The Future of Giving Through Smart Tech

The Future of Giving Through Smart Tech

March 1, 2022
32 minutes

Beth Kanter & Allison Fine · Authors, The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered in an Automated World | Beth and Allison, both well-known nonprofit consultants, trainers, and authors, have answers to your questions about technology—specifically adoption, costs, ramifications, and the catalysts happening right now to launch us into an automated new world.


Confession time! Here at Funraise, we're all huge nerds, so when we added Beth Kanter and Allison Fine to the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast schedule, our CEO and Co-founder (and biggest nerd) Justin Wheeler, was. stoked. And on the agenda? Smart tech.

But what is smart tech, exactly? "Smart tech" refers to AI and other advanced digital technologies that make decisions for people. It's not a tech evolution, but a revolutionary shift in power away from people and towards tech.

Beth and Allison, both well-known nonprofit consultants, trainers, and authors, have written a book called The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered in an Automated World and for all you nonprofits wondering about the future, they've got answers to your questions about technology—specifically adoption, costs, ramifications, and the catalysts happening right now to launch us into an automated new world.

So listen in and get a sneak preview of The Smart Nonprofit, complete with examples, guidance for nonprofit leaders, and a whole lot of nerding out!


Hello, I'm Justin Wheeler, and welcome to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

Confession time! I know I hide it well, but I'm a huge nerd. When it comes to technology and nonprofits, it's hard to out-nerd me. So I was stoked to add Beth Kanter and Allison Fine to the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast schedule. On the agenda? Smart tech.

But what is smart tech, exactly? "Smart tech" refers to AI and other advanced digital technologies that make decisions for people. It's not a tech evolution, but a revolutionary shift in power away from people and towards tech.

Beth and Allison, both well-known nonprofit consultants, trainers, and authors, have written a book called The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered in an Automated World and for all you nonprofits wondering about the future, they've got answers to your questions about technology—specifically adoption, costs, ramifications, and the catalysts happening right now to launch us into an automated new world.

So listen in and get a sneak preview of The Smart Nonprofit, complete with examples, guidance for nonprofit leaders, and a whole lot of nerding out!

Let's dive in!

Justin Wheeler Hey listeners welcome back to Nonstop Nonprofit. Excited for today's episode with Beth and Allison. Beth, Allison, how are you both doing today?

Beth Kanter Doing great.

Allison Fine Terrific. Thank you.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. Thank you both so much for spending time with us. I'm excited to dive into today's topic, which is all about the future of giving through smart tech. Before we explain that and dive a bit more into detail about that, I'd love it if both of you could just introduce yourselves to our listeners and share with us how you got involved in the nonprofit community.

Beth Kanter Sure. So this is Beth and I have been working in the nonprofit sector my entire career, for the last couple of decades. And most of the time I have spent in the nonprofit tech space. Both Allison and I had front-row seats of the creation of this field. And I've worked primarily as a trainer and a facilitator, and I've written a couple of books. My first book was with Allison, The Network Nonprofit, which was all about how social networks could transform nonprofits and fundraising. And I have also written a book on workplace wellbeing, so I do work around those two topics and as a trainer and facilitator.

Allison Fine And this is Allison. And as Beth said, we have both been deeply involved in the field of tech for good for a very long time. I had a career previous to that and program evaluation. So very hard to out nerd me. The through-line has for me in why I do this work is always about pushing power outwards from organizations to individuals and creating communities for social change. And we think this next chapter in smart tech continues that pathway.

Justin Wheeler Amazing, and I think I'm going to give you a run for your money today about out-nerding you. So we'll see, we'll see here at the end.

Allison Fine Not a chance!

Justin Wheeler I love it. I love it. Awesome. Well, thank you both for those introductions. Excited to jump in. And Beth, maybe if you could start, I read a recent article in the Harvard Business Review how Smart Tech is transforming nonprofits and specifically the use of smart tech by social service agencies and other nonprofits is exploding during the pandemic. The question I have here is how have you seen that evolve now that we're in a different stage, let's call it, of the pandemic.

