the smart nonprofit with Beth Kanter and Allison Fine

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It's no secret that nonprofit organizations are a bit behind the times when it comes to technology. There are many reasons why nonprofits are slower to adopt new technologies, from a lack of funding and resources to the fact that many of them work on tight budgets, which can make tech seem like an unnecessary expense. Add to that the fact that as humans, we don’t generally like change - adopting new technology at small organizations can feel insurmountable.

But as more and more people are turning to technology for everyday solutions and ways to make life easier, it may be time for our sector to embrace those same solutions so we can save time and money while also gaining access to valuable data about our missions and programs. But how do we know if we’re using the right technology and tools for our organizations?

In today's episode, I’m talking with Beth Kanter and Allison Fine, authors of the new book “The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered in An Automated World” to share with us how we can integrate smart tech into nonprofit work to work more effectively and improve the impact of our work on the sector.

Myths that Beth and Allison want us to walk away from:

  • Smart technology is neutral and infallible. There are two things that can make smart tech biased. One is the assumptions and biases of the computer programmer who made the tool, and the second is the datasets on which the AI is being built, which it uses to learn and create its patterns.

  • Cost is the main barrier for nonprofits to using smart technology. The number one barrier for nonprofits is not the resources and cost of the tools but the knowledge about what the tech does and how to use it to free up time for staff to work effectively.

Beth and Allison’s tips on integrating smart tech into nonprofit work

  • Readiness: The first step is really pinpointing the pain point from the end user's point of view. We have to go through radical prioritization of what the pain point is and make it tiny especially if you're a smaller organization.

  • Setting: Know what are the tools or the technical partners that we should look for. The vendors that you select with smart tech have to have values that are aligned with your organization.

  • Mitigation of bias problems: Be aware of the bias of the tools and try to mitigate the problems that it creates. One way you mitigate is to ask the developers what assumptions were built into it, how it was tested and then you can test it yourself.

  • Go: This is where we start to implement. We implement it in really small pilots and set it up, learn as we go, and make it better.

Favourite Quotes from Today’s Episode

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“It's really focusing on this reset, focusing on making the shift to smart tech so you can improve the culture of your organization. And both of them take this intentional work. And our dream is that organizations will embrace this because what we see if they do it again, this time to think time, to breathe a time to really improve the impact of their work on the sector. ” - Beth K.

“You don't start to solve problems with a tool. You start to solve problems in conversation with a large group of stakeholders.” Allison F.

Resources from this Episode

The Smart Nonprofit

The Good Partnership

Beth Kanter

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Beth Kanter | Twitter

Beth Kanter | LinkedIn

Beth Kanter | Facebook

Allison Fine


Cindy W.: If the pandemic has taught us anything as a sector, it's that we can adapt to technology a lot better than we give ourselves credit for. The fact that zoom is now a verb and that organizations have figured out ways to work remotely and to connect with each other. I think as a testament to our ability to adapt and change and embrace new things that we never thought possible. And this is only the beginning.

I'm your host, Cindy Wagman, and you're listening to The Small Nonprofit podcast where we bring you practical down to earth advice on how to get more done for your small nonprofit. You are going to change the world and we're here to help.

So today's podcast is really all about the present and future of nonprofit technology and how you can adapt it more in your organization to save you time and money and embrace a new way of doing things. It's such a pleasure to welcome my two guests Beth Kantor has spent her whole career in the nonprofit sector forover 20 years, and is a trainer consultant, and writer. You might have heard of her. She's written four books on non-profit technology, well-being, and digital transformation. Beth, welcome to the podcast.

Beth K.: Great to be here. Thank you, Cindy, for hosting this.

Cindy W.: My pleasure and Allison Fine, who's also written four books about the intersection of technology and social change has done a lot of work in the social justice space, particularly around reproductive justice. Allison, thanks for joining us.

Allison F.: My pleasure, Cindy. Thank you.

