Zoe Amar: What does AI mean for charities?

The charity leaders I spoke to saw far-reaching implications

I’m not an early adopter and I’m often sceptical about new products.

Yet the launch of ChatGPT, followed by a slew of artificial intelligence developments, has got me thinking about how the sector could change. 

This change seems inevitable. Research by the investment bank Goldman Sachs indicates that artificial intelligence could replace 300 million jobs and a quarter of work tasks in the US and Europe. 

New products rivaling ChatGPT are coming to market, including Microsoft’s Copilot and Google Bard

The UK government’s recent white paper sets out a light-touch, pro-innovation approach to AI regulation. 

This could involve regulators sharing guidance and resources over the next year.

A Charity Commission spokesperson told me: “The use of artificial intelligence is becoming more and more prominent, with impacts felt across all sectors.

As with any technological advance or major change in our society, we continue to monitor what this might mean for the charitable sector and our role as regulator.”

AI is already changing the sector. The federation of The Wildlife Trusts is using AI as  part of mapping projects such as Surrey Wildlife Trust’s Space4Nature.  

Alice Kershaw, head of digital transformation at The Wildlife Trusts, says these insights, which will be validated by local communities and specialists, “give us the ability to identify areas to take action and also monitor the impact of those actions”.  

Russell Findlay, chief executive of The Speaker’s Trust, which helps young people improve their communication skills, points out that there are many ways for charities to use these technologies. 

“AI is increasingly making our daily work easier, taking on tasks like summarising meetings or drafting marketing messages,” he says. 

AI could free up staff time in many areas, from fundraising to grantmaking to service delivery (for example through chatbots giving advice) to impact reporting.  

Could Chat GPT take on administrative tasks, lightening the load on your staff? How might you encourage staff to work with these tools? 

And what does this mean for the future of the sector? The charity leaders I spoke to saw far-reaching implications.  

Rhodri Davies, director of the think tank Why Philanthropy Matters, says this “may offer some charities new opportunities to address their causes by applying AI directly, to develop new methods of pattern recognition and prediction that can be used to target interventions more effectively”.

Yet the needs of the communities who charities serve could change. People might turn to AI tools, rather than charities, for advice. 

Given the sophistication of AI tools, they might expect “personally tailored recommendations from charities. And the sector might have to address new challenges – for example, if “bias in algorithmic systems leads to new forms of marginalisation and disadvantage”, warns Davies.

“Either way, charities need to understand what is going on or they will risk becoming less relevant and less effective in achieving their missions,” he says. 

The rapid pace of AI developments mean that charity leaders must prepare for the opportunities and challenges. The charities I spoke to were giving their teams space to learn and test out the technologies. 

For example, while Oxfam hasnt deployed AI across the organisation, it is running smaller pilot projects, testing the impact on its programmes safely. 

Alison Court, its chief transformation officer, says charities need an AI policy, even if it’s in draft, because it “sets an expectation and also signals the leadership is not oblivious to the obvious threats and opportunities”.

Charities need to have the right data skills and infrastructure to make the most of AI, so Oxfam is investing in improving its data maturity.  

It’s also developing an inclusive approach to AI to mitigate the risk of bias in these tools. Court advises charities to “find some way of ensuring these different perspectives are at the heart of the leadership debate and decisions”. 

Leaders must take a holistic view of how AI could affect their charities, from operations to meeting their supporters’ needs and governance. 

There are big questions to be asked about how we can use these tools to increase our impact, and what the future of the sector will look like. 

And that’s where collaboration, funding, leadership and skills are going to be vital.

Zoe Amar is founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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