Most of us probably don’t associate artificial intelligence or virtual reality with nonprofit work, but what if we harnessed the power of emergent technology to make a greater impact?
Recently, I was inspired by two talks given by Kevin Johnson, the CEO successor to Howard Schultz at Starbucks. He spoke about the company’s technology future and it left with three ideas that can be applied directly to philanthropy.
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I watched nonprofits partially catch up to their private sector counterparts in tech capabilities during the 2000s. But the gap has widened again in the last three-to-five years because of advancing technologies.
Idea One: Building Tech Infrastructure for Nonprofits
We live in a world of artificial intelligence (AI), the cloud, social media, and machine learning. What that technology makes possible, both positive and negative, is incredible, far ahead of what was possible even five years ago.
For Starbucks, 30 percent of their orders are now mobile and 10 percent are pre-pay and those data points will only increase. Those enhancements in payment tech have accelerated their ability to serve their customers better.
From working in the sector at Social Venture Partners, I watched nonprofits partially catch up to their private sector counterparts in tech capabilities during the 2000s. But the gap has widened again in the last three-to-five years because of advancing technologies.
We need to empower nonprofits with the same technology so they can serve their clients more effectively, in real time, and in keeping with how the world works today.
It will take philanthropic investment for that to happen. The kind of philanthropy that recognizes the long-term leverage in investing in the tech infrastructure, not just programs, of social purpose organizations.
Idea Two: Using Virtual Reality (VR) Technology to Aid Clients
During his talk, Johnson demonstrated how Starbucks uses virtual reality to help design new stores and customize the experience for their customers. VR enables them to see the store experience, a key part of Starbucks’ culture and success, from the customer’s point of view.
What if nonprofits were able to use the same kind of VR technology, applied to working with their clients in communities? There are exploratory approaches today to counseling where young people use VR to help them deal with mental health issues.
There is a need for better training for social workers who deal with myriad of different scenarios with at-risk youth. VR could enable nonprofits to visualize and address all of those challenges. Many nonprofits don’t have the financial strength to make that kind of investment, that’s where philanthropy can come in.
Idea Three: Finding Patterns Using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin. They enable a company to customize and personalize the product experience more specifically to each customer. For Starbucks, that means remembering what kind of coffee a person likes, what other products they often buy and the additional items they usually add to their morning coffee.
For a social service organization, AI and machine learning could enable them to better process and recognize patterns in different clients. Or, it might enable counselors to better track and customize their therapies, over time, for individual clients.
The point here isn’t that nonprofits would use all these forms of technology exactly the way Starbucks does. Rather the message is how powerful tech is changing the way the private sector does business. We have to make sure nonprofits have the same level and sophistication of tools available to better serve their clients and communities.
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