Cindy W.: It's such a pleasure to meet, we've chatted it before this, but really to have these conversations with both of you I'm certainly familiar with your work and I know your commitment to the sector and moving things forward. I'd love to maybe start with you, Beth. Tell us about your new book that you wrote together it's not the first book you wrote together, but it tells about the new one and how it came about.

Beth K.: So I've really, have been, I think I won the lottery because I have been blessed and grateful to have a fantastic thought partner in Allison for the last 15 years or so. It's probably more, but I'm not going to say how many more, but collaboration, isn't always easy. Whether you're doing organizationally or whether you're doing it with another person, it's always been a dream with Allison. And so our work has been at the intersection of social change and emerging technology.

And 12 years ago we wrote the Network Nonprofit because that was just at the inflection point of social media when it was becoming democratized. And so as we're looking around and seeing what's next, getting hit with the pandemic in the middle of that kind of inquiry, we looked at smart tech which has more advanced digital technology that makes decisions for people instead of buying them and realize that kind of in this next phase sort of returning to something new.

I don't want to say returning to normal, that the big challenge is going to be how do we free up time? How do we like rethink productivity and effectiveness in a way that feels good and brings joy and gives us results even though, many of us in the sector is constrained by staffing and resources. So that's why we decided to spend a lot of time focusing and writing this book for the field because we think it, we think this is the, even though there may be challenges in adoption that Allison will speak about in a moment or two. We think the benefits are going to be really significant for nonprofits, especially small ones.

Cindy W.: Amazing. So before we talk about adaption, I would love for you to say, just tell us a little bit about those benefits. You know what I think so often really most people have random assumptions about, things like AI, we think Amazon or Netflix. There's, or we think our donor database, but there's so many other tools out there and applications. And so maybe a couple of examples of tools or applications and how they do benefit our organizations. Allison, do you want to take that one?

Allison F.: Sure. I'm happy to Cindy, but I can't go without acknowledging and affirming funding to the lovely compliments from Beth it's not easy to have a 15 year partnership with somebody. And we're really proud to say that our work is so much better when we work together.

Cindy, here's the thing we're looking at a generation of technology. This is this smart tech that we wrote about. That is really fundamentally different from the last chapter in digital tech. We want to make this really clear because that chapter of digital tech created a frantic busy-ness in work. right where we've created cultural norms that think checking your email on average 74 times a day is okay,

This is in part why Beth wrote the healthy, happy nonprofit, right? That all the boundaries that we knew about work were exploded and everything was about going faster, not necessarily better.

In this generation of technology, AI and machine learning and robotics is about automating rote tasks, right? So things that happen every single day in exactly the same way. So the same questions that an organization gets multiple times a day. When are you open? Is my donation tax deductible can be answered by a chatbot, filling out forms automatically like an expense reports can save hours and hours a week for staff.

And there are a whole bunch of examples that we can talk about in a minute, but the reason why that's important, Cindy, is it fundamentally really revolutionizes the way that we work, that instead of talking about doing more, what we're talking about. Is, this is creating a synergy between the technology and between people we call it, cobotting where the tech does what it does best, sucks up this busy work time, freeing up people to do what people do best, build relationships, solve problems, tell stories, think And breathe. And that's the change that we're talking about with smart tech.

Cindy W.: That is so hopeful and optimistic and exciting. Are there any, I don't want to,

There's never every, any blanket, like recommendations or things, but what are one or two things that

, that you've seen that you're really excited about types Of applications that have, again, there's no such thing as universal, but broad appeal to the sector?

Beth K.: Oh, absolutely. And I, and you're right on by saying there's nothing that's universal. And I think it breaks down to maybe the size of the organization and its resources, because certainly it's different. If it's a large organization with over 50 staff or an organization that has five or six staff members.

So I'm going to try so I know your audience is more on that the lower end, the small non-profit podcast, of course.

So I want to talk about that. We're not talking about like huge, gigantic transformational digital transformational change. That could be a heavy and exhausting list so I don't think anybody has the bandwidth to do that. No matter their budget size, but so we, what we recommend is inching your way into it. And I think this is perfect for small organizations to really zero in on what Allison has coined the phrase the exquisite pain point. I just loved that. And make a tiny, if you will, and then find, the solution and make sure that it's, that you're talking to the end users, whether they're donors or other staff, to make sure that it's a good experience for them and then start testing it.

