Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving


18 October 2017

However, there are also many who see the predictions of these tech doom-mongers as overblown. Dire warnings about robots taking our jobs have been around for the last fifty years, they argue, and have not come to pass: so why should we listen now? The more moderate of these critics may acknowledge that we do stand at a moment of particularly intense technological development, and that this will definitely have a significant impact on the nature of work, but they argue that it will be about the integration of disruptive technologies and the evolution of human jobs; rather than about direct replacement.

It’s sometimes hard to know where on the spectrum of “this is all sci-fi nonsense” to “I for one welcome our new robot overlords” to position oneself when it comes to thinking about the impact these cutting edge technologies on charity. For my fairly cautious money, it is probably somewhere in the middle, at least in the short term. There are certainly some pretty bold predictions floating around at the moment, and I think we need to employ a liberal dose of salt when considering them.

However, I also think it is extremely dangerous to be a tech-naysayer and pretend that charities don’t need to do anything or even think about this stuff. For one thing, a lot of it is already happening- even if only in a limited way. And for another, we should heed Amara’s Law: that while we tend to overestimate the impact of technology in the short term, we also tend to underestimate it in the long term.

So, let’s assume for a moment that robots aren’t going to take the jobs of all charity workers, but also that many of the disruptive technologies we are seeing emerge now will become ubiquitous and hence charities will need to embrace them in their work. What then, will this mean in terms of the new types of roles that could become crucial in charities? I.e. what will charity work 2037 look like? Just for fun, and in no particular order, here are some of my suggestions for the kinds of jobs those of us still in the sector in 20 years’ time might be doing.


We should probably start with the most obvious and cross-cutting role: ensuring that beneficiaries are able to access new technologies so that they can benefit from them where possible, or at least ensure they do not suffer as a result of lacking the required equipment or skills. We already face a digital divide when it comes to technologies like the internet, and this matters because access to the internet is arguably no longer just a benefit but a necessity (The UN in fact declared it a basic human right in 2016). Some charities are trying to address this problem by helping those at risk of being left behind to get to grips with the technology. This role is likely to widen to encompass new technologies over the coming years, because as they become more ubiquitous and vital to our social interactions and to our abilities to access basic amenities and service, a division between those who can use them and those that can’t is likely to create severe inequality.


We have discussed previously on this blog (and in our recent CAF submission to the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence Call For Evidence), the potential impact of AI and some of the specific challenges raised by the use of complex algorithms.

As detailed there, the recent revolution in AI has been primarily due to the development of new models of machine learning algorithms (plus a massive increase in the availability of data for them to act on). Unlike traditional approaches to AI, which required that you be able to detail all of the rules governing how an algorithm operates upfront, machine learning instead allows you to specify an intended goal and then let an algorithm develop its own approach by working with vast quantities of data and progressively refining its own operation to maximise performance with respect to that goal.

However, this doesn’t mean that there is suddenly no role for humans. Many of these algorithms still require heavy supervision, particularly in their early stages, in order to know when they are getting things right or wrong. And whilst some algorithms may be able to learn in an unsupervised way, there are good reasons to think that is not such a great idea. An increasing number of people are highlighting the fact that algorithms which learn from historic data sets that display strong statistical bias are likely to display, and even amplify, this bias in their own operation. For example, algorithms used in the US justice system to determine bail conditions for defendants in court cases have been found to exhibit stark racial biases.

To ensure that machine learning algorithms develop properly, and to counteract the danger of algorithmic bias occurring, there is going to be an important role for “algorithm trainers” who can spot the early signs of undesirable effects occurring and intervene to ensure that they do not. For charities that represent vulnerable individuals and groups who may find themselves on the receiving end of algorithmic bias, this is likely to be a vital part of their work.


In addition to people who directly guide the development of machine learning algorithms, charities may also need to employ people who can advocate about the wider societal impacts of AI. As well as the aforementioned role in speaking up for those who might be marginalised by the application of AI, this is likely to include things like challenging any lack of transparency in “black box” algorithms and demanding accountability when algorithmic processes go awry.


