around the four elements of innovation.  We have a unique position in the legal community where our close partnerships allow for the identification and analysis of partner needs, and our work centers around making connections between these needs and technology resources.

Perhaps the more important question to ask, however, is not whether we are innovative, but how can we push the envelope of innovation? How can we make the delivery of legal services to underprivileged communities more and more efficient? These questions are challenging to address, but as the novelist Michael Kourda said, “One way to keep momentum going is to have constantly greater goals.”