The price may be steep, but the value is tremendous, says Lonny Stern, Senior Director of Business Development at Skillpoint Alliance and the 2015 winner of the Austin Under 40 Award in the Community Service & Non Profit category.
We asked Stern – a SXSW veteran – a few questions about his conference experience this year and came away with a million reasons why nonprofits should invest in attending SXSW and tips on how to prepare and make the most of it.
GC: Why did you attend SXSW this year?
Stern: SXSW is a very valuable opportunity for non-profit organizations like Skillpoint Alliance because it offers premiere corporate networking opportunities, exposure to new tools and programs, and participation in panel discussions that generate new service delivery ideas and best practices. In order to provide this opportunity to as many staff members as possible, Skillpoint worked out a badge trade with SXSWi in which we hosted the Austin Education Jam for SXSW in association with Globaloria, DAQRI, Capital Factory and the U.S. Department of Education (here is a landing page with the final game submissions) and received badges in exchange. In addition, I moderated a panel “Gaming in Education, Education in Gaming” in order to secure my badge.
GC: What were your expectations, and were they met?
Stern: SXSW is a lot of fun, with many special events, happy hours, and industry panels to enjoy. As expected, I participated in several networking events that resulted in building business and program partnership opportunities with no fewer than a dozen organizations. I met several peers operating in other parts of the country, reconnected with friends, benefited from a lot of free food and drinks, and became aware of many new program tools and service delivery ideas. My expectations were certainly met this year, and I have a stack of business cards to go through in the next week to prove it!
GC: What was the highlight of your experience?
Stern: Participating in the conference with several of my Skillpoint colleagues.
In years past I’ve usually attended the conference on my own. this year, there were several of us attending and we came up with a strategy for it. We used the GroupMe app to facilitate communication during the conference, which allowed us to divide and conquer (when we wanted to attend several panels hosted at conflicting times) as well as share best practices, scoops on finding good networking events, and insert a little humor into the experience.
In addition, we hosted pre-conference networking brown bags to ensure everyone was prepared with elevator pitches and could navigate the intricacies of networking with tacos and beer in hand! Further, it was kind of great to have a Skillpoint cheering section during my panel and at the Austin Education Game Jam Award Ceremony.
If I had to pick one event, it would actually be the ATX Startup Crawl, which isn’t an official SXSW event, but it is the (unofficial) start of the SXSW season. If I had to pick an official SXSW experience, it would be the Civic Hacking programming at the JW Marriott. The content was thrilling and there were clearly more of us interested in it than the organizers expected.
GC: Did you attend any of the Social Good/#SXGood panels/events?
Stern: Yes, my team and I spent a lot of time at Trinity Hall to participate in panels and meet with program exhibitors. In addition, I watched the Social Good design pitches that were presented at City Hall. The high school competition was very similar to the work we do with our Velocity program, and I was interested in seeing how we might be able to partner more directly in future years. Many members of my team went to the Social Good sessions at Trinity Hall. The venue was really well-suited to the event, though I have to admit I hope that SXSWi dedicated a larger track to the Social Good side of the conference in future years. I think it could/should take up as much space as the StartUp pitch events do.
GC: Would you recommend that nonprofits attend SXSW?
Stern: I absolutely recommend that non-profits attend SXSW. You simply cannot find a better opportunity to network with corporate partners and get a sense of their brand identity and goals. In addition, there are non-profit service providers attending from across the country. By participating in meet-ups and panels you will get to meet a lot of people grappling with the same issues as your organization. In addition, you get exposed to a lot of hands-on training. I know the Skillpoint team spent a lot of time participating in Making, Hacking, Programming, and Robotics sessions in order to get better prepared with and identify best practice STEM education programs.