Virtual Reality is already being used in fascinating ways by charities for things like mental health services and end-of-life palliative care. However, as VR technology develops further and becomes more widespread, there are concerns about what impact this could have in terms of weakening social interactions, increasing isolation, emotional/ethical desensitisation and deterioration of physical health (For more on this see our previous blog on “10 problems tech is going to create that charities will have to solve”).

Could this mean that charities will have to employ outreach workers to try to intervene with those at risk of suffering from these problems? This might be in a physical sense, by going to their houses, or it might be a virtual role i.e. the outreach workers would themselves enter the virtual world in order to engage with at-risk individuals. (A bit like The Matrix, but with fewer guns and more qualified mental health professionals…)


We have talked a lot at Giving Thought about the potential benefits and challenges that blockchain technology might bring for charities and those who support them. Many of the potential benefits stem from the fact that assets of all kinds (tangible or intangible) can be recorded on a blockchain, so it allows for seamless integration of the digital and physical world. However, we still have to be sure that the facts recorded on a blockchain are an accurate reflection of reality in the first place.

 For digital assets this is not such a problem, as their reality and their representation on a blockchain are one and the same, but for physical assets and facts we will require some trustworthy method of translating between physical reality and its digital representation. In the future, this is likely to involve smart objects, as the data they record through their sensors will provide the required objective information about the physical world. However, in the short to medium term, there is going to be a vital role for “oracles”: nodes in a blockchain that are accorded an elevated level of authority to confirm that information recorded is accurate.

If blockchains do come to be used for things like tracking the deployment of assets within international development supply chains, or for recording data on impact measurement that is then used to trigger smart contracts for payment by results grants or donations (as we have previously explored), then it is likely that many of the charities that currently work in the relevant areas will be asked to take on the role of oracles at least in the early stages of implementation, because they already occupy a position of trust and authority.


We have previously explored at some length the idea that decentralised governance structures such as DAOs could be used by charities, and might perhaps even come to replace at least some of what existing charitable organisations in the longer term. Within such a hypothesised “social purpose DAO”, it is likely that there will be some mechanism for members to put forward suggested projects or funding opportunities. Other members might then individually choose to support that project, or their might be some sort of voting system that would enable members to choose which projects the DAO as a whole would fund. Either way, someone has to come up with projects; and since charities and the people who work in them are likely to be the ones with a lot of existing individual and institutional knowledge about where the most pressing problems lie and what the best interventions are, they would seem to be well placed to take the lead on this.

Decentralised (web opt)

It is worth noting that this doesn’t necessarily require there to be a centralised organisation involved: it might be that an individual who used to work on a particular cause by being an employee of a charity now does it instead as one member of a DAO. However, it also doesn’t mean that there can’t be a charitable organisation involved, as the charity might be one node of the DAO, and the people who work for it contributing to the DAO through their role as employees.


3D printing could have a massive impact on the work of many charities by bringing down the cost of goods and logistics: why transport aid supplies (tents, plumbing equipment etc.) across the world, when instead you can simply transport a 3D printer and raw materials to where the supplies are needed and print them there (possibly via autonomous drones or lorries as we mooted in our most recent blockchain paper)?

It also has applications in areas like healthcare, where we are already seeing the development of tailor-made 3D printer artificial organs.  It is not hard to see what a massive boon that could be in something like a conflict zone medical situation, where the likelihood of obtaining live human organs is extremely small. But if charities are going to become reliant on this technology, then it will be absolutely crucial that it functions effectively. And, as anyone who has worked in an office knows, if you are going to be reliant on printing (3D or old-fashioned), you need a good printer maintenance guy…


Measuring social impact is already a well-established field within the charity sector. The growing focus on impact investment, as well as data-heavy approaches to traditional philanthropy, mean that the ability to measure and report impact effectively can be a valuable advantage for organisations seeking funding. And besides that, it obviously allows charities to test whether their interventions really work and to demonstrate that they do if so. Technological developments are likely to increase the premium on social impact measurement significantly. The development of blockchain-based philanthropy models where smart contracts are used which only pay out once results have been delivered will require organisations to measure and report those results. Likewise, if the growth of the Internet of Things results in a huge increase in Machine to Machine (M2M) transactions, and we want to harness some of this for charity, that is going to dictate a new AI-driven approach to giving that relies on social impact data being measured so that algorithms are able to determine the most effective interventions.

