How to engage nonprofit leaders with AI: Creating organizational alignment across leaders

This post has been republished via RSS; it originally appeared at: Microsoft Tech Community - Latest Blogs - .

When I reflect on the many conversations I’ve had over the years about digital, there is a theme which unites them all. So many of these discussions were ostensibly about digital transformation, but they were really about decision making and accountability, and whether there was a vision for change that others could get behind. 


These are all key elements of the discussions I’m having with nonprofits about AI. Leadership is the Ingredient X of digital transformation. The need for strong leadership is even more important in the fast-paced world of artificial intelligence.


The subject of how nonprofit leaders are responding to AI is very much on my mind at the moment, as we are gathering data about this across the UK in the survey to build this year’s Charity Digital Skills Report. We want to hear how charities and their leaders are using AI, what they’ve learned about adopting these tools and what they see as the opportunities and challenges ahead. Yes, you’ve guessed it- so much of this comes down to the leadership that nonprofits are getting, or not getting, about AI.


Digital skills at board level and what this means for your nonprofit


One of the things we will be looking at in our report is whether there is a correlation between digital skills at board level and AI adoption. In the UK, digital skills around the board table is a significant and systemic issue. 
In last year’s Charity Digital Skills Report we heard that: 

  • For the fifth year running, 56% of charities still need their CEO and board to provide a clear vision of what digital could help them achieve.
  • In addition, 57% of boards have skills that are either low or have room for improvement.
  • 42% say there is a need for more data informed decision making at board level. 


Why are digital skills on UK charity boards so low? In truth this picture hasn’t really changed since 2017 when we founded the report. In the UK, charity board members are unpaid volunteers. Much has been written about the lack of diversity on UK charity boards, with recent research revealing that charities lag behind FTSE 100 companies in terms of board diversity. This means that there is a lack of diverse perspectives on these boards, without which it is harder to form a clear vision for the future. 


Age may also play a role here. According to Getting on Board’s research, the average age of a nonprofit trustee in the UK is 60-62. A mere  0.5% of trustees are 18-24, despite making up 12% of the population. So, there is a lack of digital natives on trustee boards.


What this means, for AI and other areas of digital transformation, is that it is significantly harder for trustees to offer the right strategy, scrutiny and support without the skills and diverse perspectives required to futureproof nonprofits. And this is likely to have an impact on speed, scaling and risk management when adopting AI. 


I’d love to hear from those reading this outside the UK how these stats compare to your experience, and what might be influencing the trends you are seeing. 


How to bring leaders on the AI journey 


If you’re in a situation where your board, or your wider leadership team, are wondering what to do about AI, or AI is way down on their list of priorities, this may be due to skills. It may also be the result of a lack of headspace and time to think strategically, given the pressure that nonprofits are under at the moment. 


The good news is that there are still many ways you can engage nonprofit leaders with AI. Here are three tried and tested ways I have seen work with leaders: 

  1. Demystify the technology. The way that AI is talked about in the media can feel intimidating and inaccessible. News stories often focus on apocalyptic predictions or technical coverage of new products. We need to make AI tangible and real for busy nonprofit leaders. I do this by showing them how AI is all around them and how they are using it every day (even without realising it), for example when unlocking their phone with facial recognition or using predictive text to draft an email.  
  2. Show them how organizations similar to theirs are using AI. Leaders are, by their nature, competitive people. So, they need to see what the competition is up to. If you work for a cancer charity, show them how other cancer charities and other health organizations are using AI to deliver better services, make research breakthroughs or fundraise.  
  3. Signpost them to resources.  This can take the form of blogs, such as this excellent piece on how nonprofits can take their first steps with AI by Kim Brooks, Community Engagement Program Manager in Microsoft’s Philanthropies network. You could even compile a shared list of AI resources for your board and leadership team, focusing on bite sized content which will fit easily into their busy schedule such as blogs, podcasts and short courses. 



Next steps for leaders


Where can leaders go from here? You can get your leadership team on the same page with AI by helping them create a shared understanding of the potential for AI, review progress to date and develop their confidence to make the right decisions about AI. We have a free checklist to help nonprofit leaders do this. It’s split into topics that gradually become more challenging, so you can take it one topic at a time if that's easier. 


AI is a huge opportunity for nonprofits and their leaders. It can help your organization reach more people and scale up its impact if you adopt it in line with your values and get your leaders on board with your approach. 

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