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Amplifying the efforts of nonprofit organizations with AI

Excitement and cautious optimism about the possibilities, but we must ensure that we harness AI equitably, ethically, and safely.

November 29, 2023

Image: An AI-generated image using Adobe Firefly from the prompt, "Ethical, equitable, and safe use of artificial intelligence for humans."

By Daniela Weber, Deputy Director of the NetHope Center for the Digital Nonprofit

AI has been a topic of NetHope Global Summit sessions since 2018, when a few of us (including myself, a Member CIO at the time) got into a room to discuss about the ethics of AI, and decided to start an AI workstream in NetHope’s Emerging Technologies working group, as a vehicle to discuss how we might use AI in our sector, and how we could address those challenges. A number of NetHope Members have, since then, started using AI - piloting, and prototyping first; and some of these solutions are now scaling up and achieving real benefits.

At this year’s NetHope Global Summit, 12 dedicated AI sessions, with even more sessions that incorporated AI into the discussions, were included in the agenda and were standing room only. Clearly, with the arrival of generative AI in the mainstream, the discourse about the usefulness of AI, as well as its risks, has reached a new level of interest and has also been elevated to the leadership teams and boards of nonprofit organizations. The NetHope Membership AI workstream is continuing the conversations on the various aspects of AI and working together to identify opportunities for collective action. As an example, work on the Humanitarian AI Code of Conduct is continuing which was begun at the NetHope Global Summit.

Daniela onstage addressing the Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) conference in Nashville, November 2023.

I saw a very similar picture at this year’s Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) conference in Nashville: Keynotes, presentations, and many discussions on AI. I am very excited about the AI Adoption Framework for Philanthropy which we “test-drove” as a draft version during the conference. Version 1.0 will be launched on December 6th.

My takeaways from all of it:

  1. There is immense interest in AI and what it can bring to the sector. From anticipatory action triggered by extreme weather forecasts or people movement predictions, to detecting sight-threatening conditions and providing care recommendations, to supporting conservation and crisis response efforts – there are numerous ways in which AI can enable nonprofit organizations to deliver their mission and increase their impact in a complex, poly-crisis world. And particularly with generative AI we are starting to see how AI can bring more efficiency to areas such as fundraising, IT, Finance, and other secondary processes. This is badly needed at a time when nonprofit organizations are forced to do more with less given the resource constraints and lack of critical funding. We do need more solutions that are truly relevant and useful for the sector, and the capabilities to implement and use them at scale.
  1. There is also immense concern about the risk areas of AI such as bias, data privacy, fake information, fraud, cybersecurity, the equitable access to the use of AI solutions as well as the longer-term societal impact. Many of our discussions during Summit were about how we can manage these risks and ensure we use AI responsibly. At minimum, nonprofit organizations need to have the governance in place to put guardrails around the use of AI tools, and solid cross-functional mechanisms to risk assess and decide when to move forward, and when to pause or stop. Toolkits such as NetHope’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Ethics for Nonprofits, and the soon to be released Gender Equitable AI toolkit, will help nonprofits to ensure their implementation and use of AI is ethical and equitable. Ideally though, the ecosystem of nonprofits, implementation partners, and funders will align behind a common framework on AI usage.
  1. There are very practical roadblocks for the use of AI – a lot of them linked to a lack of capacity and capability in many nonprofits, and the multitude of solutions and approaches to choose from, with roadmaps and pricing mechanisms that are not clearly defined yet, making the selection of the “right” solution a challenge. We need to engage with our technology partners to get that clarity so organizations can plan their next moves. The recent events and staff transitions at companies in the space have raised concerns not only about the differing viewpoints with regards to AI safety, but also the viability and stability of a key vendors in the generative AI space that many organizations already work with or are exploring. Vendor risk management remains a critical component of IT and procurement governance, as it should be for all technology solutions.
  1. The old truth remains – you need to have good data as the basis of your AI solution if you want it to produce useful output. A good data governance structure is essential to achieve this. NetHope’s Data Governance Toolkit was created to support nonprofits with setting up this structure. There is also a lively discussion in our AI Working Group about the potential of sharing datasets between organizations – and maybe we can go one step further and use all that great data we are collecting between us to train a shared large language model.

I, for one, am excited and cautiously optimistic about the possibilities – but we must ensure that we harness AI equitably, ethically, and safely.

NetHope’s New Strategic Plan – Digital Transformation & Innovation – AI Program Highlight

NetHope has launched its 2024-2030 strategy. A generation ago, the Digital Divide described the gap in access first to computers, and then to the internet and essential technologies. But today, new digital challenges threaten international NGO mission advancement as organizations are forced to grapple with the widening gap between available resources and growing needs. These new challenges – what NetHope calls the new Digital Divides – represent critical gaps in infrastructure, systems, capabilities, and knowledge. Over the next decade, will lead collective action to bridge the New Digital Divides – skills and leadership, inclusion, protection, transformation and innovation, and climate adaptation and resilience - leveraging our powerful, proven model for advance global good.

Bridging the New Digital Divides Spotlight: Digital Transformation and Innovation
The innovation required to meet emerging and existing challenges to the nonprofit sector and the communities we serve only happens when it is made a priority. NetHope works within our network, data, and history of catalyzing collective action to see complex problems are met with insights, policies, and advice that are context-appropriate, efficient and scalable. NetHope will use our influence, networks, data, and history of catalyzing new and high-potential ideas to ensure complex problems are met with insights, policies, guidance, and technology solutions.

Program Spotlight: Augmenting Generative AI Skills and Practices for Nonprofits
NetHope’s work in AI dates back to 2018 as much of our work begins, a gathering of Members and collective desire for action. Now, our program focuses on generative AI skills and practice building addresses the unique needs of nonprofits, their staff, and implementation partners. Training, as well as market scanning for sector appropriate solutions, and the exchange of knowledge and experiences are important elements of this program. NetHope has also published several resources on AI. Check out NetHope’s recent Strategic Conversation: AI Ethics Today along with resources such as NetHope’s Guide to Usefulness of Existing AI Solutions in Nonprofit Organizations, The AI Suitability Toolkit for Nonprofits, and the Artificial Intelligence Ethics for Nonprofits Toolkit.

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