Beth and Allison's new book comes out today! Get your copy on Amazon or ask at your local bookstore.
The use of smart tech by nonprofits exploded during the pandemic. Smart tech is becoming integrated into internal workflows, fundraising, communications, finance operations, and service delivery efforts, freeing up staff to focus on deeper societal changes that need to be made. The hope is that smart tech may also enable us to turn the page on an era of frantic busyness and scarcity mindsets to one in which we have the time to think and plan — and even dream.
I sat down with Beth Kanter and Allison Fine to talk about their new book, and what it means to stay human-centered in an automated world.
Allison Fine is among the nation’s preeminent writers and strategists on the use of technology for social good. She is the author of the award winning Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, and Matterness: Fearless Leadership for a Social World. She speaks to social change makers around the world, regularly keynotes conferences, is a founding board member of Civic Hall, and is a member of the national board of Women of Reform Judaism.
Beth Kanter is an internationally recognized thought leader in digital transformation and well-being in the nonprofit workplace, a trainer & facilitator, and a sought-after keynote speaker. She is the co-author of the award-winning Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Impact without Burnout. Named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company, she has over three decades of experience in designing and delivering training programs for nonprofits and foundations.
Allison and Beth co-authored The Networked Nonprofit in 2010. Their new book, The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human Centered in an Automated World is available right now wherever books are sold.
Here are some of the topics we discussed:
Connect with Beth and Allison:
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Named as a top thought leader by Forbes and BizTech Magazine, Julia Campbell (she/hers) is an author, coach, and speaker on a mission to make the digital world a better place.
Learn more about Julia and how to work with her at her website: www.jcsocialmarketing.com
Hello, and welcome to nonprofit Nation. I'm your host, Julia Campbell. And I'm going to sit down with nonprofit industry experts, fundraisers, marketers, and everyone in between to get real and discuss what it takes to build that movement that you've been dreaming of. I created the nonprofit nation podcast to share practical wisdom and strategies to help you confidently Find Your Voice. Definitively grow your audience and effectively build your movement. If you're a nonprofit newbie, or an experienced professional, who's looking to get more visibility, reach more people and create even more impact, then you're in the right place. Let's get started. Hi, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of nonprofit Nation. I'm your host, Julia Campbell. I am incredibly excited. For today's guests. I'm going to introduce them. Allison fine is among the nation's preeminent writers and strategist on the use of technology for social good. She's the author of the award winning momentum, igniting social change in the connected age, and madness, fearless leadership for social world. She speaks to social change makers around the world regularly keynotes conferences, is a founding board member of civic Hall, and as a member of the National Board of women Reform Judaism, that Cantor is an internationally recognized thought leader in digital transformation, and well being in the nonprofit workplace, a trainer and facilitator and a sought after keynote speaker. She is co author of the award winning happy, healthy, nonprofit impact without burnout, one of my favorite books, named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company. She has over three decades of experience in designing and delivering training programs for nonprofits and foundations. So Alison and Beth co authored one of the most important books that I have read around the nonprofit sector, the network nonprofit in 2010. And I know Beth has heard me talk about this before, it really is a huge reason why I started my consulting business, I started working with nonprofits in the digital space, their new book, The Smart nonprofit, staying human centered in an automated world is available for pre order. When this podcast comes out, it will definitely be out. It was available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your local bookstores, being released by Wiley and I am so thrilled to have you both here to talk about this new book. So welcome. And welcome back. Beth.Allison Fine:
Great to be here. Thank you for having us, Julia.Julia Campbell:
Wonderful. So that's I wanted to ask you, how did this book come about? After everything that you've written about? Why focus on smart soBeth Kanter:
as you know, Julia, Allison and I have collaborated on a lot of projects, two books now. And research reports, you know, articles, and all of these have been at the intersection of nonprofits social change, and emerging technology. And, you know, our first collaboration was shortly after we met, I think we started writing the network nonprofit not too long after we met, after and the way we met, I love telling the story is that Allison had written the book, momentum. And she approached me while I was blogging, this was like 2004, was it to write a review of momentum. And we've been, you know, working together, I think, ever since we've been looking at smart tech for the last couple of years. And we always like to be ahead of the curve. And we think that it's going to have major implications for nonprofits. One thing I do want to say is that, you know, writing a book isn't the easiest thing in the world. I know, you know, this Julia, written two or three or four books yourself, but I don't want a global pandemic. And well, you know, it can be hard. But the joy that are a big gift of life that I have is being able to collaborate with Allison because I always learn a lot, and I always laugh a lot.Allison Fine:
Oh, that's so sweet. Thank you.Julia Campbell:
So Allison, I guess I'll throw to you what exactly is smart tech?Allison Fine:
So smart tech is what we call advanced digital technology, Giulia that makes decisions for and instead of people. So it's not just computers, because computers make us go faster, but they're not necessarily making decisions for us. It's the difference between a regular car and a self driving car, where the driver becomes more of an observer in a self driving car. So what intrigued us about smart tech a few years ago was the really rapid commercialization of a whole host of products that affect every part of organizations. So the technology was rapidly becoming available and inexpensive. And all of a sudden, everyday people in organizations are starting to pull off the shelf, smart tech that screens, resumes, or smart tech that decides who gets housing or food benefits, or what kinds of communications can be personalized for people. And the power is so enormous. We really wanted to help nonprofits get their arms around how to use this technology responsibly, how to use ethically and how to use it. Well,Julia Campbell:
that's fantastic. I think it's incredibly important. And I know that, in your introduction, you wrote about how the pandemic has affected sort of the proliferation, and the explosion of digital technologies and smart technologies and nonprofits. So with this understanding of some of the different tools that we can use, understanding what smart tech is, I guess, that I would ask, Why is this so important? Like, why is this book so vital? And why should nonprofits understand and embrace these tools?Beth Kanter:
Sure. So as Allison just explained, smart tech is really good at automating rote tasks, like filling out intake forms, or answering the same question from people on website like is my contribution tax deductible, and that's a great benefit, you know, the benefit of efficiency, right. But I think the real power of these tools is that it allows us to free up some time and, and maybe even a once in a lifetime generation, to move from the frantic busyness that we see that happens in nonprofits, because there are these manual frustrating, laborious kinds of tasks and not enough people. But once we start to adopt Smart Tech, we become efficient. But then there's this this time. And that time is a gift because it can allow us to reimagine the way we were to get better outcomes. Like for example, you know, the major gift officer using smart tech can free up hours of time of desk research that can be repurposed to focus on donor cultivation, or the HR person, smart tech apps can automate job postings, the vetting candidates, and free up more time to think more imaginatively about how to reach out to a more diverse staff, or even marketing apps that are smart tech can help with marketing personalization at scale, not just sending out the same email blast to 1000s of people, but to really customize the pitch to an individual person, but to be able to do that really efficiently. And we know that ups the response rate, and also saves time. And and that could shift the marketing person's time from kind of, you know, constantly, you know, trying to get new people but really focusing on donor retention, and focusing on engagement. And there's just many, many more examples of this.Julia Campbell:
Alison, do you have anything to add?Allison Fine:
Well, that was such a great answer. How lucky am I to have a partner like Beth, I think that that'd be take the other the flip side of it, Julia, which is what potentially could go wrong, which is also why we wrote the book. Right? We certainly hope that organizations will use smart tech to do rote tasks and free up staff to think and build strong relationships and pivot from the transactional ways that we do communications and fundraising in particular, however, Julius some people are going to be tempted to use smart tech to do more of the same. And that is a dreadful idea. You know, when we began working on this topic, over three years ago, in partnership with the Gates Foundation, we were looking at fundraising. And fundraising has what we call a leaky bucket problem. That is that donors come into the bucket and they leave faster than they come in. And organizations are frantically emailing us and calling us and, you know, pounding us to get donations because the retention rates are at 25% and below, right? It's really dreadful. And the response is just keep doing more crap. Right? They're just sending out the sky is falling emails. You could grab some smart tech tools and send out an exponentially larger number of emails,Julia Campbell:
or text messages, hex or you know justAllison Fine:
pounding on people to get them in and not make any relationship with them. not give them any reason to stay with you for a while. And we really fear a future like that. So that's also in part what was motivating us to write about smart tech.Julia Campbell:
