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Consumers to Creators: Philanthropy and Nonprofits Can Build AI for Impact

Date: October 17, 2023

Vilas Dhar

President, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation

Yolanda Botti-Lodovico

Policy and Advocacy Lead, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation

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AI is here, and it is changing the way many in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors (and other fields, too, of course) work, or even think about their roles; for some, this is an exciting prospect, for others a deeply threatening one. For many, it lies in a grey area. In this series on the CEP blog, we set out to get a snapshot of where AI stands right now: what it can actually do, how experts advises those in philanthropy to approach it, how it’s already being used in the sector, and the ethical considerations and practical implications of the tool.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is not just a shiny new tool for the tech savvy; it’s a driver of future success for nonprofit organizations. From the capacity of ChatGPT to draft fundraising emails, to the power of deep learning tools for wildfire prevention, AI is already revving up the creative engines of visionary changemakers across the globe. But digital transformation is a costly process. And for resource-strapped nonprofits, efforts to adopt AI across their operational and programmatic efforts remain isolated, siloed, and inconsistent.

Philanthropy can change that. With the active support of tech-forward foundations, nonprofits can begin to integrate AI and digital tools into their work. This piece proposes three philanthropic best practices to drive this transformation: a focus on institution building, creating distributed networks of skill and capacity, and long-term commitments to allyship and sector-wide transformation. Through sustained partnership, the social sector can build an AI future that champions human dignity and community aspirations for global progress.

A New Approach to Digital Transformation

As a foundation dedicated to bridging the gap between digital and social innovation, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation (PJMF) works to accelerate nonprofit impact and build individual agency through AI and data solutions. Based on our learnings, three mechanisms can help achieve both goals, enabling nonprofits, and the communities they serve, to thrive in an AI-driven world.

1. Building Institutions for Centralized Technical Support

For most nonprofits, investing in advanced data capacity — through hiring a chief technical officer or team — can appear to divert resources away from the mission — and they might be right. Instead of focusing on new headcount and siloed technical capacity, nonprofits should instead focus on developing baseline digital literacy across teams and a broad-based understanding of their ethical responsibilities for data and AI use. Even as nonprofits are on their individual journeys, philanthropic intervention can pool resources to create shared institutions that can serve as a strategy and implementation partner to nonprofits.

PJMF’s data practice team provides a model for such an institution. Dedicated to helping nonprofits build a foundational level of technical maturity across their organization, the team provides training and support for organizations across size and sector to leverage data to fight climate change, improve community health, bolster human rights, and more. Interventions include webinars and localized information products, accelerators, and even multi-year deep partnerships. At scale, this model can serve as a reliable resource for all nonprofits, enabling them to tackle unique data challenges, troubleshoot common pain points, and collectively brainstorm new ways to leverage data for good.

2. Creating Distributed Networks of Skill and Capacity

Given their cost and complexity, emerging technologies like AI are best delivered at scale — scale that requires coordinated action and pooled resources. For example, consider that concerted climate advocacy can require information and data that ranges from geospatial intelligence on methane emissions collected by satellites to community-reported effects of climate change. These resources are rarely held by a single organization and often demand a new approach to collaboration and data sharing. Some nonprofits have already worked with philanthropy to build unique and sophisticated products and tools that can improve coordination across individual teams and beneficiary communities. For sector-wide impact, however, foundations must grow this capacity — by championing the creation of a decentralized network of nonprofits, powered by high-quality data, shared cloud resources, and accessible on-ramps to new product development.

PJMF’s data solutions team provides a replicable basis for such a network. Through creating open-source, enterprise-quality platforms for social impact, the team has propelled nonprofits into new roles as both creators of technology and architects of the AI for good ecosystem. For instance, the team recently worked with a partner to develop an AI-enabled mobile application that can predict safety and financial impacts during a climate disaster. The tool, once released, can translate to other initiatives from bolstering humanitarian relief efforts, to optimizing immunization campaigns during an outbreak. At scale, these efforts can help apply the wisdom of nonprofits — as well as the lived experience of the communities they serve — into cutting-edge technical solutions they can use.

3. Forging Long-Term Commitments to Allyship and Sector-Wide Transformation

Organizations can always seek out individual opportunities for growth and learning, whether to empower new product development, leverage data to influence policy outcomes, or apply AI to advance various goals for impact. But limited capital and competing priorities often confine nonprofits to one product or solution at a time. If proven effective, they may be able to optimize it for their own mission, whereas building in adaptability or interoperability for other organizations can be challenging. For sustained impact, organizations need the support of philanthropy and each other to power the transition from data provenance to pilots, from pilots to products, from products to platforms, and from platforms to policy.

Khushi Baby, an Indian health organization and partner of PJMF, leveraged a similarly integrated approach to grow from a classroom project on digital vaccine records to a technical support partner for the Government of Rajasthan, India. Their digital health platform, CHIP, now provides health care services to 40 million people and support to more than 70,000 government health officials, with a focus on maternal and childhood health, immunization, public health surveillance, and treatment for noncommunicable illnesses. The power of this intervention lies in its life-cycle approach that starts with real lived experiences, moves through data collection and technology solutions, and eventually invites sectoral support to transform government action and empower healthier communities at scale. Each a critical thread in an interconnected web of social change, success depends on allyship and long-term collaboration for sector-wide transformation at scale.

Supporting Ethical Implementation

Foundations that provide technical support for the use of AI and data must also promote ethical behaviors. From building pathways to hands-on ethical learning for grantee organizations, to inviting diverse nonprofit voices into global networks of ethical AI leadership, each effort can move the dial forward on enabling human-centered innovation across the social sector.

For instance, the Centre for Trustworthy Technology unites multi-stakeholder groups to create and disseminate a replicable framework for technology creation and use, rooted in principles of equity, inclusion, and sustainability. Beyond defining ethical principles, their goal is to develop practical approaches and tools that everyone — including nonprofits — can use to architect a more ethical AI ecosystem.

Looking Ahead: AI for Changemakers

AI opens the door to abundant possibilities for changemakers. But siloed efforts and gaps in capacity impede too many nonprofits from safely participating. By combining philanthropy’s proximity to power and resources with nonprofits’ proximity to communities, the social sector can build new and accessible digital public infrastructure that accurately reflects our human values. Through public-private partnerships, nonprofits and the communities they serve can influence policymaking at large. It’s time foundations come together in building these pathways and partnerships for nonprofits and communities to design a world that benefits us all.

Vilas Dhar is president of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation. Find him on LinkedIn and on Twitter. Yolanda Botti-Lodovico is policy and advocacy lead at the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation. Find her on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Hear more from Vilas about philanthropy’s role in advancing ethical and practical applications of AI at CEP’s upcoming conference.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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