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Charity insights: harnessing the potential of AI

Charity insights: harnessing the potential of AI

Put your organisation’s purpose at the heart of your technology strategy.

The technological environment is changing rapidly and I’m hearing many charities discuss how they will embrace the changes brought by AI. It’s key for charities to consider if AI can play a part in their strategic plans.

Nazreen Visram

Head of Charities, Barclays Corporate Banking

Article 2: Artificial Intelligence

This is the second in a four-part series of charity insights in which we share our thoughts and those of guest speakers at our 11th National Charities Day on strategies for confronting the many challenges facing the sector.

78% of charities agree that AI is relevant to their charity and could transform it ref: 1
73% say they don't yet feel prepared for how to use AI ref: 2
44% of small charities have strategic plans to use AI in day-to-day operations ref: 3

Everybody is using ChatGPT tech for free. That has put AI on the boardroom agenda and charity leaders are asking what it might mean for them and their organisations.

Ben Bilsland

Partner, RSM

Thanks to the popularity of apps like ChatGPT, there’s growing awareness of artificial intelligence (AI) and much speculation about the part it could play in the way charities operate.

However, according to the Charity Skills Report1, 73% of charities say they aren’t ready to take the plunge. An audience poll at our most recent National Charities Day also revealed that lack of funding and in-house expertise are major barriers to starting the AI journey.

Getting started with AI

Many charities are now pondering the potential of AI but grappling with how to get started with the technology.

It can be daunting, especially for smaller charities. Start by talking to your IT supplier – what are they doing about AI? Ask yourself if there’s anyone you can lean on to ask questions and talk to peers to get pointers.

Zoe Amar

Digital Consultant

Ben Bilsland, a Partner at RSM, says AI is the biggest challenge facing charities right now, so the resources organisations allocate to it is important: “For maximum value, start with data strategy and then start piloting ideas in areas that aren’t business critical, to minimise risk.”

Five steps to consider

Step 1: Building a strategy around your mission

Any charity devising a strategy on how to put AI to best effect should be guided, first and foremost, by how the technology can be best used to deliver the organisation’s purpose.

The right question to ask is: what are the challenges the charity faces and how can this tool be used to do things better – perhaps more accurately or more efficiently?

Jim Sanders, Director of Innovation at The Royal National Institute of Blind People, reveals: “What really helped us was to focus on our purpose, which is to create a world that works for people with sight loss – that really helped clarify how we could use AI.”

Step 2: Considering data governance

Given that AI software will likely interact with and rely on an organisation’s data, establishing or updating policies around the governance of that data is essential to making full use of the technology safely.

Digital consultant Zoe Amar says she has come across charities where board members are unaware that some staff are experimenting with tech like ChatGPT without knowing the risks. This also means lessons about how best to use AI aren’t shared within the organisation.

“A good way to get on top of your information governance is to have an open conversation about giving staff time and space to learn about AI within parameters that manage the risk,” says Zoe.

Step 3: Taking staff on the journey

Some of your staff will be excited by AI, some will be daunted, while others may even fear for their jobs. Whatever their attitudes, charities need to take their people with them on this technology journey.

Be transparent about AI plans and educate your people about what AI is, how it will help the charity’s purpose and the restrictions around its use. Don’t make assumptions about people – anyone should be able to use this technology with the right support.

As Ben Bilsland of RSM says: “Leaders should be thinking about how AI can impact their workforces. AI can be deployed to augment the workforce to make them productive. It will not necessarily make swathes of people redundant, but it could transform the way they work.”

Step 4: Looking for inspiration on AI

AI is not new to some charitable organisations. The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), for example, has been using the technology for more than 15 years on projects that include a transcription service to put bank statements into braille.

More recently, the RNIB has been working with Microsoft on a version of ChatGPT, which is already being used to help telephone operators answer questions from callers on the organisation’s helpline.

To extend the helpline so that it’s available on 24-hour basis, the RNIB is now looking at the feasibility of a chatbot version of the service.

Step 5: Finding the right tech skills

Partnerships with commercial organisations – like the RNIB’s work with Microsoft to augment its telephone helpline with AI support – can bring a valuable injection of tech skills into charities.

Director of Innovation Jim Sanders points to the many benefits of RNIB’s “rich history of partnership” with not only Microsoft but also Google and Apple. “Our mission is making a world that works for blind and partially sighted people – but that doesn’t mean we have to own and do everything.”

RNIB’s experience is that businesses are often keen to help, so charities need to think smart about how they can partner with organisations to help accelerate what they are trying to deliver.

More in this series

Charity insights: taking the lead, shaping the future

Charity insights: taking the lead, shaping the future

The strong and effective leadership skills needed in the charity sector to navigate a shifting landscape have never been more important.

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