Photograph by Markus Spiske via Unsplash

Dare to embrace the future: AI for nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and churches

Rev. Saeed Richardson

February 28, 2024

At its core, AI is a field of computer science that aims to create machines capable of mimicking human intelligence. This doesn’t mean they have emotions or consciousness, but they can recognize patterns, process vast amounts of data, process that data quickly, and even make decisions based on that data. Its essence lies in mimicking human intelligence and executing tasks that range from simple to complex with unprecedented efficiency. From predictive text to sophisticated data analysis, AI’s applications are vast and varied.

Perhaps unrealized by many, AI’s influence permeates our everyday experiences. It powers the recommendations on streaming services we use, the responses from digital assistants we may take for granted, and the insights derived from our interactions on social media.

Remember the recommendations you get on Netflix or the personalized playlist on Spotify? That’s AI at work, curating content based on patterns of what you watch or listen to. Have you ever used Google Maps to find the quickest route home? AI’s behind that, too, analyzing traffic patterns and travel distances in real time. Companies like Amazon use AI to predict what products you might want to buy next, and even our smartphones utilize AI for voice recognition when we say “Hey Siri” or “Okay, Google.”

AI has been among us for a lot longer than we might realize, and has the potential to transform operations across various sectors, including those driven by noble missions like nonprofits and faith-based organizations.

The journey of AI from a theoretical concept to an ever-present technology underscores a broader trend: the “futurization” of technology (and of our world) is now! The World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs Report 2023” highlights a pivotal shift towards automation and digital technologies, predicting that 83 million jobs may be displaced by 2025, while 69 million new roles could emerge across the sectors of the economy.

McKinsey Global Institute’s research presented in “Generative AI and the Future of Work in America” explores the transformative effects of automation and AI on the labor market. The study highlights that with the inclusion of generative AI, automation could potentially affect up to 30% of the hours worked in the U.S. economy by 2030, a stark increase from previous estimates without AI’s rapid advancement. That’s only 6 years from now!

This technological shift is anticipated to bring about significant changes in the occupational mix, with a notable increase of jobs in healthcare, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), and managerial positions. Organizations focusing on tech could see a surge in demand for an additional 3.5 million jobs; STEM occupations, in particular, are projected to experience a 23% growth in demand.

On the flip side, roles in customer service, office support, and food services are expected to witness the most considerable job losses, with millions of positions potentially being phased out due to automation. This seismic shift underscores the urgency for workers to adapt by acquiring new skills, with an emphasis on digital literacy and AI-related competencies. The future workforce landscape is set to prioritize adaptability, continuous learning, and a shift towards more technologically advanced and human-centric roles, marking a critical transition point for the American labor market.

If we abstain from involvement in the development of AI and future technology, we relinquish our voice, allowing corporations and politicians to dictate the trajectory of technological evolution without the balance of our missions’ moral compass.

The next six years will present several potential challenges for nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and churches. Reflecting on McKinsey’s research, consider the negative implications of these technological shifts:

1. Loss of Membership and Engagement: As automation and AI reshape the job market, with an estimated 30% of work hours impacted by 2030, organizations will likely experience increased unemployment or underemployment, particularly in sectors vulnerable to automation. This economic strain may likely lead to a decline in membership and engagement for churches and faith-based organizations (yes, this was happening before the AI impact), as individuals prioritize financial survival over participation in community or spiritual activities.

2. Financial Challenges: The same economic pressures affecting individual members can lead to decreased donations and tithing, as people have less disposable income. Nonprofits and churches rely heavily on these contributions for their operations. With the potential displacement of 3.5 million jobs due to automation, according to McKinsey’s broader labor market analysis, the financial sustainability of these organizations could be at risk if they fail to adapt their fundraising strategies to this new reality.

3. Inability to Adapt Quickly: The rapid pace of technological change demands agility and adaptability. Nonprofits and faith-based organizations, often constrained by limited resources and traditional operational models, may struggle to keep up. This lag can hinder their ability to leverage AI for operational efficiency and program delivery, potentially widening the gap between these organizations and those more technologically adept.

