What grantmakers and grantseekers actually think about AI

This post has been republished via RSS; it originally appeared at: New blog articles in Microsoft Community Hub.

If 2023 was the year of AI curiosity, 2024 is the year of AI intentionality.


Foundations and nonprofits—ever wary of being left behind by the for-profit sector—are making it a priority to fold AI into their work. As part of that effort, leaders and practitioners across philanthropy are stepping up to advocate for what they need to see for AI in social impact.


As part of our market research at Submittable, we’re talking to grantmakers and grantseekers to learn more about how they’re approaching AI this year. They’re sharing insights about what they hope to achieve, where they want to be cautious, and how they see AI helping to make the sector more equitable.


Overall, grantmakers and grantseekers seem to have a similar vision. They want to automate the repetitive tasks that eat up their time while preserving and strengthening the authentic values and relationships that underpin their work.


Maintaining a north star is more important than ever


Throughout our conversations with both grantmakers and grantseekers, they were clear that they didn’t want AI to distract from their missions. What they want is for AI to help them move faster and more efficiently toward their goals.


Almost all of our discussions were tinged with urgency. People in the nonprofit sector seem to sense a fork in the road when it comes to AI. As organizations adopt AI, they can do so in a way that runs roughshod over relationships. Or they can be intentional about carrying forward the lessons learned over the past few years about trust and partnerships.


The resounding consensus was that no one wants AI adoption to recreate the power imbalances that initiatives like trust-based philanthropy have helped to break down. AI needs to increase trust between funders and grantees and support more relationship building.


AI can increase capacity


During our interviews, people explained that a lot of their time and energy goes toward repetitive tasks such as labeling applications, parsing data, reformatting PDFs, and answering similar questions over and over again.


“People in the nonprofit space are so pressed for time...the biggest benefit of AI into organizations that really can't afford the staffing levels of a corporate [organization] is in those basic, menial tasks,” one interviewee explained. Overall, both grantmakers and grantseekers want AI to help increase their team’s capacity.


Benefit: Author Beth Kanter describes the bandwidth gained from AI as a “dividend of time.” Interviewees explained that when AI takes some of those tedious tasks off their plate, their team can use that dividend of time on deeper, more transformative work such as strategic planning, building relationships, and professional development.


Concern: A number of people voiced a worry that by automating tasks, grantmakers might miss the nuance and complexity that people bring to a funding application. “I would hope that [AI] wouldn't be relied on as a sole tool for evaluating things,” one person said.


My takeaway: Human agency is key. As nonprofits and foundations look to automate components of their decision making, real people always have to be at the helm, overseeing the process.


AI will help level the playing field


Many of the folks we interviewed focused on the ways that generative AI can help close the gap between inexperienced nonprofit teams and more established ones. Because philanthropy has its own unique language, new nonprofit professionals often have to learn how to articulate their mission so that it resonates with funders. AI can cut down that learning curve.


“If I were to give AI a very detailed description of what my organization does and what [an application] is looking for, it would probably be able to assist me,” one person explained. Having that capacity with AI can enable professionals who might not have a background in writing to communicate much more effectively about the work they do. Both grantmakers and grantseekers want AI to help make the application process to be more equitable.


Benefit: Interviewees were excited about the potential benefit of AI for new and emergent organizations. With assistance from AI, they might be able to better explain their mission on the funders’ terms and qualify for grants they wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.


Concern: Some funders worry about a potential gap between what someone communicates using AI and what they truly understand. “We want to make sure that we're investing in organizations that are actually doing their job versus just having fantastic prompts,” one grantmaker said.


My takeaway: There needs to be transparency around AI use. Funders should be able to see when grantseekers use AI, and grantseekers should know when funders are using AI too. This transparency is not so either party can discount or devalue the communication, but to ensure they’re engaging in deeper dialogue when necessary.


AI can help grantmakers be better stewards of funds


Some of the grantmakers we spoke to were excited about the prospect of AI helping them to distribute funds more equitably. They envisioned an AI tool that would allow them to assess how they disburse funding and inform new programs.


One funder posed the question they wanted AI to help answer: “Where are the areas that maybe aren't getting as many resources?” Using AI, they hoped to turn that answer into actionable insights. “That could be sort of a gap to fill for donors who might want to support a new type of scholarship program,” they said. Both grantmakers and grantseekers want AI to help funders get resources where they’re most needed.


Benefit: Folks we interviewed focused on AI’s potential to swiftly identify gaps in funding. Having that information easily would allow funders to shift their strategy to be more equitable across populations and causes.


Concern: Funders are worried about communicating the intricacies of how AI works to a broad audience. “We are accountable to the public and we have to be able to explain how things work,” one said. The newness and complexity of AI felt overwhelming to some.


My takeaway: Everyone who uses AI should have a basic understanding of how it works. But in the same way that many people can drive a car without knowing everything about how the engine functions, it’s very possible to understand what you need to know about the AI you use without having to learn computer science. The key is to find technology partners who can help you understand how AI tools work within the context of your programs.


Building toward a common goal


In grantmaking, there’s a tendency to put grantmakers and grantseekers on opposite sides of an issue like AI. But from our research, funders and nonprofits have overlapping visions for what AI should look like for social impact. They want human agency with assistance from AI.


As we move forward, it’s important for us all to avoid that “funder versus grantee” trap. We don’t have to prioritize one over the other when it comes to integrating AI into our work. Instead, let’s look for ways to come together and create a future that suits everyone.

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