Nonprofits Talk A.I., Personalization, and Privacy at Technology Conference
When more than 1,500 nonprofit technology professionals gathered here last week for the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network’s annual meeting, the fact that that it was the organization’s first predominantly in-person meeting since the pandemic began was not lost on attendees, many of whom had not met face-to-face since the organization’s 2019 conference.
“To share a room like this together is such a blessing and such an honor after four long years,” Tristan Penn, senior manager of equity and accountability at NTEN, said to applause — and some tears from NTEN CEO Amy Sample Ward, who acknowledged the pandemic’s “heartbreaking” impact on attendees — during the conference’s opening remarks.
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When more than 1,500 nonprofit technology professionals gathered here last week for NTEN’s annual meeting, the fact that that it was the organization’s first predominantly in-person meeting since the pandemic began was not lost on attendees, many of whom had not met face-to-face since the organization’s 2019 conference.
“To share a room like this together is such a blessing and such an honor after four long years,” Tristan Penn, senior manager of equity and accountability at NTEN, said to applause — and some tears from NTEN CEO Amy Sample Ward, who acknowledged the pandemic’s “heartbreaking” impact on attendees.
“I don’t want folks to feel like they had to leave that in their hotel room to come here,” said Sample Ward, of the pandemic’s impact.
For many attendees, the Nonprofit Technology Conference was an opportunity to overcome their “pandemic-induced social anxiety,” while learning about the latest nonprofit tech tools and connecting with other nonprofit technology professionals — including, in some cases, colleagues from their own organizations whom they had never previously met in person,
It also offered attendees a space to reflect on the lessons they’d learned from a pandemic that profoundly accelerated a global shift toward remote work, online education, and virtual services.
That lent the conference a sense of both gravitas and excitement, as many attendees emphasized the value of in-person connections, even in an increasingly virtual world.
“The NTC is really happening!” Sample Ward exclaimed during the conference’s opening remarks.
A.I. on the Mind
Few events attracted as much attention as a smattering of sessions that explored the potentially transformative application of artificial intelligence, and other simpler forms of automation, to the nonprofit world.
“Talk about something that has steamrolled ahead since this topic was submitted months ago,” said Debbie Snyder, group vice president of sales and marketing at the nonprofit tech firm StratusLIVE, to a packed room of attendees at her session on the differences between artificial intelligence and automation.
A late afternoon demonstration by Microsoft on A.I. for nonprofits drew nearly double the number of attendees as there were seats available in an exhibit space tucked between pickleball and table-tennis tournaments happening at the same time
“A.I. has been coming for decades, and suddenly A.I. is here overnight,” Alex Kasavin, senior product manager at Microsoft, told a rapt audience, before explaining how new and emerging A.I. tools could help nonprofits compose emails, manage relationships with donors, and synthesize meetings.
At a session on chatbots, Maria Dyshel, co-founder and CEO of Tangible AI, which consults with nonprofits on A.I.-powered projects, emphasized the differences between cutting-edge generative A.I., like ChatGPT, which will probably take time to reach the nonprofit world, and other, simpler forms of machine learning. Unlike other forms of machine learning, which are designed to recognize patterns and make predictions, generative A.I. is capable of creating its original content, like text, audio, or visuals, with human-like language.
She also noted that nonprofits may be in a special position to grapple with the complexities of using A.I. in a responsible and human-first way. Critics of A..I have voiced concerns over a broad lack of oversight into the technology’s potential to deeply expand government and corporate surveillance, while amplifying existing racial and gender biases behind a veneer of objectivity.
“Our strength as a sector is our awareness about A.I. ethics,” said Dyshel in response to audience questions about the dangers and potential biases of A.I.
“We need to find a balance between realizing the risks and moving forward,” she said.
If some attendees gravitated toward new technologies like A.I. or augmented reality, others sought out sessions that aimed to help nonprofits more effectively consolidate and make use of the dizzying array of data and tools already in their arsenal.