So let me give you some examples to make this concrete one right now that we're using I'm using a tool called Otter AI, and it's a smart tech assistant and basically what it's doing using the smart tech algorithm that is taking the recording of our voices on video calls and creating a text transcript.

But it's doing a little bit more than that. It can actually, it can go to meetings on my behalf and take notes. Last week we were on a call, I was supposed to be on call and was under the weather. I did, and I didn't realize that it had this feature. It might Otter AI showed up at this meeting and I actually read the transcript where they were joking, that I'll be able to get caught up really quickly. So I was able to extract what I needed. The transcript also gives you a summary of takeaways. You have to edit those, and also if you're trying to set a norm of being really inclusive in your meetings and not having one person take too much airtime, it gives you back metrics of the percentage of time that different people spoke.

So that's just a quick way and let's say meetings are a time suck. We were, you were, we were all just complaining about being on, back-to-back zoom calls, right? Maybe this is a way that can help reduce the time at meetings or at least eliminate some of the time and taking notes and maybe having us just, come out with top-line notes, which is so much less onerous, right?

Cindy W.: That's fantastic. I also am a terrible note-taker. And so every time I'm asked to take notes for meeting, I literally am embarrassed to share them because I forget.

Beth K.: And not taking notes, this is totally not related to the tech, but meetings, making meetings great. I've been teaching this for and this is a big part of happy, healthy. Meetings are awful because they're not well-designed and there's no the follow-up and all of that. So this can really help us with having more effective meetings. And it's not a heavy lift in terms of the cost or the learning curve.

Cindy W.: Yeah, and I love the point that it may, again, it's a benefit to, to our ability to capture the information and make meetings better, but also think like everyone has different ways of absorbing information. So sometimes you want to go back and look at what was written or you might need to visualize information in a different way than watching someone speak. That's such a great example. I love that. Thank you.

So I, we could probably spend hours talking about all the different kinds of tools there are out there. But Alison, I'd love to hear from you because probably the biggest barrier I'm going to see what I think people will say the biggest barrier is and then I want the, what I think that actual biggest barrier. So I think most people, let's say cost is their biggest barrier. But realistically I think it's just our ability to manage change in organization. So what are your thoughts on those two? How do they show up and how do we move forward with finding and implementing technology, smart technology?

Allison F.: So Cindy we're at an inflection point, we've been, at before with tech, it feels very similar to Beth and I of what happened with social media a decade ago, and this inflection point is when the cost of the technology comes way down and the commercial availability goes way up it is what commonly called the heel of the hockey stick of adaption, and it's been developed and then whoosh, the application goes straight up and we're looking at annual growth rates of smart tech products at over 30%, so they're going to be a third more AI-powered products every year for the next decade.

Cindy W.: Wow.

Allison F.: Now it's going to be different. You're not going to call AI off the shelf, what you're going to do is you're going to pull a fundraising software package off the shelf or a chatbot or an internal workflow product, and it has, smart tech built into it, but it is right now affordable for every size organization. The opportunity right now, Cindy is coming out of the pandemic and we certainly hope and believe we're coming out of the pandemic is to do what we're doing, to do a reset of work. Because if we come back and spring right back to that frantic busy-ness right, we'll be back in the same hole. And frantic busy-ness isn't effective, I know it makes people feel important to be on 10,000 calls a day, but we'll give you an instance of how incredibly ineffective being busy in that way is, and we call it the leaky bucket problem in fundraising, so the retention rate of donors from year one to year two is less than 25%. In other words, you lose 75% of donors from year one to year two, they're flying out of the fundraising bucket. So what do you do in response? You frantically try to fill it up again, right? Which is why our inboxes are stuffed with all of those shitty emails, right?

