Harnessing AI Responsibly A Guide For Nonprofit Leaders
AI Published Date, 2024

Harnessing AI Responsibly: A Guide For Nonprofit Leaders

Created By: Amanda Nelson and John Robichaux
March 12, 2024

In a time where AI is becoming more important and influential in shaping all aspects of our lives, the question for nonprofit organizations has shifted from whether to use AI to how it can be used effectively and responsibly. Simply saying ‘no’ to AI is no longer viable; dismissing it as too overwhelming or complex undermines the potential for considerable mission advancement and societal impact. Now is the time for nonprofits and leaders alike to move beyond apprehension and embrace a holistic AI strategy that considers its ethical and responsible use across all facets of an organization.

From creating comprehensive policies that align with every department to exploring how each team can leverage AI, leaders need to think expansively about AI’s role in their organization. This approach ensures that accessible, ethical AI solutions support not just the operational needs of an organization but also amplify mission impact. As we navigate this new technological landscape, it is imperative to address the challenges and opportunities that AI brings and ensure that its immense potential benefits all sectors of society.

Public Interest AI: A Non-negotiable Public Good

While promising, the rise of AI also highlights several concerns for today’s leaders. One significant challenge is the executive expertise gap, with many leaders trained in the pre-AI era, now navigating a landscape filled with potential for both innovation and hype, alongside misinformation. The rapid pace of technological advancements, coupled with the high costs of structuring unstructured data and the uncertain impacts and outcomes, complicates strategic investment in AI.

For nonprofits, these challenges are further exacerbated by an exodus of top talent to the private sector and a notable shortage of access to AI expertise. The workforce demographics in philanthropy often reflect the broader issue of AI expertise scarcity, underscoring an urgent need for capacity building and AI literacy education across all sectors. Additionally, the monopolization of cutting-edge AI by a few for-profit entities significantly restricts the nonprofit sector’s ability to harness AI for social impact. Nonprofit organizations, often operating on antiquated systems, are particularly susceptible to the ‘black box’ problem—where AI’s lack of accountability, auditability, and explainability becomes a pressing concern. This can challenge maintaining public trust, especially amidst rampant misinformation and the expansion of local news deserts.

To overcome these challenges, nonprofits must strategically navigate the AI landscape, actively engaging in crafting a narrative around AI that underscores ethical use, public good, and equitable access. Contributing to an ecosystem that values cross-sector collaboration, prioritizes upskilling current leaders and teams in AI competencies, and advocates for AI’s development and deployment for societal benefit can begin to mitigate these challenges. This strategy not only enables nonprofit organizations to leverage AI technologies more effectively but also ensures that AI’s advancement contributes positively to society, reinforcing the imperative of AI as a tool for public good.

The Imperative for Partnership in Responsible Leadership

Effective leadership in the era of AI necessitates collaboration between technical and non-technical experts. This alliance is crucial not only for navigating the technical complexities of AI but also for ensuring its ethical application in line with societal values and public interest. Partnerships between technologists and non-technologists enrich the decision-making process, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of AI’s potential and pitfalls.

One area where this partnership is particularly valuable is in discerning the strategic application of AI across three key “spheres”:

  1. AI in Existing Products: Many organizations already use products embedded with AI, such as Outlook, Gmail, Adobe Photoshop, and Word. These tools, integral to daily operations, can significantly enhance productivity. Leaders must assess how AI functionalities within their existing platforms can contribute to streamlined processes, considering the specific licensing agreements that apply.
  2. AI for Specific Uses: While the broad applications of generative AI, like GPT-4, grab media headlines, the role of “Narrow” AI in specific tasks—such as Siri’s voice commands, Netflix’s recommendations, or Google’s search algorithm—shouldn’t be overlooked. These targeted technologies are key to streamlining operations, enhancing service quality, and improving decision-making. For nonprofit leaders, recognizing the tailored, immediate benefits of Narrow AI for their organizational needs is essential, ensuring they are not overshadowed by the general excitement over generative AI.
  3. Utilization of Publicly Available AI Tools: Encouraging the use of publicly available AI tools within your organization can foster innovation and efficiency. However, it’s crucial to balance this with considerations of privacy and ethical use. Implementing the right safeguards ensures that these tools are used responsibly. This might involve training employees on the ethical use of AI, setting clear guidelines on privacy, and establishing partnerships with departments or external organizations to leverage AI tools effectively.