Beth Kanter A great question, Justin. I want to step back for a moment and just say looking backwards, over the last two years, I think we've witnessed maybe a decade of digital transformation and, you know, many nonprofits and many that we've both worked with, you know, have this digital transformation projects in their organization for many years that are always on the back burner. But when the pandemic hit, they had no choice, right? It was about saving lives and delivering their services, so they had to move on things. And so we saw a lot of, you know, a lot of movement, a lot of speed in adopting technologies that we hadn't really seen in the past. A lot of the resistance melted away. What we'd like to see in this next phase is more strategic thought around it and more reflection. I think everyone was kind of in this emergency mode. We've got to do something and just maybe and embraced technology tools without the critical thought and reflection that's really required, especially with smart tools. I know, Allison, you want to pick it up from there.

Allison Fine Well, what I could add to it, Justin, is our interest in this next chapter in tech is this universe of technology that we call smart tech. So it's A.I. and it's robotics and it's machine learning, and it's a whole set of technology that makes decisions for people. And instead of people. And that is such a huge revolutionary shift in work. So, yes, you know, orgs have been picking up on digital picking up on, you know, working remotely. In addition, you know, adopting smart tech, as Beth said, very quickly. But the essence of this shift of now automating large parts of organizations that have never been automated before presents both great upsides and great dangers for organizations.

Justin Wheeler The, I mean, I think the upsides are very clear, Allison, and obviously could be discussed for some time. What do we say some of the downsides are or some of the concerns that organizations have or individuals have in this, this evolution of tech.

Allison Fine I'll start with two in particular, and then I'm sure Beth can add to that. One is that the C-suite will see smart tech as an opportunity to cut staff, and we want them to seize an opportunity to relieve staff of rote tasks like answering the same questions all day or doing paperwork, you know, ad nauseum and then allowing staff. To do what people ought to do, which is build relationships, tell stories, plan dream. So we want to see the bots do what bots are supposed to do. People do what they're supposed to do and not have the C-suite just start chopping, you know, staff numbers across the board. The second piece just in that's really important and it's just huge is the opportunity in the development of smart tech commercial tools in particular, where bias is being baked right into the tool, either through the code, through the assumptions that programmers are making in the code or through grabbing historical data sets like in housing or any kind of social services that have racial and gender discrimination built right into it. You've now built bias into the tools. It's very hard to see, you know, smart tech is running along in the background. It's not front and center, and all of a sudden you're screening out, say, you know, black people from housing services without even knowing it. And that kind of embedded bias in smart tech is an opportunity for an even wider gap in how services are distributed to people.

Justin Wheeler Wow. Yeah, that's interesting. The sort of, obviously, danger here, right, as we think about creating a more equitable future. And how this can actually impact have a negative impact on an organization or an entire sector. So how do we prevent it or how do we know if it's happening in the first place?

Beth Kanter I'll talk about this one.

Justin Wheeler OK.

Beth Kanter So I think in the book, we've devoted a whole chapter to this, and it's really we don't think it's really about grabbing software off the shelf to begin with and that organizations really need to take a step back and really think about readiness when we talk about readiness. The beginning is to think about, is this are we, you know, what are the pain points in our organization and are we solving the right problem? And then from there kind of like, what is the experience we're creating for that end-user rather than the end-user as a donor or whether it's, you know, staff members and really spending, leading into that and spending time on that before we rush to the tools. And then the second piece is really understanding the tools themselves, especially those that are automated and trained on certain data sets, as Allison was outlining the potential for bias. It's really understanding what biases are inherent in those data sets. And then also, what are the assumptions that were made around the algorithms that are making these decisions for us? You know, is it research-based? Who created these? What what was their thinking around this and really pushing back on that, on that with vendors and doing their due diligence? And then I think the third piece is like this pledge around doing no harm. You want to pull together an ethical advisory committee so that, you know, so that you aren't doing harm to the end-users and you're catching it before you implement the technology. Now, sometimes that isn't always possible, and you need to begin to pilot some of these to actually see where you know, where there may be potential for harm or actual harm and be able to mitigate that before it goes to scale.

