Smart Tech Presents Nonprofits with Both Opportunities and Challenges

By Beth Kanter

Today we are at an inflection point, where the cost of technology is decreasing as its commercial applications increase. That means that smart tech is available and cost-effective for nonprofits and has the power to transform the way we work, deliver services, and raise funds. In The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered in an Automated World, Allison Fine and I describe it as the dividend of time.

While nonprofits reap many benefits, smart tech also brings challenges. As more nonprofits adopt smart tech, their leaders need to know how to leverage the benefits and navigate the challenges that come with it.

At a recent Public Good App House event at TechSoup, I discussed this topic during a fireside chat with Margareta Mucibabici from UiPath, a global software company that makes robotic process automation software.

What Is Smart Tech?

Smart tech is an umbrella term to describe a range of advanced digital technologies that make decisions for people. It includes artificial intelligence, machine learning, and all its various subsets and cousins, such as natural language processing, chatbots, robots, and other automated technologies.

The Benefits of Smart Tech

The pandemic taught us the importance of well-being and the need for digital transformation. Problems endemic to nonprofits — too much time spent doing low-level administrative work, long hours, and burnout — became worse during the pandemic. Add an increased need for services, Zoom calls, and stack it with back-to-back meetings, and everyone is exhausted.

In fact, we are facing a nonprofit sector workforce crisis with so many nonprofits joining the Great Resignation. Smart tech can be part of the solution to retaining staff because it can free up staff time by automating those low-level tasks that suck our time and energy and have nothing to do with the mission of the nonprofit.

How Nonprofits Use Smart Tech

Smart tech includes tools for program delivery, fundraising, and back-office tasks. Nonprofits are using it to

  • Screen resumes based on criteria organizations set but without those organizations likely seeing the people who were screened out
  • Determine eligibility for a host of social services such as SNAP food assistance, housing, and childcare
  • Identify prospective donors from their fundraising data or from the web
  • Customize stories for and communications to donors based on their past behavior
  • Stock food pantry shelves
  • Deliver medicine and food to hard-to-reach places
  • Direct refugees to available beds

One of the most common technologies nonprofits are using right now are chatbots. One of my favorite examples is from the Trevor project, which provides crisis counseling to LGBTQ+ people. They created a chatbot to help train the counselors, reducing resources spent on repetitive, low-level tasks.

Automating certain kinds of tasks gives nonprofits what I call “the dividend of time,” which allows staff to have more time to rest, preventing burnout. It could even make four-day work weeks or planned sabbaticals a possibility.

A nonprofit can also reinvest that time to focus on human-centered activities that require building relationships and showing empathy, such as getting to know donors and spending more time directly helping their clients.

Taking the Time for Human Readiness

Making strategic decisions about when and how to use technology is a leadership challenge, not a technical problem.

Before nonprofits start their journey with smart tech, they need to do their own research to identify the problem they’re trying to solve. Getting feedback from your end users is important, whether they’re staff, clients, or donors. You may hear, “Oh, no, that could have potential harm,” or “That’s not solving the right problem.”

Leaders also need to be working in collaboration with the technical experts — designers, developers, vendors, and consultants — to ensure that their methodologies are strategic and human centered. Leaders don’t need to know how to code, but they need to understand how code is built and how it may be biased.

There are consequences to automating systems and processes that range from losing the ability to make judgment calls to flat out introducing bias. There’s a wonderful quote by author Cathy O’Neil in her book Weapons of Math Destruction: “Algorithms are opinions encased in code.” We need to understand the assumptions the developer made in creating the tech. Are they based on the developer’s view of the world, or are they based on research with end users?

You want to be sure that a qualified candidate with an unusual background makes it through your resume screening tool and that everyone you intend to serve through the programs and social service your nonprofit offers is eligible.

Once smart tech is in place, nonprofit leaders need to continually monitor its performance and how their clients feel about it and to make sure there are no unintended consequences.

There are also data stewardship and privacy issues that organizations’ senior leaders must understand in order to make sure data is protected. Nonprofits need to think through a do-no-harm pledge in using this technology and not wait for something bad to happen at scale. They must really be able to test and iterate their way and understand what the potential for harm is.

Having an advisory group with expertise on ethics, data privacy, and AI can really help guide the organization. I think this is a great opportunity for similar types of organizations, such as food banks, to share an advisory group.

Nonprofits attract passion-driven people who want to contribute to the social good. Adopting smart tech can decrease burnout and increase job satisfaction. It can perform the routine administrative tasks that bog staff members down, freeing them to do the human-centered work they excel in. But in order to transform work and deliver on its promise, smart tech needs to be grounded in thoughtful, reflective inquiry by nonprofit leaders.

Beth Kanter is an internationally recognized thought leader and trainer in digital transformation and well-being in the nonprofit workplace. She’s the co-author of the award-winning Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Impact Without Burnout and co-author with Allison Fine of the bestselling The Networked Nonprofit. Her newest book, also co-authored with Allison Fine, is The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered in an Automated World. Kanter was named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and is a recipient of the NTEN Lifetime Achievement Award. Learn more about Beth at www.bethkanter.org.

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