Incorporating AI into organizational strategy requires a nuanced understanding of the different roles AI technologies can play, from enhancing product functionalities to innovating specific applications and ensuring ethical usage of publicly available tools. The partnership between the City of Los Angeles and UCLA, which produced a homelessness predictive model, serves as a prime example of the significant outcomes achievable through such collaborations. This project illustrates how combining technical expertise with social insights leads to effective and ethically sound AI solutions. By accurately identifying individuals at risk of homelessness, it highlights the strength of interdisciplinary work in producing meaningful outcomes. For nonprofit leaders, this case study highlights AI’s potential in addressing social challenges through a collaborative, ethically grounded approach, underscoring the necessity of having technologists and non-technologists work side-by-side to responsibly leverage AI’s capabilities.

AI in Universities and Hospitals: Critical Applications Today

Universities and hospitals are not waiting for AI technology to become perfect; instead, they are finding innovative ways to derive value from what’s available now. This forward-thinking stance is crucial for the broader nonprofit sector, demonstrating the importance of proactively capitalizing on the benefits of AI. By adopting even imperfect AI tools, these organizations are enhancing learning environments, streamlining research, and improving patient diagnostics, setting a powerful example for nonprofits to follow.

Integrating AI into the philanthropic sector requires thoughtful consideration of the specific needs and capabilities of organizations. Leaders should focus on leveraging AI in existing products, exploring opportunities in narrow AI for specific uses, and encouraging the ethical use of publicly available AI tools. This balanced approach ensures that AI is used responsibly and effectively to advance the organization’s goals, demonstrating how to harness the transformative power of AI responsibly and effectively for societal benefit.

Embracing AI for the Greater Good

As we stand at the crossroads of AI’s potential and its challenges, the call for responsible leadership, public interest AI, and thoughtful integration into civil society has never been louder. The age of AI demands technologists and non-technologists alike to engage in meaningful dialogue, partnership, and action to harness AI’s power for the greater good. By prioritizing accessibility, ethical considerations, and strategic applications, we can ensure that AI serves as a tool for positive change, bridging the divide between the promise of technology and the needs of society.

This moment in time presents a unique opportunity for leadership across all sectors to reimagine their approach to AI, ensuring that it contributes to a more equitable, efficient, and ethical world. The journey towards responsible AI integration is complex, but by embracing these principles, we can navigate the challenges ahead and unlock the full potential of AI for good.

As we navigate the complex intersections of AI, ethics, and social good, the journey toward responsible integration of AI in nonprofit organizations is ongoing and evolving. To further explore these critical topics and connect with leaders and innovators in the field, we recently joined The Nonprofit Alliance and DMAW at its Nonprofit Fundraisers Symposium from March 20-22, 2024 in Washington, DC.

One of the highlight panels, AI Risks for Nonprofits: Ethics, Policy, Data Privacy, Staff Training and More, dove deep into the challenges and opportunities that AI presents for nonprofit organizations. The discussion featured insights from John Robichaux, Executive Director at UC Berkeley’s Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership, Matthew Reisman, Director, Privacy and Data Policy at the Centre for Information Policy Leadership (CIPL), and Warren Storey, Senior Vice President, Product Marketing & Insight at Epsilon, who covered crucial aspects such as ethics, data privacy, organizational policy, staff training, and effective communication with stakeholders.

We hope you stay in touch as we continue the conversation on leveraging AI for the greater good, building upon the themes discussed in this blog. Together, we can pave the way for a future where AI serves as a powerful tool for positive change in the nonprofit sector.

Orr Group can help you leverage AI and other technology effectively, efficiently, and responsibly. Get in touch to learn how our data-driven approach will help you elevate your organization.

Amanda Nelson

Amanda Nelson is a Managing Director at Orr Group. With 20 years of professional fundraising experience, Amanda brings extensive expertise working with large, complex organizations and developing innovative and scalable fundraising solutions.

John Robichaux is the Executive Director at UC Berkeley’s Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership. John is an award-winning executive, educator, and consultant, who is passionate about influencing, building, and growing high-impact organizations that make powerful social contributions. For more than 25 years, John has advised, trained, and consulted for hundreds of leading organizations in industry, government, and philanthropy.

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