Thus, the existing drive towards developing more impact measurement is likely to be significantly accelerated and organisations will have to put more resources into employing people who understand and can use impact measurement systems.


We alluded just above to the idea of “M2M philanthropy”, in which a percentage of the revenue generated by transactions between smart objects goes to charity. That obviously requires a mechanism for selecting charities and distributing to them (more on that in a minute). But before that, it also requires the companies making the smart objects to programme them with the required “philanthropy algorithms”. (There is a question about whether these smart objects will in the end be autonomous agents, rather than products owned by a company or individual, but let’s park that for now. Apart from anything else, someone has to build them in the first place. At least, until they develop AI-controlled factories…)

So there will be a role for people in charities to persuade companies developing smart object to include a CSR/philanthropy element, and to help shape what that element looks like. In some cases, it might look like a “charity of the year” partnership- where a company teams up with a charity or group of charities that would then be the recipients of M2M donations from smart objects produced by the company. However, as we have previously outlined, this is likely to prove a less appealing prospect in the future if the possibility of using AI to determine where the microscopic bits of money generated in M2M transactions becomes a reality. In this case, there would be a less obvious role for a partnership manager, but perhaps still a role for someone who was able to advocate more broadly in favour of M2M giving.


There are already quite a few examples of organisations using VR or AR for their fundraising, because it is a very effective way of generating a high degree of empathy, and that is a powerful factor in giving. This is likely to become more widespread as the technology matures, and there will be new roles for those able to produce VR content as well as those who are able to use it effectively to solicit donations.


We have mentioned a number of times already the idea of M2M philanthropy, based on directing a small percentage of the millions of M2M transactions towards charity. There are also likely to be other areas in which micro (or even nano) payments become more common. For instance, there is a lot of interest in the creative industries in using blockchain as a framework for enabling IP attribution and automating the complex system of royalty payment, which could result in artists getting high volumes of tiny payments every time their work (or an adapted version of it) is listened to or viewed. Some of this money could again be directed to charity. There is also the idea of using blockchain to enable self-sovereign digital identity, which could allow individuals to monetise their own personal data and charge companies to use it. Again, this could generate vast volumes of low-value transactions, and some of the revenue could go to charity.

There may need to be a new class of fundraiser who understands all of the different contexts in which micro-payments can occur, can make the case for dedicating a percentage to charity, and knows how to ensure that their organisations or cause will benefit.


AI-based advice services have started to be used in areas like financial services to offer things like investment advice; and the same approach could be taken to the field of philanthropy advice. This could make philanthropy advice more effective, and could also make it a mass-market product for the first time. Whilst it is possible that this will all be done using AI chatbots, a lot of the evidence at the moment is that it is more likely that an integrated model of human-delivered advice powered by AI will prove most compelling. If that does turn out to be the case, then there are likely to be a lot of roles for philanthropy advisors in the future!


One possibility is that many charity jobs will look a lot like they do now in terms of content, but the organisational and governance structures within which they exist will look radically different. This is obviously a bit of a cheat on a list of “new roles”, but it seemed worth highlighting. It goes back to the idea of DAOs mentioned a few times already: could there be new decentralised models that allow people to act together in a coordinated way at scale without requiring the same kind of organisational infrastructure that is currently needed? So you could still be someone whose focus was on working with homeless people, or cancer sufferers or the environment; but you would do it as part of a distributed collective of people with similar interests and aims, rather than as an employee of a specific organisation.

That’s probably enough for now, but it would be great to hear from others what they think of this list and any other roles that could be added. It’s obviously a slightly tongue-in-cheek exercise, but it is also a useful way of focusing on what the real impact of disruptive technology might be on the world of charities. So why not get your thinking cap on and see what you can come up with?

A lot has been said recently about the potential impact of technology on the future of the workplace. Most notably, the idea that many current jobs – and even entire industries – could become redundant as a result of automation and the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has gained a great deal of traction. Some have suggested that this will require radical new economic ideas, such as the introduction of some form of Universal Basic Income an idea which has implications for charities and charitable giving.