Justin Wheeler Got it. Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. Going back to the article here, you know, one of the fascinating points you both make as it relates to smart tech is this like, basically, it's like a force multiplier. And specifically, you guys reference this dividend of time. What are some of the long-term expectations or ramifications of a series of automation that are giving back multiple dividends of time? And I think one of the just to kind of expand on this a little bit, you mentioned, Allison, you know that one of the negatives of something like this could be at the C-suite would look like eliminating staff. And it made me think about one of the examples in the article where you talked about, I think it was like a food bank that use robots to pack meals. And you might think, well, now we can replace the employees in that situation. Or to your point, how can we actually give more capacity to these individuals to do things that robots can't do? I'm so, so sorry that was somewhat long-winded, but would love just to kind of dig in there. Any long-term expectations specifically that you both are excited about as we adopt more of this into our workflows.

Allison Fine Well, I think that our greatest hope, Justin, is that organizations will pivot from being, you know, focused on being transactional and efficient to being effective and relational. And but that requires a deep, introspective look at how you have been doing work so far. So in the realm of fundraising, for instance, you know, Beth and I have sat on boards for many years. We've never heard anyone discuss the abysmal retention rate of donors, right? After year one, it's a 25% of donors retained. After year five, you're down to 5%. And so what happens within fundraising departments is this incredible pressure to keep filling up the bucket? We call this the leaky bucket problem. Donors are falling out faster than they're coming in. So that's in part why you have this avalanche of fundraising emails asking you to give, give, give, give, give. And donors feel like ATM machines. What we would like to see organizations do is use smart tech to do some of the tasks that are taking up enormous amounts of time. Like going through your own database and looking for prospects, smart tech can do that. Going out on the web and looking for prospects. Doing the first draft of emails and having your staff now become really chief relationship officers getting to know donors deeply asking them why the cause is important to them. Asking them what it would take for them to reach out to their friends, to be ambassadors for the cause. That's a really different model that requires people to really take the lead on not just identifying donors but keeping them. Which is the pathway to a much more sustainable model.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. Prior to starting Funraise, I spent 12 years in the nonprofit sector. Started a couple of nonprofit organizations, and the last one, which was a big inspiration for what we've built here at Funraise, was we had a large donor base up to about 100,000 donors that would give annually to the organization. And one of our challenges was identifying, specifically for like our major donor officers, the opportunity, because so much of our fundraising actually happened online. And as you're aware, most people aren't giving out their capacity when they give online, it's usually a test donation or, you know, someone referred them and so forth. So one of the things we've done at Funraise that's really enabled our customers, I think I'd put this under the smart tech sort of definition that you guys have, is we've automated, you know, different like demographic information about the donor that's publicly available wealth information, things of that nature. And it's helping organizations prioritize the right donors or make the ask more relevant right because you have more information about it. And so it sounds like that could be that could be in line, more from a long-term perspective, I think. But it is interesting. I mean, again, to go back to the potential negative ramifications of sort of the adoption of smart tech. I think the thing I think about often here is how will nonprofits look at this and optimize their team versus looking at it just as cost savings altogether?

Beth Kanter Yeah, that's so important. Just in what you're talking about. Two things actually sort of picking up, going back to the benefits, Allison laid out like a really great case around the sort of shift to being relational and building the relationships. That so often missing because we're so immersed in busywork. And the second piece, which I think you were alluding to, was the opportunity for us to really customize at scale the communication that we have with potential donors. So we could imagine maybe a 100% response rate, right? And really only targeting and getting the right message to the right people at the right time in order to retain them. And this whole thing around? Well, one of the things that Allison and I really want to fight back against is this whole efficiency model. Like A.I. is about automation it's about efficiency. Well, yes, but it's not to be so efficient to keep you working and doing more and doing more, but to maybe reinvest that time into, you know, having a less toxic and stressful workplace, right? Can imagine maybe a four-day workweek. You know, we've been so bad in the nonprofit sector about treating, not treating our people well and the pandemic really shined a light on that. And so we really need to stop that. And I think smart tech is one of the pieces, not alone, there's other things that need to change, but it's sort of one of the things that we can use to begin to turn that around.

