The story so far with nonprofits and AI
Published Feb 13 2024 10:00 AM 970 Views
Copper Contributor

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Ever since ChatGPT was launched in November 2022, AI has become part of almost every conversation I have at work, whether I’m talking to clients, partner organizations or my team. And that drumbeat has grown even louder since Microsoft Copilot was launched last year.  The noise around AI, and the new tools coming to market is such that if AI hasn’t come up in a conversation I’m having at work, then it feels surprising.  


How quickly this change has come. Of course, AI itself has been around for decades but the momentum we are now seeing is significant. What’s more, this new AI survey from Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) revealed that the public support charities using AI, with 70% saying that efforts should be made to help charities of all sizes to access AI. The survey, which involved more than 6,000 people in 10 countries, also shows that the public are aware of the opportunities that AI offers nonprofits.  Over a quarter (28%) thought the most exciting opportunity was how AI could enable a rapid response to disasters, whilst 25% thought there was potential for AI to help charities support more people. 


Yet the huge growth in AI highlights a tension between where nonprofits are now and where they need to be to tap into the potential of these technologies. In the UK, the 2023 Charity Digital Skills Report, an annual barometer of charity digital adoption, skills and attitudes found that the majority of nonprofits (78%) agreed that AI was relevant to their charities and could transform it, yet 73% didn’t feel prepared to respond to the challenges and opportunities it brings. 


Nonprofits who adopt AI now see impactful results


However, there are nonprofits who are already using AI in innovative ways and getting exciting results:

  • UNICEF’s U-Report, its youth engagement platform, uses chatbots through which young people in East Asia and Pacific can access information. 
  • In Indonesia, nearly 1 million of its U-Reporters are engaging in important issues, whilst 8,000 are learning about skills such as climate change and entrepreneurship.  
  • New York based nonprofit charity: Water was an early pioneer, using AI to optimize its Facebook campaigns and increase conversions to its monthly giving program by 32%.
  • The American Red Cross used AI to develop Clara, the Blood Donor Bot, which serves 20k+ blood donors per month, helping them learn more about blood donations and manage appointments.  
  • UNICEF Australia has used AI to better target and raise more income from its direct mail campaigns, leading to a 26% uplift in income and a 35% increase in campaign ROI, despite mailing 15,000 fewer supporters.  
  • Action for Children UK deployed AI to interpret shoppers’ reactions in its pop-up store, suggesting potential gifts they were more likely to connect with. This led to 93% of shoppers donating to the cause, with the overall campaign making 160% of target. 


What have charities learned from innovating and using AI? 


We will see more studies about the specific insights that charities have gained from AI this year, but based on what I am hearing their skills and ways of working are evolving. When I speak to charities who are committed to AI, whatever stage they are at, they are focused on mapping how AI is being used across different teams and are sharing learnings about use cases and skills so that they can build an evidence base about what works and what doesn’t. 


What I’m also hearing from nonprofits is that those who are doubling down on AI have invested heavily in improving and managing their data. And that’s one of the big challenges facing nonprofits, as this requires time and resources, as well as a review of infrastructure, such as your CRM, and your information management systems and processes. 


In time, AI could mean a wholesale change to how we live and work. It’s already having an impact on many of our jobs. And making the most of the opportunities requires a change to how we lead. The nonprofit CEOs I know providing great leadership in AI are strong on horizon scanning and have invested time in talking to partners in and outside the nonprofit world to understand the possibilities that AI offers, as well as learning about the risks, and how to manage them. 


This doesn’t mean that nonprofit leaders need to be AI experts...yet.  Over the last year I’ve noticed that nonprofit leaders who are curious, keen to model what they are learning about AI to their staff and who give them parameters on what they should and shouldn’t be using these tools for are the ones who are empowering their teams to take their next steps forward. 


Creating an AI adoption roadmap


If you’re a leader who wants to map out the art of the possible with AI, and define the challenges, then our AI checklist for charity trustees and leaders may help you. I’d encourage leaders to work through it with their teams, one section at a time, to grow their understanding of how AI may already be in use in your charity, whether you and your colleagues are just beginning or are making headway. 


The final challenge that nonprofits must tackle is transparency. In CAF’s research 83% of charity donors said they would take notice of how a charity said it was using AI, with higher donors more likely to pay attention to this. Nonprofits will need to understand what their supporters’ expectations are of them in this area and decide when and how they should disclose they are using AI. 


There are already many charities using AI in exciting and innovative ways, and we will see more stories about this in 2024. The nonprofits who use AI to achieve their strategies and drive growth in reach, income and impact will be the ones who are ambitious about what they achieve, and who have clear plans for how to deal with risk. 


About the author


Zoe Amar is the founder and director of digital strategy consultancy, Zoe Amar Digital, which specializes in supporting nonprofits. She is also the co-author of the Charity Digital Skills Report, and co-host of the leadership podcast, Starts at the Top.

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