2023 was a pressure cooker year for global nonprofits.
The frequency and severity of natural catastrophes continued to increase and it seems they are on a trajectory. In fact, the number of recorded disasters has increased fivefold over the past 50 years. Political unrest and all-out wars created new humanitarian needs around the globe and these risks are more interconnected than ever.
This last year, resources and financial support were harder to come by. Global nonprofits had to increase their efforts to meet rising demand — but with diluted (or sporadic) sources of funding.
The influx of crises also diverted resources away from longer-term goals, like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. With only six years left to meet the UN’s vision for 2030, only 15% of initiatives are on track. Nearly half have lost ground.
Luckily, global nonprofits also picked up a new superpower in 2023.
Generative AI’s increasing maturity has now made it more accessible than ever — inspiring ways for nonprofits to amplify their efforts, make more compelling donor appeals, tighten their logistics and coordination on the ground, and automate existing work.
Generative AI and GPT models hold enormous promise for global nonprofits — but plugging them into operations isn’t a simple drag and drop. Nonprofits need solid data practices, agile infrastructure and thoughtful governance practices to benefit from available tools.
They also need to act now. Technology will continue to evolve, so organizations that delay, or take a wait-and-see approach, could fall behind. Among its many benefits, data and AI provide more proof points for nonprofits to measure and demonstrate their impact. Organizations with the strongest stories of efficient and effective impact will attract more resources.
2024 digital priorities for global nonprofits
Heading into 2024, global nonprofits can focus on five digital principles and priorities to help them leverage AI and serve more people in more meaningful ways.
1. Take out the trash
Before organizations can leverage AI on a global scale, they need to meet prerequisite conditions. First and foremost, they need good, clean data in AI-ready formats.
AI and large language models feed on data. Organizations should make sure they are collecting and storing data in a centralized (or accessible) and protected environment, so AI tools can do their best work. The “garbage in, garbage out” concept is strong — and potentially dangerous — with new AI tools.
Nonprofits also need to apply good data hygiene practices. They need to regularly audit their data, remove unnecessary information and make sure donor, volunteer and beneficiary records are accurate and complete. The strength of these new technologies is to help overcome bias in decision-making, but it can also lead to more bias if training does not account for these dangers. Learning the right way to ask the questions can help reduce programmatic bias in every step of the process.
2. Change starts from within
Global nonprofits can use data and AI models to solve enormous problems. But first, all associates in the organization, especially leaders, need to understand what’s possible — and the value of technology to the organization’s beneficiaries.
Organizations need a baseline understanding of digital skills to know how to leverage AI.
On the frontlines, staff need to understand how AI can advance mission-level practices and back-office tasks that take too much time. Nonprofit employees are passionate workers, with direct and powerful connections to the people they serve. They may appreciate exploring digital tools and suggest new ways to serve people (or make their work easier to manage).
Executives need to understand AI to create new pathways to serve people and to make informed decisions about tools and investments. They need to funnel resources toward the most powerful strategies. Understanding the potential and pitfalls of AI is a first step in evaluating a different future.
3. Governance and security
Like most tools, AI comes with risk.
Good data hygiene can mitigate some of the danger of “hallucinations” or bad output. Humans should also be a permanent fixture in workflows. AI can handle most of the lifting, but a human should vet AI’s responses (ideally through a lens that understands diversity, equity, inclusion and responsible citizenship).
Organizations need to prioritize security as they develop new, data-driven approaches. Beneficiary, donor and volunteer information needs to be protected, especially when it involves protected health information or personally identifiable information.
Global nonprofits can also best serve their stakeholders by studying the compliance landscape. They need to understand data governance and data security requirements everywhere they operate (or receive funding from). It is vital to ensure appropriate checks and controls are in place to protect data, funding and the people involved. Look for the “Goldilocks zone,” where data is amply protected but not so locked down that it’s unusable.
Vendor relationships can curb some cyber-related risks for nonprofits. Instead of building brand-new, purpose-built tools, nonprofits can work with vendor partners to build off existing solutions that already have proven, compliant capabilities.
4. To go far, go together
Natural disasters (and other social ills) are complex problems to address. People need access to food, water, shelter, medicine — and a host of other services — all at once. One nonprofit cannot answer all these needs.
Data and technology make collaborative philanthropy easier to manage. Organizations have a more accurate and timely pulse on community needs and the resources they can deploy, which makes it faster and easier to partner with other organizations.
Global nonprofits can hone their technology development in on one or two aspects of a problem that they’re most capable of solving (e.g., logistics, supply chain or volunteer mobilization). Then they can leverage data and networks to collaboratively fill in the gaps.
Building relationships and cooperative data practices to support deeper collaborations and more effective partnerships can help the nonprofit community go farther together.
5. Challenge legacy mindsets
Right now, there are few things more dangerous than the statement, “How it’s always been done here.”
Nonprofits are trying to serve more people, in more ways and with more impact with the same (or less) resources they have today. This requires entirely new ways of thinking and doing.
Leaders and staff must lean into the possibilities, particularly around AI and digital tools. Will AI solve everything? Of course not. But it can certainly help. A difficult balance is leveraging AI while keeping the human at the center of the mission. Having this ideal blend will enable those who serve to thrive on the human connection while being enabled with the information they need at the right time and place.
AI and digital tools can help nonprofits operate more efficiently and transparently, which beneficiaries, donors and employees all appreciate. AI may drive leaders to rethink and learn traditional practices or to invite new people into decision-making discussions.
Global nonprofits need to adopt a digital mindset. Overhead and exploration of these tools is an investment — and one that can have multifold returns. Leaders need to stay open to the possibilities and encourage radically new ideas.
How Wipfli can help
Depending on your digital comfort zone, AI can make it seem like an exciting time to be in the nonprofit world — or a scary and paralyzing era. No matter where you stand, Wipfli can help you gain the knowledge, tools and best practices you need to operate in a digital world. Our nonprofit specialists help you educate, assess, plan and execute digital strategies to elevate your strengths. We make sure you get the most out of every donor dollar and volunteer hour. Contact us today to learn more.