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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

Post your favourite quote on social media to share with us!

“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

Beth Kanter | Instagram

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