We're having a "heaven help us from getting what we wanted" experience and we're making some people unhappy.
We don't want people to be unhappy but we think we've acted in good faith and creatively Here is an attempt to be transparent about what has happened so people can understand the situation. And it's also an attempt to suggest a pathway toward a shared goal.
When we first started planning Net2, less than a year ago, we knew we were taking a big swing at a ball we couldn't really see. Our premise was very simple and pretty vague. We believed that unlike other tech fads, Web 2.0, or as we prefer to call it, the social web, was only going to get bigger and, even more importantly, represented a profound opportunity for nonprofits, NGOs and those committed to social change.
The social web, to us, meant that the action had shifted from 'stuff' that cost money (nonprofits' weakness) to web-based tools that enhanced the ability of communities (nonprofits' strength) to self-organize. We could imagine the same kind of energy that has been mobilized for Wikipedia being mobilized to fight AIDs. We didn't know (and still don't) *how* that will happen, but we think it can happen. And we want to help make it happen.
We decided to do that by implementing the Net2 Project. The Net2 Conference is a part of the project. The Conference lasts two days. The project continues and keeps growing, and becomes less and less "ours" and more and more what people make of it. Our commitment was to put a lot of dollars (by our standards) and sweat (by anyone's standards) into getting things going and, specifically, into creating this website, nurturing it and staging the conference.
What kind of Conference? We'll find out at the end of May. One of the absolutely key aspects of the social web is "network effect" - the concept that A+B can add up to a lot more than C in ways that cannot be predicted but are a function of putting A in 'creative contact' with B. The Conference is our attempt to put a lot of people who don't usually talk to each other in the same room, literally and metaphorically.
This is where things got a little squirrelly, in a good way and a sometimes upsetting way. The good news was that after having the devil of a time for the first few months convincing just about anyone to take "still another conference" seriously, all of a sudden, or so it seemed, everyone took it seriously.
And wanted to come.
We have room for 350 folks. That's it. We asked for and received scholarship funding from a number of foundations and corporations that enables us to pay the way of 56 nonprofits, including international NGOs and U.S. nonprofits. We have 60 speakers. We have about 40 members of the Net2 Team and the CompuMentor/Techsoup staff who have put too much sweat into this to be denied entry. We had to make 50 seats available to the sponsors who are helping us afford the time we've put in. Are the dimensions of the problem beginning to become clear? We basically had 144 seats 'left over' to allocate. We had 300 npo/ngo scholarship applicants, many of whom wanted to pay if they couldn't get scholarships. We had 200 people writing to us off the Net2 site telling us they wanted to register as soon as registration was open. We have thousands of people from around the world starting to pick up on the buzz that has been generated and many of these people want to come. And in the midst of all this, we have our commitment to bring different kinds of people to the event. For there to be true network effect, we can't have 300 people from nonprofits...or 300 philanthropists...or 300 open source developers. We have to make sure that bloggers with their ideas and developers with their programming skills and corporations with their resources and philanthropists with their funding and nonprofits with their on-the-ground social missions are all in the room.
So, please do the math. The upshot is that there are a bunch of great people who thought they might get a scholarship and now are being told they can't even register and pay full freight. Are they really really pleased? No they are not. And they're letting us know (see below).
It seems to us that there are three things we can do about this.
1. Communicate better and more transparently about what's going on. We're in one of those "the harder we pedal the behinder we get" modes right now, but that's just meant as a statement of fact, not an excuse. A big item on our agenda in the next week is to let people know where they stand regarding attendance, and why.
2. Create an incredible back channel that will enable people to participate meaningfully and derive serious benefits from doing so...even if they are not physically present. We've set the bar high for ourselves in this regard and we're working on it. As you can imagine, there are quite a few variables to be reckoned with, and we're reckoning as quickly as we can.
3. Stage such a dynamic conference that real work happens and real benefits accrue to the whole social benefit community, and not just those physically at Cisco. Time will tell if we succeed.
That's how it looks from here. In the spirit of full disclosure, let me close with some with some quotes from a disappointed person who ripped us pretty hard. We 'hear' this criticism. We hope she and others will read this and feel at least somewhat better about how this is all evolving. Our critic writes:
39 days out from the conference, and the website still has a “let’s put on a show” feel about it. A lot is still up in the air, speakers not confirmed, details sparse and still loosely defined. Let’s say I wasn’t waiting to hear about a scholarship…would I be confident spending $300, plus airfare, lodging and expenses to attend this? I’m not so sure. If activity is happening for the conference behind the scenes, then aren’t the organizers playing only to their “inside” crowd and violating the very nature of what they profess to be building?
Non-profit doesn’t mean cheap, open source doesn’t mean slapped together, community-driven doesn’t mean disorganized. Non-profit/open source/community-driven are simply words to describe the means of delivery…one has no reason to expect anything less than professional, timely communication and attention to detail.
It's pretty much a 'fair cop' as they used to say on Monty Python. What she says has a basis in fact, and yet we know that we're doing here is neither cheap nor slapped together. It is surely not optimally "organized" if organized means that every train runs on time, but it is coming together in a risky, creative and, we think, ultimately, meaningful and ongoing way. It is 'differently' organized and that, we think, is a big part of the point of it all.