An artificial future: Could AI be the solution charities need?

With AI growing in use in industries across the globe, reports have shown that the charity
sector is falling behind in adopting the new technology. But why?

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the future. Or so that’s what
people say. It can revolutionise industries, streamline processes and create innovative solutions for problems we’ve been trying to solve for years. In the past few years, whole industries have turned to AI as the solution they never knew they needed, but the charity sector doesn’t appear to be one of them. So the question is, why are are charities lagging behind?

In July 2021, the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) published a report carried out by Ernst and Young LLP, which looked at private and third sector adoption of data and artificial intelligence. It found that charities are “lagging behind the private sector” in adopting data despite its uses in generating “a significant positive socio-economic impact on society.” Benefits cited included contributing to citizen wellbeing, quality of life, community building or civic engagement – all significant within the charitable sector.

However, the same report found that only 42% of charities are planning, or already use AI technology; a significant drop from 70% of commercial businesses.

“Our interviews confirmed that AI is not often used in the third sector,” says the report. “Only one interviewed charity is currently using AI (to improve customer profiling and enhance customer experience) and believed this gives the organisation a competitive advantage due to the low adoption of AI in the third sector.”

A changing landscape

Since the research was conducted, it appears more charities are embracing the potential of Artificial Intelligence. This could be because Covid-19 necessitated a move to a more digital-focused service, or charities are realising the benefits AI can bring, or both.

Nathan Singleton, chief executive officer of Lifeline Projects explains that Covid certainly had an impact on their decision to use AI. “We’ve moved, in technology terms, 10 years in the last 18 months. I hope we keep changing at this pace.”

Currently, the charity utilises AI to distribute newsletters, analyse website, automate emails and for cybersecurity, with its integration “fairly pain free and quite easy to
understand”.

Similarly, Chron’s & Colitis UK has been working on a chatbot, named Gusty, for six months using the AI to test natural language processing and more traditional decision-tree based chatbots to support users on its main website.

But Kian Scott-Loach, digital manager at the charity explains that although AI has been a consideration for digital advancement within the charity, it’s not its number one priority.

“In our digital product development, AI is increasingly a consideration, but ultimately the priority is empowering end users and the technology is secondary.”

The end users are the priority for any charity looking at using AI, as Leon McQuade, founder of digital technology company, Think Cloud and trustee of Andy’s Man Club explains. During the pandemic, the charity’s operating model became redundant overnight. Using technology, the clubs were only out of commission for a week, but as they moved online, AI became essential to keep them running as it could suggest meetings for people based on calendars and location when they went back physical, using analytics to bring people on board and actually allowed the charity to expand during the pandemic.

“We’ve just opened our 70th club, at the start of the pandemic it was 15
locations. We’ve made that connection and the technology has a purpose now. When we align technology to great people and great processes, that’s how we can drive change,” McQuade emphasises.

He integrated AI into the charity’s everyday processes, from using it to transcribe meetings to automating tasks such as ordering t-shirts, saving both time and money as the AI used was able to predict what sizes were needed and when so the charity wouldn’t order a surplus.

Barriers

Of course, if charities aren’t adopting AI, there’s a reason and it’s not just because the industry can be resistant to change. In the DCMS report, barriers cited by all sectors, including charities, include problems with existing infrastructure, lack of skilled staff and funding, as well as lack of management engagement.

The 2020 Charity Digital Skills report showed that almost nine in ten (88%) charity professionals were found to be ‘fair to poor’ at using, managing and analysing data. Data, which tends to go hand-in-hand with AI was also an issue for charities, with a question about data foundations (the process of integrating, reporting and analysing data from multiple sources) showing that charities had the lowest percentage of adoption.

McQuade agrees, believing that one of the reasons why charities have been so late to AI integration is because of a lack of digital skills. “I think charities need to become more digitally curious. You need a digital technology strategy that covers the next three, six, 12 months up to five years,” he says.

Singleton also points out that charities focus on people and tools such as AI are just that; tools that should be used to aid in the work they already do. “A charity’s focus is on people, not processes. Charities are giving people a chance not giving technology a chance, if it
means someone losing their job a charity will think twice.”

Cost is also another factor that many charities would have to consider. Scott-Loach emphasises this, noting that “cost is often going to be a barrier to the adoption of digital technologies, including AI.” Perhaps, as more charities and businesses being to adopt AI, more cost-effective solutions will be found, however early adopters will need to begin the process for it to really take off in the sector.

Future thinking

It can’t be denied that artificial intelligence will have a role to play in the future of charities, but how much is up to them.

McQuade’s work with Andy’s Man Club is a testament for what not only AI, but the right technology, can bring to a service. “When you’ve got the right technology in place, it can do amazing things and help you achieve a great social impact.”

And it can help the charities themselves. Hacking is more common than ever, he points out,
and AI is “fantastic” for solving cybersecurity challenges. The possibilities are endless, and charities need to become more aware of the benefits it can bring, he says.

The benefits AI can bring to charities range from marketing to training – such as seeing how many times someone watches a training video, to helping charities connect to service users and fundraisers on socials.

Singleton notes that AI could also be used to help reduce costs; a benefit for many charities who are perhaps cash-strapped after the recent pandemic. “We hope to continue to use AI to reduce our business support costs in areas such as finance, HR and business systems,” he says. “If we can reduce these costs, we can spend more time and money supporting our beneficiaries.”

As Scott-Loach quite rightly concludes: “AI is here for the longhaul and widespread in our daily lives although we aren’t generally aware of it. The same will be true across the sector, with AI increasingly being used to support what we do.”

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