We have never been at a board meeting. We've been on lots and lots of boards where there's been discussion of retention rates. The discussion is about revenue,

Cindy W.: New donors, new donors

Allison F.: No matter how much it costs in most cases, just looking at that revenue number, it is such a despiriting ineffectual way of working. Our dream is that non-profits will know enough about the tech, which is barrier number one, it's not cost, it is knowledge know enough about what the tech does and how to use it well, and then what we call a human centered way that they will free up their staff to reverse that trend on retention rates. We want to see that rate go up. That rate is only going to go up cindy, when fundraisers have the time to pick up the phone and call donors, go out to lunch with donors, the tech, isn't going to do that, to build those relationships and increase those retention rates.

And we saw that a rainforest action network used a smart tech product and increased their monthly donors by eight times.

Cindy W.: Wow.

Allison F.: By being able to customize stories for those donors things that these donors have responded to in the past. And it's just a fundamentally different way of working, but going back to this spray and pray approach to marketing and communications and fundraising, that is our worst nightmare.

Cindy W.: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Beth, let's go back to the number one piece of knowledge. So obviously you wrote a book because people need to start to know that this is out there and available. That's one way we can generate knowledge on the types of smart tech we can use in our organizations. Where else can we go? I've not seen any sessions at conferences. I have not been to tech conferences, but aside from that, are the nonprofit conferences, the fundraising conferences we're not leading in this. So where do we go to start to build our knowledge and lift that horizon of what is possible?

Beth K.: Okay we've been presenting it quite a few of them, we will be at AFP actually in may. It'll be our first in-person presentation. We have been doing it virtually. So that's going to be really exciting I haven't seen Allison in person in a couple of years now. I know. So that'll be, that's the highlight on this

Allison F.: It's literally five years since we've been in person.

Beth K.: And I have a few weeks less to drop my pandemic pounds, so in the book and also in our advising practice, we have a framework called Ready, set, go. After we've opened up people's eyes inspired them, talked about, both the benefits and kind of the challenges, the readiness piece.

It's different from the last cycle of text from social media, we were encouraging people, jump in and fail fast, get started. But here at this, we have to push the pause button and we really have to be reflective knowledgeable and inch our way. So it's a three-part framework and it starts with readiness.

And I mentioned this before the first step is really pinpointing the pain point from the end user's point of view. You're not going to fix everything all at once. That's just too much, we have to go through radical prioritization of what the pain point is and maybe make it tiny especially if you're a smaller organization.

And this happens through conversations with staff and if you're looking at, fundraising or program delivery, you want to have conversations with those end users, whether they're clients or donors, to figure out well, is this pain point really a pain point for them. And you might find through this kind of discovery process.

That you may your thinking may evolve, and we include a lot of different techniques that smaller organizations can implement without having to hire expensive consultants or take a lot of time. So once that's done the next step is then thinking about, okay, so what are the tools or the technical partners that we should look at. And here, this is not different than any other technology you need to do due diligence. And the most important point is that the vendors that you select with smart tech have to have values that are aligned with your organization. And if not, and we didn't really talk about this, and I think Allison can jump in after me is this is what we can run into problems because we have to make sure that we are human-centered. And that we are responsible in the use and above now all that we're ethical.

And then finally the set. So we have ready set. I just described set. Then we have the go. Finally, this is where we start to implement and we implement in really small, pilots and we set it up, so we're learning as we go and making it better.

And I know this seems counterintuitive to that, always on get a million things done off your to-do list, but this is the kind of shift that we need to make to go slowly and reflectively. And I'm going to pass it over to Allison to really talk about, to dig in on that ethical challenge, because it's so important and we really need to talk about it.

Cindy W.: Yes, please.

Allison F.: Cindy, people see robots or AI, and they think that they are both neutral and infallible. In the opening story, in our book, we talk about a social worker assessment tool that was automated made, computerized where people couldn't see the backend thinking that was deeply racist and excluding black and brown people from homeless services.