Justin Wheeler That makes total sense and totally agree. When I think about efficiency, because I mean, this is definitely, when I was in the nonprofit space, and it's still a very relevant conversation today, it's a lot of times when we look at efficiency and what a donor is asking is, you know, your overhead and operating expense like efficiencies and things of that nature. The thing I will say, what I think is important about an efficient organization is it leads to organizations that typically can provide more impact at a lower cost. And that's not always I don't think that's always the most important sort of metric to take a look at and a cost per impact things of that nature. But I do think there is something to be said. When a well, optimized and efficient organization can generate just amazing impact at a reasonable sort of cost and don't think that's necessary has to be a negative thing. But in terms of the workload life balance, I think efficiency is what you were alluding to back. I think that's incredibly important, right? I mean, when I think back of my 12 years in nonprofit space, I remember most of them being 60, 70, 80 plus hour weeks and obviously, that's not healthy. And so I like...

Beth Kanter Studies show that after working a workweek of 55 hours a week, you are no more efficient if you worked 80 hours a week. So why not take that extra time and recharge your battery? And with the use of smart tech, you are saving all this time, so it's not like there's a loss of productivity or people aren't getting things done.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. So we all know we've been in the nonprofit space, you know, nonprofits typically aren't like the fastest adopters or the first to kind of pioneer a new technology. I think it's just the nature of the nonprofit. We see as you noted, Beth, we saw, you know, some big leaps forward, you know, here at Funraise, we just we saw organizations take digital fundraising a lot more serious during the pandemic. And as we as we're in this new season of the pandemic, it's it has stuck around. And so I'd be curious to hear from your perspective. What are some of the like lowest hanging fruits or the easiest automations that nonprofits could adopt where they could see a pretty immediate sort of results as it relates back to their efficiency as an organization?

Allison Fine Well, I'll start. Certainly, the fastest-growing use of smart tech for organizations right now are chatbots, Justin, right?. That they are, you know, every organization is able to modify it for their own use, and it can just save organizations an enormous amount of time answering the same questions over and over again. You know, for folks, if you haven't seen a chatbot, if you have been on a commercial site and it has, you know, a prompt that says we're here 24-7 to chat with you, that's likely a chatbot. And it's programmed to answer, you know, rote questions over and again and send you to the organization if it can answer a question. And we know just in that organizations, particularly frontline workers, you know, admin workers work in these cultures of constant interruption, and it's very hard to actually get to the work. So anything like a chatbot that can be used to engage with the public, treat people well, answer those questions and allow staff to get on with more meaningful work would be an enormous benefit.

Beth Kanter And there's a great fundraising example. I love this one. It's the Children's Hospital Network, Children's Miracle Hospital Network, and they do an online fundraiser and they have members both in Canada and the U.S. and they have really successfully used these fundraising chat, et cetera, there to answer basic questions to people at like 2:00 am when they're ready to make that donation. Like, maybe a donor from Canada is on the site and saying what, how much does this, does my donation translate or convert to in Canadian dollars? The bot can answer that question and then point them over to a landing page with donation levels in Canadian dollars. And that might happen at 2:00 am when staff should be sleeping, right? The donor's ready to make that gift and the bot, which is sort of like an information concierge, can answer that question and facilitate that donation.

Justin Wheeler Do you see this posing any risk to the relational side of fundraising that you know, using a bot for something like this could potentially turn a donor off? Or the organization may just find it not personalized enough. I mean, have you guys seen I've seen anything like that happen?