“Many teams feel they’ve got great tools in place, but they don’t know how to make them work together,” said Danny Pfeiffer, senior sales engineer at the website operations platform Pantheon during a crowded session in which he revealed the results of a technology-related survey of 300 nonprofits by Pantheon and Blue State, an advertising firm that specializes in online fundraising.
Nearly 80 percent of nonprofits surveyed said that taking better advantage of their existing tools and systems was a top technology priority for 2023 and 2024, and roughly 65 percent said that doing a better job of integrating their existing data was a top priority. In comparison, fewer than 60 percent of nonprofits prioritized adding new technologies, like A.I. and automation.
“We’re frequently hearing from our clients that their systems aren’t talking to each other,” said Meara Hinman, director of MarTech at Blue State, a marketing technology firm.
An interactive session by the Nature Conservancy overflowed with people hoping to learn how the global nonprofit used years of trial-and-error to land on an effective and accessible organizationwide knowledge-management tool.
“It’s easy to document processes, but it’s much more difficult to document what we as individuals know how to do,” said Tara Schnaible, principal technology analyst at the Nature Conservancy, who helped create a Microsoft SharePoint-based employees hub that details the organization’s processes, acronyms, and other internal information.
Personalization Through Data
Attendees flocked to sessions on tools for using data to personalize a range of nonprofit activities, such as fundraising appeals and advocacy campaigns — a strategy that often helps supporters feel more deeply connected to the causes they care about.
The National Audubon Society walked attendees through the evolution of its Bird Migration Explorer, an elegant and technologically complex interactive map of bird migration pathways. The map is built to serve both scientists and the “bird curious” public who are able to learn about the long journeys of the migratory birds in their own backyard.
“We’re making it easy to connect with the birds that you know and that you see out of your window,” said John Mahoney, vice president of digital products at the National Audubon Society.
Likewise, during a session featuring officials from the Human Rights Campaign, attendees learned how to personalize text messages to make taking action easy and to more effectively engage supporters in local legislative fights. That’s made it easier to prompt people to call their senators, attend a protest, or register to vote, and it’s also allowed the group to send personalized follow-up fundraising requests after supporters take action.
“We’re able to push through personalized links,” said James Servino, director of digital fundraising and mobilization at the Human Rights Campaign, who noted that the group’s nearly 800,000 mobile subscribers are just “one tap away from doing the action we want them to do.”
The Good and Bad of Big Tech
Looming large over the conference were questions of privacy and responsible practices for nonprofits seeking to use new technologies, while also confronting the ethical debates surrounding tools like A.I., data collection, and powerful technology companies.
Notably absent from the conference was a branded social-media hashtag, once a technology-conference staple but now increasingly scarce as nonprofits like NTEN have abandoned Twitter following its acquisition by Elon Musk and a spike in hate speech in October 2022.
Each of the conference’s three keynote speakers took time to grapple with the biases and privacy risks embedded in the current technology landscape, which remains dominated by several large companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft, which was one of the conference’s sponsors.
Safiya Umoja Noble, professor of gender studies and African American studies at UCLA, opened the conference by cautioning attendees that by harvesting user data, many large technology companies are “not just selling us products and services but also selling us as a product.”
“I could sit all day and talk about the things that worry me about tech,” said Noble, who warned that the tech industry ought to be thought of as a “public good” that requires proper regulation and liability in the case of harmful practices.
Like Noble, the NTC’s final keynote speaker, Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, a digital-rights advocacy group, opened her speech with the technology practices, like digital surveillance, that keep her up at night, even as her group has made a name for itself through its use of technology and online campaigns in its fight for digital rights.
“We have so much of our digital infrastructure built on for-profit infrastructure that don’t share our values,” said Greer, who encouraged the development of new frameworks and initiatives that integrate greater transparency, encryption, and accountability for users.
“We need to be building new technology,” said Greer, who is also a professional musician, before closing the conference with an original song about surveillance. “We need to encourage people to build and provide support and funding for them to do so.”