Article

Demystifying AI: should trustees use AI to maximise the benefits for their charity?

17th May 2024

A 3d representation of AI

Artificial intelligence (“AI”) is a term that encompasses various technologies that enable machines to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as learning, reasoning, and decision making. AI has been called the defining technology of our age, as it has the potential to transform various aspects of society, the economy, and the environment.

But what does AI mean for the charity sector? How can trustees and charities use AI to maximise the benefits for their cause and beneficiaries? What are the opportunities and challenges that AI presents for the sector – and how can charities communicate effectively with their donors and supporters about their use of AI?

The opportunities and benefits of AI for charities

AI can offer many opportunities for charities to further their missions and accelerate social progress. Some of the most compelling reasons for charities to use AI are based on the greater direct human benefit, such as:

  • Faster and more effective response to disasters and emergencies: AI can help charities to analyse large amounts of data, such as satellite imagery, social media posts and even weather forecasts, to identify the areas and people most in need of assistance, and to coordinate the delivery of aid and resources. For example, the World Food Programme uses AI to monitor food security and predict famine risks, while the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society uses AI to forecast and prepare for disasters.
  • More efficient and impactful service delivery: AI can help charities to automate and optimise various tasks and processes, such as fundraising, marketing, administration, and to free up time and resources for more strategic and creative work. For example, the British Heart Foundation uses AI to sort and price donated items in its shops, while the Alzheimer’s Society uses AI to provide personalised support and information to people affected by dementia.
  • More inclusive and diverse engagement and participation: AI can help charities to reach and communicate with more people, especially those who are marginalised, isolated, or under-represented, and to tailor their messages and services to their needs and preferences. For example, the RNIB uses AI to make its website more accessible for visually impaired people, while the Samaritans uses AI to identify and support people at risk of suicide.

The challenges of AI for charities

AI can also pose some challenges and risks for charities, especially in terms of ethics, governance, and transparency. Some of the key issues that charities need to consider and address when using AI are:

  • Data quality and security: AI relies on large amounts of data to function and learn, which means that charities need to ensure that the data they collect, store and use is accurate, relevant, and secure. They also need to ensure that they comply with the relevant laws and regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”). Charities also need to be aware of the potential biases and errors that can arise from the data or the algorithms, and to mitigate their impact on the outcomes and decisions.
  • Ethical principles and values: AI can have significant implications for the rights, dignity, and welfare of the people and communities that charities serve, as well as for the reputation and trust of the sector. Therefore, charities need to ensure that their use of AI is aligned with their mission, vision, and values, and that they adhere to the ethical principles and standards that guide their work, including the Charity Governance Code and the Ethical Framework for the Use of AI in the Social Sector.
  • Stakeholder engagement and communication: AI can affect the expectations, perceptions and behaviours of the various stakeholders that charities interact with. Therefore, charities need to engage and communicate with their stakeholders effectively and transparently about their use of AI, and to address any concerns or questions they may have. Charities also need to involve and consult their stakeholders in the design, development, and evaluation of their AI initiatives, and to ensure that they are accountable and responsive to their feedback and input.

Conclusion

AI is a powerful and promising technology that can offer many benefits for the charity sector, but it also comes with some challenges and risks that need to be carefully considered and managed.

Trustees and charities should not be afraid or reluctant to use AI, but they should also not be naive or reckless about it. They should adopt a balanced and responsible approach that maximises the opportunities and minimises the challenges of AI, and which puts their cause and beneficiaries at the centre of their decisions and actions.

As a final note, we would like to disclose that this article was supported by Copilot, an AI companion that assists users by providing information, answering questions, and generating content. Copilot is not a human writer, but a tool that uses technology such as GPT-4 and Bing Search to provide relevant and useful responses.

Copilot does not have any opinions or emotions of its own, but relies on objective facts or phrases like “some people say” or “some people may think”. Copilot also follows safety instructions that prevent it from providing information or creating content that could cause harm to anyone. We hope that this disclosure does not diminish your appreciation of this article, but rather demonstrates the potential and limitations of AI, and the importance of human oversight and judgement.

Final note from the (human) author

There are far-reaching implications for the charity sector and its use of AI. Whilst we appreciate that charities are facing many challenges, including the cost of living crisis and fundraising pressures, it is a priority for every trustee to “check what is in the rear view mirror”. There is no denying that closing your eyes and blocking your ears will not stop the hurricane that is AI as there is one thing that is certain: this technology is developing at such a rate that it will impact you and your charity in one way or another, and is most likely already impacting you without you even realising it.

Due to the emerging interest in technology and the integration of AI into the technology most of us use on a daily basis, we can no longer shy away from this digital era. It is perhaps time to try and understand how such technology can be deployed to support a charity’s purpose. AI can be used in your charity in many ways, including for everyday tasks such as writing up meeting notes.

If, within your charitable organisation, you wish to start conversations about AI and how you can use it, you may wish to refer to this checklist which has been produced to assist with this dialogue. This checklist is claimed to have been reviewed and tested by the Charity Commission.

Undoubtedly any decision to use AI must be carefully scrutinised in order to protect the charity and its beneficiaries. However, encouraging an open culture to discuss the development of such technologies will ensure the correct oversight and minimise any potential misuse.

Even if you decide not to embrace such technology, it is important to ensure that there are clear guidelines in your charity so that the charity’s trustees, staff and volunteers are all clear on whether the use of AI is permitted or discouraged in your organisation.