Beth Kanter Well, see, if they don't, we talked about readiness, and there's a lot of sort of out-of-the-box kind of bots you can use, and they may not be really well-designed. So I mean, you can get an example, a flavor of this if you go to any large organization's voice mail and it's poorly designed and you get trapped and it's really frustrating. And some of those sort of out-of-the-box authoring tools, if you just like click a button and really don't test it with, you know, with the end-user audience, and really customize it, so it's the right voice, so they're giving the right information. Understand what is the experience like for the donor, then it could backfire on you. And that's and that's why we make such a big deal about talking about readiness in the book.

Allison Fine Justin, we define a smart nonprofit as an organization that is using smart tech by staying human-centered, and they are knowledgeable and they're prepared. So, you know, on the front end, it does take some thinking, some real strategic thinking about, is this the right activity to automate? What is the impact, both internally and externally of automating this function? And then after you've instituted it, how has this changed work and how is it changing the engagement that we're having with people on the outside? So it's a constant, you know, effort of learning and measuring and improving over time. And we need organizations to understand just how much changes when technology is doing work that only people could do just a few years ago.

Justin Wheeler Hmm. That's actually a great segue into a book that you both recently coauthored, The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered In An Automated World. It sounds like just kind of from what you just shared there, there is going to be some, some great guidance in the book, how to stay human in this sort of error. So if you wouldn't mind, Beth, could you unpack a little bit of what a reader could expect from the book? Tell us a little bit about what you guys wrote, why you wrote it and how you hope it helps the nonprofit community.

Beth Kanter Sure. Well, first of all, I think like the first half of the book, we're trying to reach leaders, right? Because this is not necessarily a technical problem. It's a leadership problem. And it requires, you know, leaders to really understand the potential for bias. To understand how to remain human-centered. As we talked about earlier, it's not about like, you know, oh, the robots are going to take over and I can build work cheaper than my staff, if that's even possible. So the first part of the book is really, you know, a look at what some of these leadership issues are, the history of the field, first, and then talking about what is it that we mean by being human-centered? What is ethical and responsible use? And then what is the readiness process? The second half of the book gets into all the examples and gives all the color. So we take a deep dive into how is this technology being deployed for program delivery, for marketing, for advocacy, for fundraising and the back office. And we kind of end with kind of a glimpse for the future. So it's a mix of speaking a primer for leaders in the organization. We don't expect leaders to know how to code, but to know enough about it to be able to lead and to really, you know, take up this opportunity that there is. And also to set organizations on the right path for effective adoption of these tools.

Justin Wheeler On the readiness side of it, like how would an organization, you know a lot of nonprofit leaders listen to this podcast, and so they might be asking, you know, is my nonprofit ready? Am I ready? Can you maybe talk to us about that? How how can someone identify as being ready? Or what are some signals that maybe would indicate they're not ready for this process to kind of unfold at the organization?

Allison Fine Well, we do have a whole chapter on it, Justin. Ready, set, go. And the idea is, you know, we walk groups through how to begin to put your, we want, you know, a lot of stakeholders involved in this decision making. We want to spend some, you know, encourage them to spend some time identifying a very specific strategic use of smart tech. We call this hot sauce, not ketchup. We want to be very sparing in how it's used, but it has to address an important pain point for the organization and that takes some discussion. And then there's a vetting process for the vendors to make sure that they are, values aligned with an organization, they are transparent, they are at least willing to tell an organization what assumptions they made in developing their product, how it was tested, what data sets they use for testing, and then a process for piloting and then scaling up the use of smart tech.

Justin Wheeler Got it! Thank you. Thank you for that, Allison.

Allison Fine And Justin, Beth has a terrific story of a rescue pet organization that did all of those steps and then had a surprise ending.

Justin Wheeler Well, it sounds like we need to hear about that surprising ending.

Beth Kanter Allison, I thought you were going to suggest The Trevor Project story I guess I'll share...

Allison Fine Oh, sure. That is great!