And yet people just kept going along with it for years and years, because it was automated. It looked shiny and new and unbiased. There are two ways that racial and gender biases and other biases get baked into smart tech. The first one is that at some point some computer programmer had to write the code. And if they're working in social service areas they're building their own assumptions about what looks like okay neighborhood, and that's been to have a racial bias to it, or what a, an acceptable answer is or information in a resume, and that might have a gender bias to it.

And then the second part is because these tech tools are looking for patterns, right? That's what they're doing. That's how they learn. It takes enormous datasets to practice those patterns. We call it a library of congress-sized data. Anywhere that you're getting those size datasets are historic. And again, if you're working with social service air area, if you have a stork data is also likely to be biased, right?

So you've got this double whammy of bias being built into tools and you can't stop it from happening if you're not the coder. All you can do is be super aware and try to mitigate the problems that it creates. One way you mitigate is you're asking the developers, what assumptions were built into this? How did you test it, provide us, and then you're testing it yourself.

This again is why understanding what the technology is without having to be a coder Beth and I aren't coders and digging in, not leaning back and saying, it's the IT guy's problem the impact of using bias tools without having really banged on it and made sure it was values aligned is profound. So that's why we say, Cindy human-centered integrating smart tech into your work, it's not a technical problem that part's easy, it's a leadership challenge.

Cindy W.: That is so important to understand. And I have heard that before when I used to work at the business school. Yeah, I think we I don't think people really realize that these are all written by humans and use those data sets that are fundamentally biased in the first place. So important.

We don't have a whole lot of time, but I do want to wrap up talking a little bit about just adoption and how, but I don't know if this is across sectors, but I definitely feel like, especially in small nonprofits where there's so much to do, going through this kind of change, there's some resistance, right? There's, it's hard for people to learn new things or, make time to do that. Even though the end goal, obviously we've said is to save time and spend your time doing where you have spent time doing the things where you add the most value. How do we, I truly worked with organizations to adopt tech databases, and then no one uses them. So how do we build this into our organizational culture, where we have the commitment to go through those steps? They're ready, set, go. And to see technology as a way to enable us to do the best things. I don't know. Alison, if you want to take that one. Well, I'll start at, but this is really Beth's sweet spot. And then wrap up for us. We answer.

Allison F.: So Cindy, this is why we have human-centered in the tagline for our book, when plans and tools are implemented in organizations and not used, it's because it was done at people, not with them, so if we're using the technology to actually solve an explicit pain point. And there has been an inclusive process of many stakeholders to figure out what that was and how tech can help to mitigate it, then it will be used. If IT team plugged in something and said, today, this is the stuff you're using.

Then it's not going to be used.

You don't start to solve problems with a tool. You start to solve problems in conversation with a large group of stakeholders. Always right. Human-centered design is not a new idea. The fact is that when busy-ness takes over organizations and they're frantic and they're grasping at things to make life easier, you're going to make a huge number of mistakes.

So this is why we just keep pounding on the idea of you need to slow down. You need to step carefully with smart tech and you will see that you are gaining time and what could be a better result than what we call the dividend of time.

Cindy W.: Beautiful. All right, Beth.

Beth K.: Oh, that's going to be a hard thing to build on but I'll say a few things. There's a quote, it's a cartoonist Hugh I'm blanking on his last name, but anyway, 20 years ago he did this cartoon and it, and the tagline was tech changes, but humans don't. And I said that really sums up my career in the nonprofit sector. No matter what the technology has been, there's always been, issue around culture and people, and that's really a piece of it. So there's the technology and tools, there's the workflow, but that there's the culture and the people. And when we talk about the people leadership is really important. Leadership's behavior and views are contagious throughout the organization.

And often I think with small organizations that has to do with maybe board members and what their views are, this and, the importance of recruiting the right board members that are forward thinking. Many times I hear I do a lot of work in workplace wellbeing, and often I'll get people who aren't on the leadership team in the workshop, and they'll say, oh, our are with such a toxic culture. How do I change it. And the point is that it's not going to change without leadership oh, buying into this and what's going to happen is that, if a culture isn't going to change people your organizational work culture is your organization's brand, word gets out of there, out about that.

