Valparaiso University – B.A., New Media Journalism and English
After spending the first few years in her career working for nonprofits, Amy Sample Ward grew from a volunteer at NTEN – the largest organization for nonprofit technology – to being named CEO earlier this year. (A perfect example of how a volunteer opportunity can lead to bigger and better things!)
Committed to helping nonprofits use technology to meet community needs and fulfill missions, Amy’s role encourages organizations to develop a greater social impact. “I enjoy working for a community, answering to them, and serving them,” Amy says. “NTEN exists because of the community.”
Known for being cool and calm in moments of crisis, she swears by her calendar and still makes sure she devotes plenty of quality time to her family and friends. “…Every meeting, every person and every project in my life [can’t] fit squarely on one side or the other and have a perfect split of my time. I may have a full calendar, but that’s because I’m just as committed to my friends and family as I am my work.”
Transparency is critical for trust. Even if it’s a difficult or awkward conversation, saying what you mean is always better than the alternative.
How did you discover your current job?
As a nonprofit technology professional, I was a member of NTEN for years. In 2007, I started one of the volunteer-led local groups, called Tech Clubs, organizing monthly events in Portland. After a number of years working at the intersection of technology and social impact, NTEN expanded staff and for the first time, opened up a membership director position. I jumped at the chance and become a central part of connecting NTEN’s mission to its community, which includes all of us who recognize how technology is a critical component of creating a better world. It was a wonderful experience, with a great team, and had rewarding challenges. Then, a little more than two years later, I was chosen to be the new CEO.
What led you to nonprofit technology as a career focus?
When I was getting my B.A. in new media journalism, I had a professor who had worked as an undercover journalist. His understanding and belief in the power of the Web to unearth truth, connect people, and right injustice aligned with my personal understanding of people and our need to communicate.
At the same time, I worked in a small nonprofit that provided legal aid, safe shelter, and other services to victims of domestic violence and their children. I was using social media to help young people connect the dots around domestic violence and how we can stop it, creating online communications tools for engaging volunteers, and even fundraising. Connecting technology to a very real mission and clear impact had me hooked – I knew I had to work at that intersection.
How do you organize your day?
I live by my calendar. I don’t have a certain time of day that I prefer to write versus have meetings or use as flexible time — all I need is time blocked to get things done. As such, everything goes on my calendar: meetings, projects, time to check back on conversations or send follow-ups, transition time between meetings (Pro tip: if you don’t schedule time to not be in meetings, your calendar may quickly become impossible for a human to manage!).
I even have a detailed view of my calendar — including the organization’s calendar for webinars or events we have running and when messaging is scheduled to go out — displayed on my phone home screen, so it’s easy to check at any moment. I start my day by reviewing the full calendar and queuing up any emails or resources I know I’ll need handy to meetings or follow up so I can make the most of my own time.
What is it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?
NTEN exists because of the community. If nonprofits no longer needed education, research, resources, or community programs to help them effectively use technology, then there would be no need for NTEN and we’d all move on to something else. I enjoy working for a community, answering to them, and serving them – it isn’t about what NTEN wants or is excited about; it’s truly a community-driven process.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
Are we making the impact we need to and how do we really measure impact on organizations and the sector?
How do we create a membership model and benefits that reflect and support the diversity of organizations and their needs?
How do we demonstrate the ripple effect of impact from our programs onto the sector and create valuable opportunities for funders to invest and participate in it?
How do we, as staff, create opportunities to stay close to and inspired by the impact of our work and not get lost in the day-to-day transactions and operations?
Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
Even if NTEN stopped paying me, I would still do this work. Work-life balance is something I find difficult to talk about, because every person you meet has a different definition and personal goal for balance.
To me, it means that I want to say yes to things at work and things outside of work – going out to dinner with friends, camping for the weekend with my husband and dog, impromptu lunch dates with friends and colleagues, as well as speaking at new conferences, researching a new topic, or writing for another organization. I don’t believe that I would be happy trying to think of work-life balance as something that cuts my calendar in half, with every meeting, every person and every project in my life having to fit squarely on one side or the other and having a perfect split of my time. I may have a full calendar, but that’s because I’m just as committed to my friends and family as I am my work.
What qualities does it take for someone to be successful in your line of work?
I think it’s critical that people recognize the power of working with a community to chart a path and collaborate, versus treating your community like people who want to follow you. No change happens solely inside the bubble of an organization, so hiring and building up staff to have skills in community organizing, online communications, engagement strategies, and the like – even outside of your program team – will have huge benefits for your organization as a whole.
What are some of the rules you live by?
1 / Everything is going to get resolved, so work from a place of calm instead of a place of fear or panic – whether in a meeting or in a crisis.
2 / Transparency is critical for trust. Even if it’s a difficult or awkward conversation, saying what you mean is always better than the alternative.
3 / Being yourself is much easier and much more sustainable than trying to be someone else.