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Using smart tech to reimagine nonprofit work

Digital chat bot conversation shown on a mobile phone in a hand

The Great Resignation was a long time in the making. The warning signs included the ongoing  toxic combination of low pay and overwhelming workloads endemic in nonprofit work that leads to exhaustion, mistakes, and ultimately burnout. The pandemic exacerbated these rumblings not only because these stressors increased but because people experienced a different kind of work life, with more flexibility to work from home and less hovering by management.

As a result, nonprofit employees have quit their jobs at record levels since the start of the pandemic. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits found that 50% of about 300 nonprofits surveyed said they’ve struggled to hire new employees, while 40% are dealing with significant staff turnover. As nonprofits frantically recruit new hires, the people and communities these organizations serve suffer even more.

Digital tech has added to the endless cycles of busyness by being always on and creating constant fire alarms. As a result, the average office worker checks their email more than 74 times a day. The cost to workers’ wellbeing is enormous. Staffers end their days feeling more overwhelmed, realizing that they haven’t even started on mission-critical tasks.  But technology doesn’t have to be part of the problem; advanced digital technology like “smart tech” can be part of the solution.  

In our new book, The Smart Nonprofit, we use the umbrella term “smart tech” to refer to technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its subsets and cousins, such as machine learning, and natural language processes. These technologies automate internal systems and processes, meaning they make decisions for (and instead of) people. Turning over this much decision-making power to tech tools has never happened before.  

We are at the inflection point when an enormous increase in computing power meets a dramatic decrease in the cost of the technology. As a result, smart tech is becoming available and affordable to everyday people and organizations. We have been here before. Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everyone, wrote in 2009 , “Digital tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” Smart tech is about to become boring. 

Smart tech is currently best at doing rote tasks. Common uses include website based chatbots that provide 24/7 answers to oft-asked questions, hiring software that screens resumes for certain criteria, and robots doing manual labor like restocking food bank shelves. But this is just the beginning. The use of smart tech within organizations is estimated to skyrocket over the next several years. 

When used well, we believe smart tech will be an antidote to the overwhelming amount of busy work nonprofit employees report. Automating rote tasks has the potential to create more free time for staff.  We call this benefit the “dividend of time.” It is an opportunity for organizations to pivot to the activities staff joined the organization to do in the first place, like providing client services and getting to know donors more deeply. 

Here are three ways smart tech can be used to shift organizational work cultures:

  1. Invest in online chatbots. Chatbots are the fastest growing use of smart tech by organizations and many platforms exist to build them without knowing how to write computer code. These online conversational bots are best at answering the same questions over and again. “Is my donation tax-deductible?” “Are you open on Monday nights?” “Where are you located?” Using chatbots relieves staff from constant interruptions from these types of questions. 
  2. Improve workflow. Workflow bottlenecks are enormous sources of inefficiency and frustration for staff. Many nonprofits don’t have the resources to hire administrative assistants to schedule meetings and track project deadlines. Smart tech is beginning to fill these gaps. For instance, the international humanitarian organization, OxFam, created “OxBot,” to help employees decode the endless acronyms used in their work, saving employees an enormous amount of time. “Intelligent virtual assistantscan schedule meetings without the back and forth that even a tool like Doodle involves by regularly cruising through files, correspondence, and calendars  
  3. Focus on physical health. Smart tech can support physical safety and health by monitoring environmental risk factors, tracking worker health indicators, altering job profiles and ways of working that improve physical health, and nudging workers to healthy habits and behaviors. For example, smart tech can encourage work-life boundaries, and encourage employees to move, take screen breaks, and stretch. It’s good for workers and organizations to keep everyone healthy.

In 2019, the World Health Organization defined workplace burnout not as an employee problem, but as an organizational culture and leadership problem. Without thoughtful, strategic use, smart tech could increase burden by adding more work and supersizing existing workloads. Smart tech can help organizations overcome the Great Resignation by undoing toxic workplace cultures—but only if organizational leaders lean into its use rather than leave it to the IT department. 

Using smart tech well will help workplace cultures focus on what we call healthy productivity: more meaningful work in less time. Maybe four-day work weeks are possible. Certainly, more vacation time is warranted. And planned sabbaticals for staff at every level should become the norm as a benefit for long-serving staff. Most importantly, using smart tech well can help staff end their days with a greater sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing their efforts are meaningful and help recruit and retain staff in the face of the Great Resignation.


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  • Rick Smyre says:

    March 4, 2022 1:11 pm

    One of the most important implications of a shift in history from the Industrial Age to what John Cobb calls the Ecological Civilization is at the core of the thinking of this article. This shift in historical context requires not only making the needs of today more efficient (applying technology), but requires a true transformation in thinking to meet the needs of a new type of society and world that is still in the process of emerging. I applaud Allison and Beth for focusing on the way technology can be used to deal with what I call the "mechanics" of organizational and every day life...leaving more time to rethink the ongoing transformation of society and how non-profits can help citizens make short term services more efficient, but also help rethink the role of non-profits in a transforming world. One of the little considered roles is to help local citizens prepare for a constantly changing society in which traditional approaches are less and less appropriate. As one example, non-profits are perfectly positioned in local communities to help build capacities for transformational thinking and action in varied groups of citizens...especially those who are struggling the most.

  • Diane Calabria says:

    February 25, 2022 2:47 pm

    We've been hearing this for decades, that technology will make our lives better. It sounds really nice and almost plausible, but somehow it hasn't yet happened. What seems to keep happening instead is that technology just makes our lives more complicated.

  • Jim Fruchterman says:

    February 15, 2022 1:12 pm

    I agree with most of your points about using smart tech for making the work of nonprofits better for staff, volunteers and the people we all serve. However, I disagree with the framing of tech making "decisions for (and instead of) people." I think even smart tech shouldn't be making decisions for and instead of people: that's literally inhumane. AI/machine learning algorithms are fundamentally dumb as bricks: the machines don't know that they are making the wrong decisions. I think the goal of these tech tools is to make smart people even smarter and more effective. I think most of your answers look more like this and less like the robot overlords calling the shots. None of your three core examples involve real decision making: they are indeed automating rote tasks and making the work of real people more interesting, healthier and more effective.

  • Steven Kravitz says:

    February 14, 2022 2:18 pm

    I love the use of Smart Tech to self-monitor. I think the key to having this kind of system is in understanding what gets communicated back to the employer.