5 Things We Learned from SXSW 2018

Yes, Elon Musk did a pop-up AMA. Yes, Westworld was real. Yes, Viceland had free stuff and baby goats. But beyond that, SXSW 2018 had a lot of takeaways from its Interactive programming that we’re still unpacking and figuring out how to put into action. While downtown Austin was teeming with film, music, and tech lovers, we caught as many panels, demos, and taco trucks as we could to explore everything from social impact to the new vistas of AI and blockchain. Read on for 5 of our key takeaways that we’re sharing with our clients — plus some of our favorite talks. Plus, hear more on SXSW 2018 on Episode 87 of our podcast, Using the Whole Whale.

Beyond Westworld, Elon Musk, and baby goats: 5 takeaways for nonprofits and for-benefits from #SXSW. #SXSW18 Click To Tweet

1. Tech helps us to cross the impact chasm, but it’s not the other side of the chasm

Tech as a tool or a medium to leverage social change was a frequent topic of discussion at SXSW 2018, in panels covering everything from next-gen tech for social good (presented by Bennett Wetch from Fair Trade, Kilian Moote from Humanity United, and Sarah Potts of Thorn) to race and digital sanctuary (led by the New School’s Maya Wiley).

The topic was most directly addressed in a discussion between GuardianX founder Marc Johann Kavantsaari and journalist Gemma Milne, as moderated by CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian. In discussing how an app like GuardianX can be used to prevent sexual assault, Milne (herself a survivor) noted that innovation is a great means of addressing symptoms versus determining the root causes of sexual assault.

Key #SXSW takeaway from @gemmamilne (and many others): Tech is a tool, but it's not a solution. #SXSW18 Click To Tweet

Imagine how we can map that line of thinking onto other areas where we use technology. How can it have an impact within your organization, how can it move you from outputs to outcomes, without being relied on as the outcome itself? As Wetch pointed out the following day, setting an infrastructure in place to move with technological changes will allow your organization to be more agile in the long run.

Sidebar: Wetch also made another key point: “Business and technology strategies must go hand-in-hand.” Boom.

2. The future is small

We’re not talking about a Downsizing situation, but one of the other common touchpoints at SXSW this year was how we can reclaim our privacy in an age where all of our privacy seems to have gone out the window. (And, let’s face it, if you’re agreeing to the Terms of Service of most websites, it has.)

“Telling people not to go online will never work,” said Lydia Laurenson in the panel “Escape the Algorithm Build Rad Online Communities.” So what are we doing instead? We’re forming closer-knit Facebook Groups versus participating in dialogues on pages with tens of thousands of followers. We’re moving to private Slack channels. We’re trying to go to the part of the grid that is seemingly most off the grid.

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Laurenson’s two predictions for the future of genuine community building online: Large companies like Facebook and Twitter will be working more diligently to verify members and the accuracy of content. Smaller groups, in turn, will be judged by the level of privacy they offer.

In other words, go small or go home. This is a good time to worry less about your vanity metrics and more about the quality of communities you’re cultivating online.

3. Love Empathy is all you need

One of the week’s main buzzwords at SXSW 2018 was “empathy.” Bitcoin had empathy. Data had empathy. AI had empathy. VR had empathy. And if you didn’t have empathy, as Ann Handley said in the intro to one session on “Why the Best Content Marketers Use Empathy,” “now would be a good time to leave.”  

So why is empathy the name of the game in 2018? “People don’t want to be sold a product or service, but they DO want to buy something,” explained Ben Mand of Plum Organics. And here’s a chance for nonprofits to feel pretty smug, because most for-benefit organizations have been leading with empathy from the get-go –– it’s the for-profit sector that’s beginning to catch on.

At #SXSW 2018, it seems that for-profits are starting to realize what nonprofits and for-benefits already knew: Empathy leads. Click To Tweet

But keep that gem from Mand in the back of your mind the next time you write a piece of content — be it a website resource, a social media post, or an email. Are you selling your audience on the idea of donating? Or are you meeting your audience on their level, and tapping into their innate desire to donate?

4. We have a major blind spot in giving statistics

“Traditional philanthropy needs to be more inclusive. Period,” said Omolola Adele-Oso in her talk on “Giving While Black.”

The Founder of Diaspora RiseUp!, Adele-Oso pointed out a huge lack of data on Black charitable giving. This includes data on how donations are made (Bitcoin is popular in countries like Nigeria and Zimbabwe where the local currency is less stable), who is making the donations, what donations are made, how much is donated, and the role of women in Black giving. This means there’s also an opportunity to better learn about a highly-engaged demographic of charitable givers, both in the United States and Africa.

Key #SXSW takeaway for nonprofits via @LAdeleoso: We have a major blind spot in giving statistics. Let's change that. Click To Tweet

Adele-Oso also flips the traditional script of impact illustration on its head: In lieu of the sort of messaging that SNL spoofs in its “39 Cents a Day” ad, give the people who benefit from your donors’ contributions the mic to explain what $50 helped them to do. Because the Sally Struthers model of impact asks is one thing that should stay forever in the 80s.

5. It may be time to turn the Internet off and on again

We now live in the age of Big Internet: Companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook reign supreme — and in supreme control of our data. As the web — the fourth and topmost layer of the Internet as a whole — was initially built without this in mind, we’re now trying to backtrack to protect data in light of an almost nonstop barrage of breaches and the very real consequences thereof (*cough2016Electioncough*). In the panel “Starting the Internet All Over Again,” Muneeb Ali of Blockstack, Andrei Sambra of Qwant, and Preston So of Acquia spoke with technology critic Sara Watson about what a new web may look like, built on the principles of Blockchain technology in order to decentralize data and therefore make privacy a reality versus a fantasy.

Why nonprofits should care about — and even play a part in — an open-source, decentralized web. (And more takeaways from #SXSW 2018.) Click To Tweet

Okay, but why should nonprofits and for-benefits care?

At roughly 40 minutes into the talk, So notes that one of the issues happening within open-source communities is “the collective action problem” — developer and contributor resources are being depleted, which leads to contributor burnout. His vision for a turnaround on this is to foster a sense of “source trading” that would allow for developers to contribute to other open-source projects and in turn receive help on their own projects.

So’s vision for the new web — built on a “mentality of contribution and collaboration…that is increasingly missing from open-source communities around the world” — mirrors the interdependence we see in crowdfunding. You back my Kickstarter, I’ll back yours.

The new web, essentially, could be best built with a nonprofit mentality.

Check out our guide for essential nonprofit conferences covering the rest of this year.

But wait, there’s more!

We were on the grount at SXSW with our podcast, Using the Whole Whale. Check out our 4 live interviews below with Tim O’Reilly, Emma Lalley and Twisha Mehta, James Beacham, and Sasha Samochina: