Artificial intelligence (AI) has made an impact on a wide range of industries, including the nonprofit sector. Although some organizations might find this evolving technology daunting and cost-prohibitive, AI tools can help nonprofits of all sizes cut costs by streamlining operations. You might even be able to leverage AI to better achieve mission-critical objectives.

Defining AI

The term “Artificial Intelligence” is sometimes confused with data analytics or the application of intense mathematics. It’s actually much more. AI generally refers to using computers to perform complex tasks typically thought to require human intelligence — for example, image perception, voice recognition, decision-making and problem-solving. Several types of technologies fall under the AI umbrella, including:

  • Machine learning, which applies statistical techniques to improve machines’ performance of a specific task over time with little or no programming or human intervention.
  • Natural language processing (NLP), which uses algorithms to analyze unstructured human language in documents, emails, texts, conversation or otherwise.
  • Robotic process automation (RPA), which automates time-consuming repetitive manual tasks that don’t require decision-making.
    These technologies have the potential to power dramatic advances in nonprofits, both operational and mission-related.

Adopting AI for your operations

If your nonprofit is struggling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Artificial Intelligence could fill some gaps in your resources. AI tools are well suited to provide valuable assistance in several critical areas — for example:

Fundraising. Your organizations may have a wealth of knowledge about donors that could be put to much better use with the aid of AI. Apply machine learning to analyze your current donor database and develop models that predict donor behavior. For example, chatbots that simulate conversation (think Siri or Alexa) might handle smaller donations while directing more complicated contributions to humans.

Human resources. AI software can significantly expedite the hiring process by soliciting and screening candidates. It can narrow the field and save interviewing time, freeing up HR staff to deal with other issues that require human attention. AI also might reduce the risk of discrimination claims because human subjectivity plays less of a role in the process.

Communications. Chatbots, RPA and other tools make it easier to maintain efficient and effective communications with internal and external stakeholders, as well as potential donors and volunteers. Automating routine communications such as tax information, board packets and donation requests ensures the timely delivery of information. It also removes the chance of costly or embarrassing human error. What’s more, these tools can respond to the customer service questions you repeatedly receive.

Because most organizations have similar operational needs, AI developers have created off-the-shelf solutions that can be customized. For example, an AI tool for fundraising could be slightly tweaked for an individual organization’s needs. Experts expect these solutions to become increasingly available and affordable.

Pursuing your mission with AI

Artificial Intelligence’s potential in the nonprofit realm goes much further than operations. Some organizations have discovered that so-called “AI for good” (the application of AI to address societal and ecological challenges) can lead to better outcomes and an expanded impact.

The nonprofit charity “Water” — which brings clean, safe drinking water to developing countries — deployed a chatbot dubbed “Yeshi” to raise awareness about the water crisis. The fictional Ethiopian girl had conversations with users while simulating her daily five-hour walk to obtain safe water. (See “Artificial Intelligence in action” below for more examples.)

By nature, though, mission-driven AI tools require more customization than those for operations. That means they generally will cost more. Grants or collaborative efforts with other nonprofits could help nonprofits jump this hurdle.

Worth considering

AI offers nonprofits unprecedented opportunities to boost internal operations and mission-related programming while keeping a lid on costs. The initial investment may seem difficult to justify in tough economic times, but AI can more than pay for itself in increased efficiencies and revenues over the long haul.

Artificial Intelligence in action

Many nonprofits have applied artificial intelligence to help them directly meet their missions. For example, the Crisis Text Line in New York used the technology to analyze millions of text messages to determine the words most associated with a high risk of suicide in the sender. Armed with that information, employees are better able to prioritize incoming messages and respond more quickly to high-risk texters.

Various animal welfare and environmental organizations have employed AI to combat poaching. PAWS, for example, uses modeling and machine learning to provide park rangers with information that helps them predict and prevent poachers’ actions. Global Fishing Watch has analyzed billions of messages from fishing boats to identify illegal industrial fishing ships.

Health-focused organizations also have adopted AI technologies. For example, Parkinson’s UK is unleashing AI to plow through reams of existing research data to fast-track new treatments.

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