And people are not looking just for a paycheck. And they're not, and the are looking to do good, cause we're all committed around that, but they're also looking for great places to work. My son right now is about to graduate from college and he's looking at jobs and some in the nonprofit sector and I asked him, what is the most important thing you're looking for?

And he said, I want to work for a place that has a great work culture. I don't want to have to be like, stressed out all the time. I've had enough stress during the pandemic. And I want a place that, is a great place to work and that I feel I can have an impact and that I'm not freezing all the time.

And I said, and he is just one person, but I think he represents a lot of people coming into the workplace. And if we really want to attract really great talent and retain them, we have to make these changes, right now think about, I don't know about you, if you've had to hire anybody and I'm sure lots of your audience has been in that position.

If you lose somebody up first, you have to recruit the right person, you have to go through all those. Smart tech can help with that, but then you actually hire them. And then it's a few months before they get up to speed and you've lost all that productivity. And if that keeps on happening, then you lose organizational knowledge and the key to stopping that leaky bucket.

It's another leaky bucket. Alison talked about another one. It's really focusing on this reset, focusing on really making the shift to smart tech so you can improve the culture of your organization. And both of that takes this intentional work. And our dream is that organizations will embrace this because what we see if they do is again, this time to think time, to breathe a time to really improve the impact of their work on the sector.

Cindy W.: And I want to bring that right back home to the first example you talked about with the note taking, because one of the benefits we have as a sector is that people do work in our sector because they want to have an impact that culture piece I'm not saying all cultures and nonprofit cultures are good, they're certainly not.

But we have that as a benefit that we can lean into. Most people though, didn't raise their hand and say, when I grow up, I want to be a note taker. So we have the opportunity to really, the notes need to be taken. But when we can adopt the technology to do the things that, as you said, like that tool, that smart tech can do so that the people like going back to the very first thing we said, they can do what lights them up. They can spend time where they add the most value and they get the most value, and that's creating amazing organizations. So I'm, I love this conversation. I'm so grateful for the work both of you are doing this is so fantastic. Any final thoughts?

Allison F.: I'll say this, first of all, thank you for having us, Cindy. This is really a pleasure. Your audience are our people. So we're delighted to have this conversation. I think that the pandemic has created opportunities. You led us with that in, in the use of technology, but it's also created an opportunity to rethink work, right? We've adapted to virtual work. We've adopted more flexibility for people. And our greatest hope in the smart nonprofit, we certainly help people who soul-fulfilling will buy it and that they read it. But our greatest hope is that work can be different. Work can be more soul-fulfilling, but it takes intention to do that. And so we hope that the book is a first step for people to understand particularly organizational leadership, they can make different organizations and it begins by making better choices about how we use our time.

Cindy W.: Amazing Beth anything to add?

Beth K.: Well, I a hundred percent to what everything that Alison just said. And I, we have this I guess we're going to put a choice, but we have a fork in the road. We can continue doing the busy-ness thing and the leaky bucket thing, and watch our organizations get smaller and more frantic and people leave the field or we can change and we can go to this brighter, better future, that is certainly more optimistic. And I think then ultimately we can have a better impact in the world.

Cindy W.:I know which one I'm choosing. Thank you. Both is so much Beth one last thing, where can I listeners grab a copy of the book?

Beth K.: We'll send you the link we like to support independent bookstores and and it's great because it can come up you can just plug in the smart nonprofit. I think it's Allison correct me if I'm wrong and you can buy it from your local bookstore. And that's a nice way to get back to your community.

Cindy W.: Amazing. Thank you both. And of course, to our listeners, thank you. For everything you do to make the world better for all of us, and hopefully you now have some ideas on how smart tech can help you do that work even better. We'll see you next week. Well, folks, that's it for today's episode of the small nonprofit. I'm your host, Cindy Wagman, and this show is brought to you by The Good Partnership. As a reminder, if you want more resources around raising more money for your small nonprofit, visit and download our free fundraising strategy guide. I'll see you next week.

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