4. Ethical and Moral Dilemmas: Integrating AI into operations and decision-making processes raises ethical concerns, especially around data privacy, bias in AI algorithms, and the depersonalization of services. Without clear guidelines and the capacity to implement ethical AI practices, these organizations risk inadvertently perpetuating biases or alienating those they aim to serve.

5. Digital Divide: As the demand for digital literacy and AI-related skills increases, a divide may emerge between organizations and communities that have access to technology and training and those that do not. This divide could exacerbate existing inequalities, leaving some nonprofits, churches, and their constituencies behind, especially in underserved or rural areas where technology adoption is slower.

6. Shifts in Volunteerism: With AI expected to automate a significant portion of tasks, the nature of volunteer opportunities may shift, potentially leading to a decrease in traditional volunteering roles. This change could affect community engagement and the personal connection many volunteers and members feel toward the organization, impacting volunteer attraction, retention, and community cohesion.

In navigating these challenges, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and churches must proactively engage with technology, seeking to understand its implications and integrate it into their strategic planning. By doing so, they can mitigate potential negative impacts while leveraging AI’s benefits to enhance their mission-driven work.

It’s imperative not only to consider how these tools can enhance operational efficiency and outreach but also to actively participate in setting ethical standards for their use.

Overcoming skepticism and fear of AI and future technology is paramount. In a rapidly evolving digital landscape, hesitation or reluctance to adopt new technologies can significantly hinder an organization’s ability to innovate and remain competitive, and even sustain staff. The journey towards digital transformation begins with a mindset shift — recognizing AI not as a distant, impersonal force, but as a tool that, when wielded with wisdom and vision, can profoundly amplify organizational potential and impact.

Leaders and stakeholders must cultivate an environment where learning, experimentation, and adaptive change are encouraged and celebrated. This shift is crucial for nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and churches to thrive amidst the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age.

Nonprofits and faith-based organizations can begin by:

-Cultivating a work culture that embraces new learning, trial and error, a “train-and-try-fail-try…share” way of thinking.

-Establishing new baseline standards for technology engagement and then supporting and, potentially, challenging staff to reach that baseline.

-Investing in staff training, resources, and time to build in-house AI and technology expertise.

-Seeking and experimenting with new opportunities for AI and future tech integrations that complement their organizational vision and mission.

-Partnering with technology providers who share values, understand their unique needs, and can help propel their organizations into the future.

Understanding and leveraging AI and future technologies becomes not just a strategy for growth but a necessity for survival and relevance in serving communities and constituents effectively.

As nonprofits and faith-based organizations navigate the adoption of AI and future technologies, it’s imperative not only to consider how these tools can enhance operational efficiency and outreach, but also to actively participate in setting ethical standards for their use. The responsibility to model ethical use and influence the development of these technologies cannot be understated. If we abstain from involvement, we relinquish our voice, allowing corporations and politicians to dictate the trajectory of technological evolution without the balance of our missions’ moral compass.

It’s crucial for organizations with a foundation in faith, service, compassion, and community to lead by example, ensuring that the deployment of AI and future technologies aligns with values of equity, justice, privacy, safety, and the common good. By being at the forefront of ethical discussions and decision-making, we ensure that our missions and the communities we serve are not sidelined but are integral to shaping a future where technology amplifies not only efficiency but humanity.

The integration of AI and automation into the operations of nonprofits and faith-based organizations is not just about keeping pace with technological advancements; it’s about reimagining how these organizations fulfill their missions. By embracing AI, they can enhance efficiency, deepen constituent engagement, and navigate the ethical implications of digital technologies. The future beckons with a promise of innovation, and for organizations committed to making a positive impact, the journey toward an AI-enabled future is both a strategic imperative and a moral opportunity to define the ethical use of technology in our society.

Rev. Saeed Richardson is the chief technology and information security officer at the American Baptist Home Mission Societies. He is also the founder of RevTech, a tech-oriented website with resources for faith-based non-profits.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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