A few times in my 30-year career I’ve had “aha” moments that have dramatically impacted my work. I just had one last month. I attended NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference and recognized the possible – even likely – impact of artificial intelligence (AI) in the nonprofit sector.
I found myself feeling like factory workers must have felt when they first saw an industrial robot on an assembly line. It may take some time, but a lot is going to change. It’s likely to be dramatic, and we won’t have a choice but to adapt.
Before we go any further, here’s a disclaimer: I have no expertise in AI. I have barely begun to explore the arena. I offer these as initial reflections that I expect will change and mature. But the impact of new technologies in the nonprofit sector is something I’ve long observed and been part of. So, it’s from that experience that I offer my thoughts.
It might be helpful to first share an example of the impact AI could have on the sector. This is only a thought, and not a prediction.
AI allows machines to consume and analyze data, draw conclusions, and predict the best course for future actions to achieve desired results. These are also core skills in direct response fundraising – direct mail, email fundraising, online engagement, and omni-channel marketing.
However, unlike humans, machines can quickly analyze huge amounts of data and identify subtle and complex associations that are far beyond the capacities of humans. If a nonprofit provided an AI machine with its historical fundraising data, including text from associated appeals, the AI machine could quickly design a new campaign with innumerable segments, personalized engagement journeys, and drafts of optimal text for each segment.
Some human review and tweaking would be necessary, but soon AI would be suggesting possibilities that would not have occurred to a person. The results of these campaigns would be fed back to the AI tool, which would incorporate every lesson and continuously improve.
All of this would be vastly accelerated if nonprofits allowed their AI solutions to share data.
Software and direct response vendors would allow their solutions to mine anonymized data across their clients to surface best practices, which would then be available for use by customers via voice-prompt. The roles available to direct response fundraisers would then change to be more about monitoring, cross-checking, tweaking, and refining what AI does. But the bulk of the work would be done automatically by computers.
This is just one example scenario. The possibilities of AI aren’t limited to direct response.
Every role in a nonprofit that includes repetitive tasks or analytical thinking could be impacted. I can see that major and planned giving, events management (including peer-to-peer), the entire gift processing and acknowledgement back-office functions, accounting, information technology support, and program/mission delivery could be transformed.
This might sound intimidating. But there’s a big bright spot for nonprofits: They’re drastically understaffed, and AI can help.
In my years of helping nonprofits implement fundraising and customer relationship management (CRM) solutions, the often-feared downsizing from the introduction of new technology has almost never played out. Roles have shifted and changed, and sometimes individuals have been unable or unwilling to make the transition, but total staffing rarely declines.
In the sector, we need more efficient tools just to keep up with, or catch up to, demand for services. This may mean reduced job loss but will still require a commitment to adapt to new tools – and likely sooner rather than later.
The changes wrought by AI will likely happen much more quickly than the adoption of robots in manufacturing. Industrial robots take time to build, deliver, and install, plus substantial resources to maintain. Meanwhile, AI is built on algorithms, which can be implemented far more quickly.
The greatest barrier to the rapid growth of AI tools may be cultural – the natural resistance to replace people with machines. However, some nonprofits will embrace AI, and there will be a widening gap between organizations that adopt AI and those that do not. The proof will be in fundraising results and the reach and impact of mission and program efforts – just as we have seen that companies quick to adopt (or innovate) transformative technologies are among the most financially successful.
Competitive factors will eventually drive all organizations to adapt (just as nearly all nonprofits now have websites, online donation options, email marketing, etc.) AI adoption will likely happen faster, and with greater impact, than the 20 years it has taken for these earlier technologies to become pervasive.
All of us may be strongly impacted by the rise of AI.
So, what do we do? How do we address the challenges on the horizon?
Inside our organizations and amongst our peers, we can start to re-define the roles that will be most and/or most quickly impacted by AI and begin our process of adaptation. In the example of direct response fundraising, we can be proactive about shifting the role from generating solicitation segments and analyzing campaign results toward higher level and more interpersonal functions that are outside the scope of AI.Again, this will likely be necessary for many roles in nonprofits – perhaps all but the most senior leadership (as was true in manufacturing).
Beyond our organizations, our society may be substantially impacted as well. This raises questions like: What will we do with this technology? How will we deploy it in our societies to cause the least harm and deliver the greatest good? Will we use it to serve the accumulation of wealth and power, or to solve problems and bring benefit to the greatest number of people?
The nonprofit sector is well positioned to consider these questions. We chose this community because these are the kinds of questions that are important to us. Perhaps we can play a leadership role in addressing these questions within society.
AI is likely to widen inequity gaps, not because of anything inherent in the technology itself, but in how it is likely to be deployed. If history is any guide, the introduction of this technology will greatly benefit the bank accounts of a few, and greatly disrupt the lives of many.If so, this will increase the number of people who need help – the kind of help that many nonprofits provide. Ironically, nonprofits may need AI solutions to help deal with the increased numbers of people seeking help, precisely because of the spread of AI in society. In this scenario, we need to be ready to embrace the power of AI to relieve program staff of computing and paperwork, freeing them to spend more time directly working with clients.
While the rise and growth of AI might be intimidating for nonprofit professionals, it has the potential to free staff time so that organizations can do even more to further their missions. I encourage you to begin thinking about AI and how you can prepare for an exciting, and likely inevitable, change in the way we work.
A quick note: While I’m just starting my education about AI, I found this book illuminating.