I confess I know virtually zip about artificial intelligence.
But I’ve been learning. Fast.
Because it’s hard these days to travel anywhere in the world, including the social benefit sector, without hearing enticing things about it.
- How it can do all sorts of things faster and better than humans.
- How it can create cost savings.
- How it enables greater personalization.
- How it leverages effective use of data for marketing and fundraising purposes.
- How it tracks engagement and predicts future behaviors.
- How it creates efficiencies for program purposes.
At first blush this sounds good. But… the devil is in the details, right?
Which is why people are equally thrilled or unnerved at the prospect.
I wondered if using it could create unintended consequences. New tools used as blunt instruments could cause unintentional harm. So, I thought I’d do a little research to know whether I should advise fundraisers to jump on the AI bandwagon.
What I’m Learning
I began with some of my “go-to” nonprofit tech gurus.
First I looked to Beth Kanter and Allison Fine, the groundbreaking co-authors of The Networked Nonprofit, wrote a new book in 2022. In The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered in An Automated World, they focus on how to use smart tech strategically, ethically and effectively. They lay out the dangers of automation, spending significant time coaching on how to stay human. They’re all for using it, but only with intention, great care, and awareness of the pitfalls. I recommend this as your starting point if you want to leverage AI technology to save time and improve results, while simultaneously staying true to your mission and remaining human-centered.
Next I checked out TechSoup, which ran an article, How Nonprofits Can Use AI and Automation for Good, in which they discussed four different AI apps. They look useful for discrete purposes; there’s nothing there that will really replace anyone’s job. But first you need to know what jobs you’d like done better. Otherwise you’re just grasping at straws.
Then I found this article on Nonprofit Pro, How to Choose an AI Solution for Nonprofit Fundraising. It lays out potential challenges, and offers useful tips for working with AI service providers.
Additionally, if you want to use it for message brainstorming and writing, check out Fundraising and AI: what you should know, do, and avoid right now, a distillation of research, complete with examples, from Brett and Julie Cooper of FundraisingWriting.com. They like using apps like ChatGPT for brainstorming, summarizing, organizing ideas, and research. Brett says: “It’s definitely a productivity boost for me — yet I don’t feel like it’s doing the hardest work; I feel like it’s good for foundational work that I can build on with my hard-won writing skills and fundraising expertise.“
Just today I happend on Love or Hate AI as a Writing Tool? from Kevin Shulman of the Agitator-DonorVoice. When it comes to creating first drafts of messaging, he’s firmly in the camp of “there is no future that doesn’t require any and all writing apps (e.g. Word, Google Docs, all email marketing software) to, at minimum, create the first draft for you based on your prompts.”
Also, I see numerous for-profit companies are developing their own AI solutions for database management, online fundraising and predictive analytics (e.g. Donor Search; Blackbaud Intelligence for Good; Bloomerang+FundraiseUp; Dataro to name a few). Again, these can be extremely useful – provided you know your purpose.
What Do You Want to Do More Effectively?
This is where YOU should begin. Don’t begin with “well, if we want to be cutting-edge or ‘keep up with the Jones’s” we better adopt AI.” What does that even mean?!
There are lots and lots of emerging tools, each designed to do different things. Some look terrific. But you should begin with where you want to go.
AI is no magic bullet. And it won’t solve your problems without you walking alongside the tool to make sure it works as you intended.
AI Running Amok in the Wild
Writing is certainly not the only AI application for nonprofits, but it’s the one I’m interested in right now because, well, I’m a writer! Will AI replace me? Will I be a victim of “AIgiarism” (plagiarism, but with the help of AI)? Recently, I had one of my blog articles (which happened to be about writing) republished without my permission. This happens more often than you might think. But this one really made me chuckle. I don’t know if they used the emerging, and buzzy, Chat GPT tool. Or perhaps it was a program that substitutes synonyms for words in the original article so it looks different to search engines? [There are lots of AI writing tools.] Whatever tool this was, it was decidedly NOT human. I’m not linking to the purloined article because I don’t want to give them any web traffic, but here’s some of the flavor of the auto-generated publication:
ME: Steal a tip from The New York Times.
AI: Steal a tip from The New York Occasions.
ME: You DO, right?
AI: You DO, proper?
ME: Still, it pays to keep these tips top of mind. Because sometimes the obvious stuff can be the easiest to miss, unless we focus our attention (a bit like remembering to smell the coffee, thereby more fully enjoying the experience).
AI: Nonetheless, it pays to maintain the following tips high of thoughts. As a result of generally the plain stuff will be the simplest to overlook, except we focus our consideration (a bit like remembering to scent the espresso, thereby extra absolutely having fun with the expertise).
ME: Who wants to hear anyone talk about themselves ad nauseum? If that’s how you treat an online dating first meeting, you’re not likely to get a second one.
AI: Who needs to listen to anybody discuss themselves advert nauseum? If that’s the way you deal with a web based courting first assembly, you’re not more likely to get a second one.
Please, stop and “scent the espresso,” will you? Especially on your web-based courting first assembly!
How Might AI Affect Your Job?
For years, people have been saying “If your job can be outsourced, it will be outsourced.” This has caused great consternation, yet it seems the answer is clear: Your job is to make your job uniquely human. So, you actually have more control than you might imagine over whether your job might be on the proverbial chopping block.
“As humans, we’re at our most valuable when what we do can’t be faked or automated.”
— Hugh MacLeod, the Gaping Void
A recent article by Jeff Brooks, Is AI coming to get your fundraising job?, explored this issue. Have you been worrying?
Don’t. AI can help you, but it’s no panacea. It’s not coming for your fundraising job because you still have to pay human attention. You still have to understand how fundraising, or nonprofit marketing, works and apply that understanding to whatever AI generates on your behalf.
“I think the potential problem with AI is not the tool itself, but the way it’s likely to be used.”
– Jeff Brooks
Jeff also recommends a book, which I haven’t yet had time to explore, but it sounds interesting: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s Making the World a Weirder Place.
As with any other tool, digital or otherwise, you have to be careful how you use it.
This article, What Nonprofits Stand To Gain From Artificial Intelligence, appeared two years ago on Forbes. It’s purportedly about why you should consider AI; frankly, if you read it, I think you’ll agree it says almost nothing meaningful. Why? My guess is it was written by AI. It may be (mostly) grammatically correct, but it’s often nonsensical because there’s no context. [Here’s a tool you can use to tell if something was written by an AI text generator.]
So, before you go out and invest in AI right now, consider the old “Buyer Beware” adage.
If your organization is big enough and savvy enough…
If you can really invest in learning and tools…
If you can also put human beings to work to apply the knowledge gained based on real world experience…
Then go ahead and give it a try.
If not, maybe don’t become a first adopter?
“The technology’s greatest promise is to manage rote tasks so employees have more time for the things that people still do best. Humans can’t scale, but machines can’t empathize.”
— Alexandra Bernadotte, founder and CEO of Beyond 12
More than 450 start-ups are now working on generative A.I. Let’s see how it shakes out.
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Photo by Hitesh Choudhary on Unsplash