I love that. And I love what you wrote in the Harvard Business Review. It may also enable them to turn the page on an era of frantic busyness and scarcity mindsets to one in which nonprofit organizations have the time to think and plan and even dream. I absolutely love that I think a lot of nonprofits would read that and say, dream, what does that even mean? How can I free up any time to think and plan and dream? And I actually want to get into some examples that you cited in the book. So one of my favorites is the renter invention Chatbot. And you cited that it was developed by the Legal Aid nonprofit in Illinois, to help tenants navigate eviction and other housing issues that they were experiencing due to COVID-19. So I think when nonprofits here smart tech, Allison, you're absolutely right. They think how can we automate our work? How can we spam more people? How can we do more marketing? And how can we just get the word out? But smart tech can actually be used to accomplish the mission? So that's, I wonder if you could talk about some more examples that you found of nonprofits effectively using smart tech like that?Beth Kanter:
Absolutely. And you already talked about one of my favorite examples, the renter, vention, Chatbot. And you know, what's really interesting about how that works, is that to get protection from being evicted, you have to be able to fill out some legal forms, which are based in lawyer terms, or Latin. And you could do it yourself. But you have to like know what form to fill out what terms to search. And what's so cool about the bot is that it translates people's like everyday descriptions of you know, have Hello, I'm getting kicked out of my of my apartment, my landlords being a jerk to Oh, you need to fill out this blah, blah, blah form, and then is able to guide them through filling it out, which allows the nonprofit to scale that service to others who may be facing that problem. So I think it's a beautiful example, another example that we've seen, and these have been pandemic examples, food banks have really stepped up. And I think there are some of the nonprofit programs that have been in the highest demand with so much, you know, disruption on the economy and on particularly on marginalized people. So I think this was in Boston, the Boston Food Bank, did a pilot of using robots to restock the shelves during COVID, when it wasn't safe for volunteers to do it. Another example, this is in Pittsburgh, what happens when the schools get closed down, as you probably know, those who are on the lunch program don't have access to that food. So what they did is they use machine learning, you know, another smart tack to re engineer the bus routes, so they could deliver the food to the kids, which we thought was just absolutely brilliant. And then another example, again, from the food bank, and I think this is also the Boston Food Bank, I think, for many years, they have been thinking about what's our overall organizational digital transformation initiative. So we can really embrace digital technologies, including smart tech, and before the pandemic and really stalled, you know, there wasn't a compelling life or death, reason to do it. And so they were able to initiate a kind of overall transformation that looked at how do they integrate the use of digital tools to be able to serve their clients better and safer, as well as how to reduce that kind of busy work for staff and also make it safe for staff. So they're, it's a win win. And I mean, there's on and on and on, I'm sure Allison has a few favorites that you'd like to share.Allison Fine:
So in our first chapter, Julia, we talked about an organization called talking points. And I just love this group. They're created an app that translates dozens and dozens of languages, to enable teachers to communicate with parents who are new immigrants, and they're growing this carefully and monitoring it, you know, and doing all the right things. What I didn't know about this topic, though, was that the number one top criteria for children's success in school is the connection between parents and teachers. And so I just think of this as such a smart way of using technology well, to create that relationship between parents and teachers, right. And then so many other things are possible because of that.Julia Campbell:
That's wonderful. I absolutely love that example. I think that's incredibly important. I think it's so wonderful to see nonprofits leveraging this technology to really further the mission and not just use it to you know, thinking about it in terms of how can I save time Although that's important, another important point that you bring up. And I know you've an entire chapter in the book is around embedded bias. So you know, as you put it, the code that powers Smart Tech was at some point created by people, and carries forward their opinions, assumptions, and biases, whether implicit or explicit. So Allison, maybe you can talk about some of the ways that you talked about in the book, how can we address this when we're using these tools.Allison Fine:
So this is just a huge issue. And what makes it particularly difficult when talking about smart tech, and what we call embedded bias is that it's invisible. It's very difficult for users and end users and customers to see the bias at work, right is happening in the background, we call this, Beth is fond of calling it like the refrigerator humming along in the background in the kitchen. And the way that bias gets built into smart tech, you know, along its along the entire continuum of development, from, as you mentioned, you know, the coders building bias into the code itself, without necessarily meaning it, you know, it's just based on their own assumptions. So what goes into the code. But another huge issue is that it takes a library of congress sized data sets to train smart tech to find patterns, right. That's why it's good at road tests. It's looking for known patterns. Well, those historic data sets that, you know, come from the social sector or affect the social sector are generally racist, historically. So for instance, so if you were in a housing organization, and you're trying to help people, access mortgages, any data set you're using the history of mortgages, was biased against black and brown people from the start, was created that way. So you've got the code that's biased, you've got the training data sets that's biased. And you have people who are looking to use the technology within organizations who don't necessarily know the right questions to ask about the assumptions about how the tech was trained about how it's used, about how it will be monitored. So all three of those pieces come into play, and make it a really sticky problem, you're in Boston, a wicked problem, looking at how to mitigate the bias, you're not going to be able to pull all of it out, the only thing you're going to be able to do is to ask the developers tell us about your process of developing these tools. We understand a lot of them are going to feel it's proprietary, but we still feel like they need to get pushed. Tell us about the data set used to train it. Tell us how we can test for bias in our systems.Beth Kanter:
That's so important the testing piece of it. And Alison just talked about the kind of ethical use component, but we also talk about responsible use, which is do no harm. Alright. And nonprofits need without scaring people but need to do something called threat modeling, which comes from the cybersecurity discipline, which is basically just kind of thinking about what are the unintended consequences or impacts on people, whether they're clients or staff or the organization. And I'll give you an example. It's one of my favorites, best friends, animal society. We'd love them. Right. They wanted to start using chatbots on their site to help with adoption campaigns. So they were using so they created this chat bot named XO, that was using this technology that was self learning. So it wasn't some that somebody scripted it and told it what to answer, it would learn by interacting with users. Right. And so the first campaign they wanted to use it for was the Black Cat adoption week,Julia Campbell:
right? Oh, right. Everyone wants to adopt black cats are on Halloween.Beth Kanter:
So they run a campaign. So can you imagine all the ways that a self learning type of smart tech with interacting with the public and we know the whole range of the public and not just cat owners that want to you know the words black and maybe pussy or whatever, and it learns and it and it could learn incorrectly, and they spent so much time testing it and trying to avoid any possible harm to the end user, or the organization's reputation that they decided to not move forward with that. And that's good, because they're, you know, there was the famous example of Microsoft that implemented this chat bot on Twitter named Tay, you're probably aware of this one, Julie, where it was implemented with the intention of interacting with young people so I could figure out how to converse with young people. But of course, the trolls got a hold of it and it became a racist, swearing horrible thing and had to be taken down in less than 24 hours. So In one example, recently, there's a whole set, you know, with website accessibility, there's a whole set of software out there that operates on different algorithms to, you know, go through and tell you what part of your site is not accessible and how to fix it. And so we're working with a Alzheimer chatting with somebody who was like looking into one of these programs. So they said, well do your due diligence, you know, Google the word, the name of the software program and the word lawsuit, or in this case, ABL, see what pops up. And indeed, there was a lawsuit by people who were disabled, saying that it wasn't, wasn't really doing the job it was supposed to be doing, that the software was able to just,Julia Campbell:
wow, I think doing your due diligence is hugely important here. I also this actually brings me to my next question about leadership, because you write that, you know, making these decisions about when and how to use Smart Tech is a leadership challenge, not a technical problem. And what I also love about your books, the network nonprofit, and I've only read the first chapter of the smart nonprofit, but I'm really looking forward to reading the entire book. But it's not just the why it's the how, so why to do it, how to convince higher ups and leaders to do it. But then what are some of the first steps? So what do leaders need to consider as they're exploring and kind of hopefully adopting some of the smart tech?Allison Fine:
So when we were first starting to noodle around smart tech a couple of years ago, Julia, we talked to an ED about using smart tech to do a lot of the research in their development department. And you know how sometimes you can almost see a thought bubble above somebody's head. And this person was thinking, Oh, great, I get to save staff money, you could watch him in his head, you know, think about which positions he would eliminate, because Tech was going to a robot was going to come in and take over, you know, donor research. So there are a couple of areas where we really need senior leadership of organizations and boards to lean in and not lean out when it comes to smart tap, right, one of our biggest fears, is as soon as you say smart tech or AI, you know, a CEO is gonna say, oh, that's that's why we have an IT department down there. That's why, you know, we have a, an IT consultant that works with us. The issues that we're talking about with SmarTech are so fundamental to the culture and mission of organizations that it cannot be outsourced. We're talking about issues about pivoting from being transactional to being relational, right? That's the core of organizational culture. We're talking about who can get in to organizations, if you're using it for screening purposes, we're talking about how to increase donor retention, right? We're talking about all these ways that we want organizations to be better in order to do better. And that's why having the C suite really engaged with how can we be really smart about the use of this technology? How can we use it to build more time for us to do the things we love to do like relationship building and storytelling and dreaming? And how can we make sure we don't just put the whole thing on autopilot? And make ourselves even more distant from our communities?Julia Campbell:
would you add anything to that Beth?Beth Kanter:
Sure, I would go to like, I'm kind of bound to some real practical, you know, when you're looking to implement, you're just not going to grab software off the shelf and go, we have a whole chapter that's called Ready, set, go. And so the ready piece is really having those conversations about what's the problem? And what is the real problem we're trying to solve here? You know, it's not like how can we use this chatbot to do X? It's really there. What is it that we're trying to do for that end user, whether that's staff or our clients, and you want to involve the end user in those discussions? So that points to, you know, all those design thinking methodology, I think about like the Trevor Project and the bot that they created. I mean, so one might initially think, oh, okay, let's just use the bot to replace a counselor and deliver counseling. That's what they do. They counsel, kids that are in crisis, but there but that's not a human centered approach. And that's not really solving the right problem. The problem that they had was that the counselors who are volunteers need to be trained, and they couldn't train enough volunteers because there wasn't enough staff. So the question was, could we use the bot as a training simulation bot to help train our counselors and extend the you know, the impact of staff and that's, in fact what they do. But that came through a lot of discussions and figuring out for the end users exactly what the problem was. So that's the ready the set we talked about this already is doing that due diligence, understanding the algorithm, the data sets, and having a, you know, a process for selecting your vendor that isn't like, Oh, you're with that nonprofit down the street use this. So let's use that to what that really is comparing their prices, their ease of use, and and also all the things about how their technology works and talking to their the people that have used them to find out like, how well does this actually work. And then the NGO is testing and iterating. I can't say it enough that we need to test because sometimes we don't know what those unintended consequences are until we do a small pilot to figure that out. And so organizations are really going to be inching their way into using smart tech, effectively. So that's kind of like the the approach that we advocate in the book that nonprofits take should take.Julia Campbell:
That's wonderful. I think that so many nonprofits are in that scarcity mindset, and that busyness mindset that you talked about, where they are putting out fires, they're trying to answer the phone and post to social media and do all the things and call the donors and do the events. And they're not really thinking, what are we trying to achieve? And I I go over that with all of my clients to they say, oh, we need to get on Tik Tok, or we need to get on Facebook, we need to get on LinkedIn. So not coming at it from a platform or a tool first perspective, really being more introspective and saying, What is the goal? What is the problem, like not be a solution looking for a problem? What is the problem here? And how can this best help us solve it? So I think that's I just think that's really incredibly important. I have one more question. And I want to ask both of you, and I'll start with Beth, what do you think of the metaverse? Really? Do we think it has implications for nonprofits? And how does it fit into everything we've talked about today?Beth Kanter:
Wow. That's such a great question. Julie. I'm trying not to be snarky, because I don't know.Julia Campbell:
I'm trying not to be too but I feel like I was a little bit.Beth Kanter:
Okay. So like, 2006, there was this thing called Second Life? I don't know if you'llJulia Campbell:
remember it. I do remember it. And then the Sims, right. AndBeth Kanter:
we had the nonprofit Island. And we were doing events and MacArthur I think launched one of his programs. It was on the social good Island. I don't know if you're, I think Allison, you came through a couple of those. So this is like 2006 2007. And we just thought it was Oh my god. This is like amazing, right? But it's still not going to replace people. And yeah, maybe as because of the pandemic, it may be useful to have that to try to approximate what we do person to person. But I'll tell you one thing we tried, I also worked with the Gates Foundation. And I helped facilitate the Greater Giving summit that we pivoted to virtual. And we experimented with actually having a 3d space. And we built a replica of their conference center. And people could come in with their avatars, and you can move about the space, you could hear people. And we did it, you know, we had a couple of exercises. And then we also use just a simple it was called Social tables, where people could just informally drop in and have conversations. And overwhelmingly people just really felt like the informal use of video conferencing and the serendipity of social tables, which is much more satisfying. I think, actually one thing problem around the pandemic, because that's what Metaverse is probably thinking about is this. The problem for the pandemic is our nine to five working week, right? Because it's outdated. It was 100 years ago that we move from a six day week to five day weeks and invented the weekend. So I think we're overdue anyway. But I think we should think about a four day working week. And Allison sent this great article to me recently about this, that they just piloted this in Iceland. And they just studied someone and it didn't decrease productivity. People were less stressed 86% of the workforce. And Iceland is now you know, working shorter hours. And so like this pie in the sky dreaming, I think it's fine if we could get like maybe nonprofits to think about if you adopt this stuff. And maybe you could switch to a four day workweek, which would be less stressful on your staff and make that room for dreaming. That's my two cents.Julia Campbell:
Allison, what do you think of the metaverse? Are you in it?Allison Fine:
No, it's terrible. The idea that we're going to give even more of ourselves in our data to what company that has shown itself to be completely untrustworthy, about not only our data but our attention. You know, the idea of of having us an ever smaller sort of, you know, immutable filter bubbles, where we don't get to choose who we bump into. And what we can see is dreadful. And we have a chapter in the book on data privacy. And this is an area, the ethics and responsible use, and data privacy are areas where the nonprofit sector could choose to take the lead, instead of coming up behind, right, we adopted all of the data practices of the commercial sector over the last 15 years, just because right now, because it was better, but because it was easier just became the default setting. So for instance, when somebody opts out of our endless email, solicitation databases, want to throw out those emails, we keep them, right, we're still looking for another use for them. We ought to have a What's the European phrase? Right? What the GDPR says, right? To be erased, basically, right? These are areas where the nonprofit sector ought to raise the bar higher for our expectations of how we will treat people how we will treat their data, and how we will use these tools. Well. So that's my response.Julia Campbell:
I completely agree. And what I love about the ideas in this book, is that we need to stop being so reactive, we need to be more proactive, our strategy in leveraging these kinds of tools, and in our work, and then our mission, I think it's fantastic. So how can people find you that Where are you on the interwebs? And how can people find you?Beth Kanter:
Yeah, you can find me at www dot Beth kanter.org. And there you'll find my blog. Just, what, 15 or 16 years I've forgotten, or I can't do the math. And you'll find all my links to social. And that's where you'll find me and a link to the book, of course, to pre order.Julia Campbell:
And Alison, where would you like people to link up with you?Allison Fine:
So Twitter, you know, I'm at a fine. I think that's the place I'm most often to be found. My website is Allison find calm. People can reach out to us via email, we'd really like to have a conversation about these issues around smart tech. And we want to know what people's experiences are. Thank you so much, Julie. This is reallyJulia Campbell:
Oh, thank you so much. The book again, it's called the Smart nonprofit, staying human centered in an automated world. And it is soon to be released when this podcast comes out. It will be released. I encourage you to find in your local bookstore if you can't Amazon, Barnes and Noble Beth's website Alison's website, and stay in touch and let us know. Let us know what happens and let us know how we're using smart tech and using these tools. So I really appreciate both of you taking the time to be here today.Beth Kanter:
Thank you.Allison Fine:
Oh, this is great fun. Thank you for having us.Julia Campbell:
Well, hey there, I wanted to say thank you for tuning into my show, and for listening all the way to the end. If you really enjoyed today's conversation, make sure to subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast app, and you'll get new episodes downloaded as soon as they come out. I would love if you left me a rating or review because this tells other people that my podcast is worth listening to. And then me and my guests can reach even more earbuds and create even more impact. So that's pretty much it. I'll be back soon with a brand new episode. But until then, you can find me on Instagram at Julia Campbell seven, seven. Keep changing the world your nonprofit unicorn