Last week I attended the Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) conference. There’s a lot to reflect on coming out of that gathering, and while many of the threads feel disparate, it felt important to try and make some sense of the conference by forcing myself to write about it. In doing this, I’m reminded of the distinction Michel-Rolph Trouillot draws between the fact and the narrative of history, between “what happened” and “that which is said to have happened.” In this post, I’m firmly trafficking in the latter, as I try to weave together a bunch of events which may only share temporal or spatial proximity. But let’s get into it and see what threads can be pulled together!
Although the conference’s theme was nominally “Trust and Technology,” artificial intelligence was the topic on everyone’s mind, and was mentioned in almost every session. One of the things that really struck me was the divergence in general attitudes towards AI in the philanthropy tech and LAM communities. To paint with an overly broad brush, it seemed like most folks I spoke to at TAG felt that, with the appropriate organizational and regulatory guardrails in place, AI was probably a good thing. On the other hand, most folks I’ve spoken to in LAM feel like AI is almost certainly a bad thing that can’t be fixed. I can’t help but connect these attitudes to larger attitudes around technology in each of those communities and their basis in histories of empowerment and disempowerment with regard to technology-inflected change.
A number of the sessions I attended are worth noting for a variety of reasons.
Data as a Public Good: A Town Hall brought together representatives from Candid, the Philanthropy Data Commons (who just published a fascinating report on their pilot phase), and Giving Tuesday to discuss intersections and divergences in their initiatives and services. I’ve often thought of the RAC as somewhat of a player in this data space (particularly now that we make data about our collections available via our API), so this panel helped me distinguish where exactly we fit into the landscape of data providers and aggregators, and where we have some unique value.
What was particularly informative to me was what went unsaid in the conversation, which largely focused on very specific kinds of data (Form 990s, records of personal giving, grant applicant data); in other words either the beginning or end of the grant process. The records that we hold at the RAC document everything that happens in between as part of that process (as well as program and policy work that exists outside of any single grant but shapes those individual processes), which informs how we think about these records as a reflection of activities and processes, rather than inputs or outcomes. There was very little discussion of the processes which both shape and are shaped by these data constraints in this panel, which to me reinforced the RAC’s value proposition both in terms of the records we hold as well as how we think about providing access to them.
I also really enjoyed Addressing Technology Innovations & Intergenerational Gaps, which broke down the (sometimes unexpected) ways in which different generations relate to technology. I particularly appreciated the presenter’s ability to describe the common attitudes of a particular generation while also undercutting the idea that those attitudes are uniform or universal. One of the things this presentation made me realize is that, because archivists tend to have very long careers, archives as workplaces are highly intergenerational places, and as a result our colleagues have a broad range of approaches to technology and technological change.
As I mentioned above, 2023 was very much the year of AI at TAG, and filtered into all the talks in one way or another. There was also an AI Adoption Framework for Philanthropy workshop which gave participants the chance to provide feedback on a draft policy created by TAG. I’m looking forward to seeing how this framework evolves as the AI space matures and as more and more of the enterprise applications foundations use on a daily basis integrate AI functionality.
The other major theme hanging over TAG this year is the imminent departure of Executive Director Chantal Forster, who steps aside after six years of leading incredible organizational transformation. Because of this, it felt like a lot of folks were in a particularly reflective place with regards to the progress TAG has made over the last few years. I was not immune from that either (and, let’s be real, I’m kind of inclined that way anyway), so engaged in a fair number of conversations about what, exactly, had happened.
The last major TAG event I attended was also six years ago (the 2017 annual conference in New Orleans), and the differences between that event and the 2023 conference are astounding. Not only has TAG grown its internal capacity and solidified its business model, it’s also a much more diverse organization in every way possible. This was perhaps most forcefully brought home for me at the closing plenary, Closing Keynote Panel: Leadership in an Age of Accelerated Change, in which a cohort of four tech leaders who helped to transform their organizations spoke about managing teams, the role of technology in shaping organizational strategy, and how to drive transformation and change. It just so happened that all four of these leaders were women, and yet the panel was framed not in terms of their identity but rather their expertise, which is both a very simple but also very powerful statement.
One of the most unexpected and best things about TAG was getting to make music with other attendees in an informal unplugged setting. These sessions reminded me of something that Jaron Lanier, the opening keynote speaker, said when talking about the role of AI in creativity: “Music is the process of people connecting to each other. To just focus on the output as the thing that matters misses the point.” In other words, while what we say about what happened is not unimportant, it’s distinct from the actual events, and can never fully reproduce what it felt like to participate. Us archivists spend a lot of time trying to collect, arrange, describe and preserve accounts of events, but we’d do well to remember that they are not and can never be the actual events.