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Alex Plumb

Head of Research

Charities Aid Foundation

AI for charities: bringing donors and staff on the journey

19 February 2024

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can provide charities with a wide – and ever expanding – range of tools that help in their day-to-day operations. Alongside the ideological challenge of identifying how and where AI can best add value to a charity’s work, come the practical and human challenges of embedding it in a way that brings staff and donors on the journey too.

Our recent research into what the public think about charities using AI, produced some helpful insights for charities looking to implement the technology and, for me, highlighted the key common theme that charities need to remember as they look to implement their own solutions. 

Be transparent with donors

The results showed that there will be scrutiny from the public, especially higher value donors. Only 13% would pay ‘not much’ or ‘no attention’ to what a charity they supported said about AI. So thought needs to be put into communications. 

Acceptance of AI centres on showing that it can enhance a charity's mission. Often this is by increasing the amount of time humans can spend directly serving their community and decreasing the time they have to spend on other things. 

Donors will expect cautious adoption and transparency to help them understand how a charity they support is using AI to better achieve their mission (and why). So, take your donors on the journey with you. 

Show the benefits of AI to your audiences

We found that people often cite examples of bad technology as bad AI, such as frustrating supermarket self-checkouts. These perceptions can dominate when AI is discussed without tangible examples. 

To improve understanding among your audience, you'll need to bring AI to life for them. Show them examples and the benefits it can bring. Make it clear how it can enhance your charity's mission by working more efficiently and being more focused. 


Gain buy-in from your staff

Effective use of AI will require buy-in from your staff: dictating new ways of working without proper communication could alienate them. Using AI requires a change in working style and an awareness of what is possible to best exploit what the tech can do. Humans are creatures of habit, so time and effort needs to go into helping your colleagues as they relearn previously familiar processes that can now lean on AI. 

At CAF, we have created a working group to share those use cases with each other to build understanding on how we can best deploy AI. We've surveyed our staff to understand knowledge levels and what concerns people have. Two-way communication means we can learn from our teams as well. Many of our staff are already using AI personally and it’s important to share these stories to further our understanding and discover greater potential. 


Be strategic in how you use AI

Your use of AI must be strategic and not just simply jumping on the bandwagon. It’s important to take a step back and think externally before looking internally. 

Our research showed that the public want to know that charities are not losing sight of their most important aspect: the human touch.  The connection between the charity and the cause it supports is vital, that’s why it’s the positive human benefits – helping more people, disaster relief, making better decisions – that are the easiest for people to grasp and, therefore, the opportunities they support most.

Donors trust us as charities, and it is our responsibility to find the most effective way to achieve our mission. They must be confident that their donations are having the most impact they possibly can. So, we must maintain that trust.


Engage high-value donors

Higher value donors are a key consideration for a charity implementing AI. Our research showed that high-value donors are the most positive about charities using AI but also the ones who will pay most attention to what charities say publicly about it. Our hope is that this translates into funders recognising the importance of helping charities to transform their tech to not only help grow their impact but potentially be more resilient as well. 

To do this, they need unrestricted funding. Many charities are suffering from a digital deficit and can't invest in new technologies that will allow them to spend less time on admin and more time supporting the communities they exist to serve.

To quote my colleague, Neil Heslop, OBE, Chief Executive of CAF, “AI must not be the privilege of the few. We must work together with the technology industry to ensure it is accessible for large and small charities."

Keep humanity front of mind

For research that is overtly about technology, the theme that has ended up emerging is one of humanity. AI is at its most enticing when it helps charities dial up the human aspect: whether that is enabling quicker, more targeted relief to people in disaster zones or freeing charity workers up to spend more time in their communities and less time on admin tasks. Conversely, AI is at its most unappealing when it’s seen as a threat to jobs or as introducing bias into traditionally human decisions.

AI for charities will be successful as an enabler, a partner, not a human replacement.

For more on AI, including details of our upcoming Connector Event, as well as other issues affecting the charity sector, sign up to our newsletter.

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