What Impact will Artificial Intelligence Have on Nonprofit Fundraisers?

Over the past half-century or so, interest in artificial intelligence has ebbed and flowed with periods of growth and dormancy. Some refer to these periods as summers and winters.

With each summer has come increased investment and research in artificial intelligence. Along with these have come promises of a work-free utopia fueled by robot servants and laborers. While others have made ominous predictions of economic disaster, humans as slaves to the robots, or worse.

Another persistent phenomenon is disappointment that all the hype about artificial intelligence didn’t amount to much. When in fact, each summer has resulted in remarkable advances, given available technology at the time. This is known as the “AI effect”.

Loosely, it’s what happens when something that was previously considered the stuff of science fiction is demonstrated or applied in practice and is suddenly demystified, losing its luster and “AI” label.

We’re surrounded by examples of this in our everyday life: search engines, recommendation engines, and navigation apps, to name a few.

This is important to note because we’re currently in the midst of an AI summer, and thanks to the AI effect, you may not realize it. And with the currently available technology, the potential impact on your work is considerably greater than ever before.

In a recent post, Andrew Yang, author, founder, and CEO of Venture for America shared several sobering statistics about the looming effects of automation on millions of American jobs.

Similarly, McKinsey & Company estimates that as much as 45% of our work can instead be performed by “currently demonstrated technologies”.

Ever since the first robots were installed in manufacturing, we’ve seen countless jobs lost to automation. We’ve gotten used to machines flying our aircraft, dispensing our cash, and in some cities, we’re even growing accustomed to the presence of automated vehicles. But that could never happen in fundraising, right?

The answer is “It depends.”

There are four ways that artificial intelligence and related fields can impact you as a nonprofit fundraiser.

Your Role

Using this interactive graphic from McKinsey & Company via Tableau Public and filtering the view on occupations similar to, if not specifically related to your day-to-day activities, we quickly see that the potential impact and number of jobs affected varies considerably between management, front-line, and admin roles.

The potential impact to front-line fundraisers and managers hovers around 10-15%, while the impact on admin roles is between 50% and 90%.

If you’re a fundraiser or manager, start looking for new technology that can improve your efficiency. Managers should also start looking at what advances your vendors and their competitors are planning that could improve team efficiency.

In the near term, advances in artificial intelligence should allow you to focus on more creative, strategic, and human-to-human aspects of your role.

If you’re a fundraising administrative assistant, particularly one who is also responsible for data entry, you should really start to pay attention to what’s going on. Consider training or education that will help you transfer your fundraising knowledge to other roles within the department.

The Size of Your Team

The larger your team, the greater potential there is for automation to impact your role.

Even 15% redundancy from machines on a team with multiple people performing the same or similar functions could spell trouble for less productive team members.

This should be true regardless of the state of artificial intelligence, but to preserve your position, make sure you’re one of the better performers on your team. Look to develop or highlight your skills in the more creative, cognitive, or human-facing aspects of your role.

And if your team is small, you’re in luck. At least for now…

Time

In 2017, the threat of redundancy to fundraisers and their managers isn’t significant. It’s maybe even a welcome prospect when you consider the more routine or mundane aspects of your role. But things are changing rapidly.

No one knows for certain how fast change is coming, but many agree that the point at which machines significantly outperform human brains on a wide variety of tasks is about the middle of this century.

Of course, that level of advancement isn’t necessary to begin affecting jobs. Just ask auto workers, travel agents, and soon, accountants.

For now, the real impacts to most fundraising roles are largely in repetitive or boring tasks. As a result, we still have time to learn to harness technology to enhance our work and make us more innovative, effective, and/or efficient.

When/if the time comes that fundraiser’s jobs are truly in jeopardy from machines, those who have embraced technology as a kind of intelligence prosthesis will enjoy longer careers.

The Donors

It’s not just your job that may be impacted. On the other side of the coin are the donors, and without them, there is no fundraising.

A White House report (Obama) on artificial intelligence and the economy released last month indicates researcher “estimates on the scale of threatened jobs over the next decade or two range from 9 to 47 percent”. If actual unemployment is even remotely as severe as this, we’re in for trying times.

Lest we think we’re immune because the economic effects of automation will only impact lower and middle-income households, research suggests a clear–if somewhat obvious–relationship between unemployment and giving.

Likely outcomes are continued accumulation of wealth amongst a very small percentage of the population, and increasing unemployment subsidies for the masses.

Neither of these bodes well for nonprofit fundraising as we know it.

This is something I spend my days helping nonprofits think through in developing strategic plans and designing organizational productivity and knowledge management systems.

So far, the best advice I have with respect to AI is to pay attention to advances in technology. Even if on the surface they don’t appear to directly affect your work. Ask your vendors what they’re doing to help you take advantage of smarter technology, and reward those that do by giving them your business.

So what do you think?

Should we be fearful of the potential impact of artificial intelligence on fundraising, or should we embrace it? Have I missed a piece of the puzzle?

I’m still figuring this stuff out and am anxious to hear from others who are thinking about these things. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or by liking this post.

Photo credits: via Visual Hunt. Tableau Software.

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