Zoe Amar: How trustees can take their next steps with AI

Leaders who start learning about AI now will be the ones whose charities maximise its benefits

What’s being discussed around the board table at your charity?

The trustees I know are having difficult discussions about getting through the next year, restructures and the challenges of fundraising in a difficult climate.

The weight on trustees’ and staff’s shoulders is heavy. So why should boards care about AI?

I’ve written before about what AI means for charities and its far-reaching implications for the sector.

I know that financial survival is the first priority. Yet we have to keep an eye on  what is in the rearview mirror, and that’s the change that AI may bring, such as potentially replacing 300 million full-time jobs.

However this plays out, it is charities that will have to pick up the pieces from AI-related job losses and the inequity caused by the job market favouring those who are digitally skilled.

That’s why, this Trustees’ Week, we have launched a checklist to help charity trustees and leaders begin the conversation about AI, review their progress and plan for the future. 

We’re very grateful to the charities and organisations that were involved in the user testing, including the Charity Commission. 

We’ve had positive feedback about the checklist from charities ranging from Hospice UK to Christian Aid to Wikimedia UK. 

So if you’re a charity wanting to start the conversation with your board about AI, where do you begin?

Laura Hamzic, director of digital and communications at the sexual health charity Brook, is working with her team to explore how the charity can use AI to improve knowledge of and access to contraception.

She feels that charities need to be clear on why AI matters to trustees.

“Trustees need to engage with AI because it will be part of their own and their charities’ reality very soon and we know that charities already have plans to start exploring its potential,” she says.

Rather than being a distant reality, the prevalence of tools such as ChatGPT, and the fact that different forms of AI are widely used in financial services, such as decisions to grant a loan or mortgage, show that these technologies are closer than we think. 

And that’s also true of what is happening in charities. 

“It’s likely that staff may already be using it at work and so too will the people we support,” Hamzic says of AI. 

The Wildlife Trusts is looking at how AI can be integrated with other technologies, such as drone surveying, to implement its 2030 strategy. 

Its projects include Space4Nature by The Surrey Wildlife Trust, which is using satellites and AI to map habitats. 

Alice Kershaw, head of digital transformation at The Wildlife Trusts, is taking a considered approach to AI. 

“We will need to ensure we understand why and how to continue to use and deploy these technologies in a way that aligns with our ethics and values,” she says. 

Decisions about why, and how, charities use AI need to be carefully considered, and that’s why trustees’ involvement is so important. 

Making these decisions, and providing the strategy, scrutiny and support of charities’ AI activities, will require confidence and skills. And this means that trustees will need to develop their AI knowledge fast. 

Aaron Woods, now an independent consultant and previously group CIO at the Institution of Civil Engineers, worked with his board to develop their skills. 

During a workshop session, he gave them a grounding in the key definitions and then took them through everyday AI developments that are already happening, such as Microsoft launching its AI companion Copilot. 

They then discussed big existential questions such as: “If AI can produce better learning content for members through scouring the web, will there still be a role for the organisation as being the custodian of ‘approved’ knowledge for their profession as there is now?”

Many charity boards will be asking themselves similar questions as AI grows. 

The trustees and leaders who start learning about AI now will be the ones whose charities maximise its benefits and are able to use it to help more people and increase their impact.

Zoe Amar is founder of Zoe Amar Digital

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