Beth Kanter Yeah, I'll sure two. OK, so the first one is The Trevor Project, and I'm sure you're familiar with the organization, Justin, they provide counseling and services to LGBTQ youth, and they do have a crisis line. So they were exploring, how can we use this technology. And so, you know, so if you, on the surface, you could say, Oh, you know, we could replace the counselors with bots right now. Now that's not exactly being human-centered because the, you know, a bot can't possibly have the empathy and the nuance that that counselors who are trained to deliver this very sensitive support to youth in crisis could do no matter how good the taxpayers. So but one of the problems that they did have in the organization was that their counselors are volunteers and their volunteers are trained by staff, and they had a huge demand for their services and they needed to. Held a number of councilors, so the idea was, can we use the bot, and it was a very sophisticated bot using natural language programming and it was self-learning, could we use this bot, feed it information from these kinds of counseling conversations that happen and use it to just to train other councilors and to do simulations. And of course, taking into precaution all of the data because anonymizing it and also because it was self-learning and because there is some potential for this type of technology to actually be weaponized, but there would only be used in very controlled circumstances. So so that's one example, kind of with a happy ending. Another one is from an animal welfare organization, Best Friends, and they wanted to deploy a chatbot that would help in a marketing campaign for Black Cats. And if you can imagine, you know where that could go awry with the words Black and Cat and just unleashed there for anybody to converse with this bot. And in fact, Microsoft had a bad experience with that and a bot named Tay that was on Twitter. And the intent of Tay was to learn how to talk to young people. But of course, the trolls got a hold of it, and it learned how to be a misogynist racist in less than 24 hours and had to be taken down. But back to the Best Friends, so they tried to mitigate any potential problem that might come up in interacting with this Black Cat adoption bot and it was so much work and it really wasn't possible so they scrapped the project, rather than do harm.

Justin Wheeler Wow.

Allison Fine Yeah, I that was very, very smart on their part to, you know, not think of this as you know, all these sunk costs, but rather what was the smartest thing to do for the organization and the cause?

Justin Wheeler Yeah, that's a great example. And as I'm just kind of thinking two of my own sort of experience with bots across into different industries and I think a good, and it sounds exactly like what Best Friends did here, is a good pulse check on whether or not this is human-centered is what's the sort of like end-user experience going to be like or feel like? I was recently disputing a charge on my credit card. I was able to do it all through SMS and on the other end was a bot basically asking the questions, me providing the information and within a matter of like 10 minutes, the dispute was taken care of. It was a great experience for me, right? Because it was fast. It was it was friendly. I was able to accomplish what I wanted to do. And so I think that could be a way to determine whether or not something works for your organization is sort of how will the end-user be impacted, whether it's negative or positive, and go from there. Which sounds like is a part of what that organization did with the Black Cat story.

Beth Kanter Yes, absolutely.

Justin Wheeler The last question here is, so where can our listeners get a copy? Where can they buy this book? We'll definitely make sure to link it in the show notes, but please let us know the best place for our listeners to purchase this book

Beth Kanter They can get it at any online bookstore. They can get it their local independent bookstore, but also Barnes and Noble, Amazon, just search for The Smart Nonprofit or come and visit Allison or myself's websites. I'm at and Allison is at...

Allison Fine And we think also, this makes a great gift, Justin, you know, maybe somebody, maybe you're a donor or volunteer to an organization. This would be a really nice gift to give to somebody you know who works there, maybe somebody in the C-suite. We really hope people feel that this is something that they want to share as well.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, absolutely. I was actually just thinking about that for our customers as we think about our onboarding experience for Funraise customers, we service all nonprofits. This could be a great gift for onboarding to help organizations really think about smart tech and where it makes sense for them to get involved. Beth and Allison, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. I know you both are extremely busy, but we're excited to share this wisdom with our listeners and we know that it will have a big impact. So thank you both for being on the show today.

Allison Fine Our pleasure, Justin, thank you.

Beth Kanter Thank you. Justin.

Justin Wheeler Have a good one.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

This podcast is brought to you by your friends at Funraise. Nonprofit fundraising software, built by nonprofit people. If you’d like to continue the conversation, find me on LinkedIn or text me at 562.242.8160. And don't forget to get your next episode the second it hits the internets. Go to and sign up for email notifications today.

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