Nonprofits Should Always Discuss Responsible AI. Not Just AI 

When the nonprofit community seeks expert knowledge and wise guidance on how AI can impact organizations’ effectiveness and efficiency— without sacrificing ethical standards, it turns to DonorSearch for answers. This was certainly the case during a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy roundtable about how nonprofits can (prudently) harness the power of AI.

DonorSearch Senior Vice President and author of The Generosity Crisis: The Case for Radical Connection to Solve Humanity’s Greatest Challenges (Wiley & Sons, 2022) Nathan Chappell joined a high-powered panel featuring Philip Deng, CEO of Grantable; Allison Fine, President of; and Gayle Roberts, Chief Development Officer at Larkin Street Youth Services. Their lively discussion covered a wide range of topics. Throughout it all Chappell and his fellow panelists consistently emphasized one of the most important points for any nonprofit considering integrating AI into their operations.

It isn’t only about what AI platform you work with—it’s also about how you use it.

Chappell started the chat by pointing out that AI is here to stay. Well aware of this truism, the group agreed with him as he explained, “This is not a fad—this has fundamentally changed how our world works. The nonprofit sector has not only an opportunity but a responsibility to rise to the occasion.” At the same time, Chappell was careful to note how less than 30% of nonprofits have even explored AI, putting them at risk of falling further behind in an economy where consumers are getting used to and even demanding the highly personalized communications they get from for-profit corporations.

Despite such concerns, Chappell vehemently believes it is critical that nonprofits do not just rush headlong into AI. Instead, they must approach this emerging technology with constant vigilance, especially concerning responsible usage. Thoughtful stewardship and ethical usage of AI are also fundamental to how DonorSearch works with every nonprofit client, regardless of size or focus. As Chappell explains, “In fact, I’m really trying hard not to ever use the word AI in fundraising without the word responsible in front of it.”

Undoubtedly, if nonprofits do not maintain a focus on mindful adoption, they risk introducing bias into their work. Nonprofits can learn from high profile cases of AI bias in the for-profit economy and government sector to learn the pitfalls of pursuing AI without the right partner. The New York Times was among many outlets that reported on the alleged bias of the COMPAS AI system. In a piece titled, “When an Algorithm Helps Send You to Prison,” the Times reported that the platform used by multiple states to determine the likelihood a defendant would reoffend was biased against black Americans.

Chappell also argues that the stakes are even higher for nonprofits than for organizations in other economic sectors. As he explains, “All nonprofits are bound by threads of trust. Whereas in the private sector, if a social media platform creates an extremely biased algorithm, that company’s stock price alone will go down, but it won’t impact Microsoft or Amazon. In the non-profit sector, if a large notable nonprofit does the same thing, it will affect all nonprofits.”

Accordingly, Chappell believes that not only must every nonprofit use AI responsibility, but everyone within these organizations must take the same approach. “Responsible AI is everyone’s responsibility” is how Chappell describes this shared requirement to keep AI unbiased, helping nonprofits achieve their goals of improving society. He also offers practical advice on how to approach this vital task, explaining that every level of an organization should be able to clearly understand what factors are built into algorithms and how possible bias may be addressed. Here’s just one helpful nugget of advice, “Demand to understand how decisions are being made for your organization.”

We may turn to DonorSearch Executive Vice President and Co-Owner Sarah TeDesco to understand how our company lives up to this need daily: “Nonprofits hold a position of trust in their respective communities. As we work to help organizations thrive by introducing the power of AI to their fundraising efforts, we understand the importance of not violating that valuable trust. Nonprofits wishing to partner with DonorSearch can do so with confidence that our team of experts understands just how important it is to not damage relationships with donors and/or the community at large.”

Despite so many valid concerns about the responsible and ethical use of AI in the nonprofit sector, the full panel believes this technology has fantastic potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of many different functions within organizations, especially fundraising. Chappell’s concluding message to those nonprofits that haven’t yet explored how AI can improve operations is quite simple: “I do not believe that AI will replace fundraisers or nonprofits, but nonprofits that use AI will replace those that don’t. Start soon, because if you don’t, you will be left behind.”

To seize this moment—plotting your organization’s journey to responsibly harnessing AI for a more engaged community—contact DonorSearch for a demo today. And if you’re an experienced non-profit professional interested in helping nonprofits build for future success daily, consider a career with DonorSearch.

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