Not the Droids You’re Looking For: Artificial Intelligence and the Social Sector
When many of us hear the words “Artificial Intelligence,” our minds turn to the reference points we have from movies. Robotic cyborgs going haywire, machines threatening humanity or choosing between a red or blue pill.
These plot lines almost always assume the worst will happen with Artificial Intelligence (AI). But thankfully, a different story is taking shape in our social sector. For nonprofits, AI has great potential to help improve performance and drive meaningful change in the world.
At its heart, AI is all about enabling machines to process information and learn. AI is a broad set of disciplines and technologies that perform tasks and solve problems that were once only possible by humans. The ability for technology to learn without every single step of a process having to be programmed is a tremendous breakthrough.
Opportunities With AI
A line of code is static and just does the same routine over and over again. But AI can constantly learn and improve over time. It does not get exhausted from running millions of scenarios or interrupted by meetings. And unlike that piece of code that waits for the user to do something, AI proactively uses several strategies to take action deliberately.
This presents tremendous opportunities for nonprofits and other social good organizations. While some industries are concerned about how big data and AI could lead to a reduction in jobs, that is not the case among nonprofits. We know that social good organizations are constantly strapped for resources that allow them to meet their missions. Using data, analytics and AI can allow nonprofits to extend their capacity and capabilities. AI won’t take jobs in the nonprofit sector— it will make them more valuable.
As powerful as AI has grown, it is important to remember that AI is just one piece of the problem-solving puzzle. The potential of AI for nonprofits is deeply interwoven with the potential of data— because data is the material that AI is learning from.
In the social good community, data is the most abundant element. Data informs us about supporters, members and stakeholders. Data provides insights into the success of our engagements, campaigns and programs. Data makes it possible to understand the impact of our actions and the reach of our outcomes.
With such great potential at hand, it’s important to remember that AI’s success relies on the data you have, and how good it is. Are your AI capabilities being “fed” with data that is meaningful to your cause and the outcomes you’re pursuing?
A Formula for Nonprofit Success
The real formula for success in the social good community is the combination of the right data, insightful analytics and reporting, applied AI and the right expertise. That last part of the equation can easily be overlooked. The successful use of data, analytics and AI for nonprofits still requires one very important element—humans.
And in the nonprofit sector, it requires the skill and expertise of social good scientists. What I mean by this is, in the social good community, we require solutions that have been specifically designed for the unique needs of our sector.
All the AI capabilities in the world won’t make tools designed for fundamentally different purposes tailored to the unique needs of this sector. What we do as nonprofit and social good organizations is indeed different than the retail or petrochemical or pharmaceutical world. We are not trying to get people to buy more soda pop— we need them to help us change the world.
This is a different approach than a lot of the hype we hear about using big data and AI. Success requires the right data, contextual expertise and continual learning. But when these things come together, the capabilities can drive real impact. For example, AI and machine-learning can be used to surface recommendations to fundraisers directly in their software applications. Nonprofit professionals don’t need special tools or skills to act on the information. It’s just a capability they have access to all the time.
The continued success of the nonprofit sector will require organizations to be more data-driven. This means embracing how data, analytics and AI can help you scale to meet growing demands. We can move into the future knowing that AI—when it’s fed with the right data and designed by experts who understand the unique context of the social good space—can be one of our key allies in driving the change we want to see in the world.
Steve MacLaughlin is the vice president of data and analytics at Blackbaud and best-selling author of “Data Driven Nonprofits.” Steve has spent 20-plus years driving innovation with a broad range of companies, government institutions and nonprofit organizations. He serves on the board of the Nonprofit Technology Network and is a frequent speaker at conferences and events. Steve earned both his undergraduate degree and a Master of Science degree in interactive media from Indiana University.