AWS Public Sector Blog

How nonprofits reimagine work using smart technology

Nonprofit leaders today have various technical products and solutions to consider. The addition of “smart technology” to your nonprofit’s technology conversations may seem intimidating or even unfamiliar to the human-centered work that your organization does. But smart technology can help make your nonprofit’s work more human – automating burdensome tasks for your teams and directing their creativity and bandwidth to what really matters: your mission.

So what is smart technology, and what are the benefits for nonprofits?  

In a recent webinar hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS), Allyson Fryhoff, managing director of nonprofits at AWS, sat down with authors Beth Kanter and Allison Fine to dig into some of the insights from their book, The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered in an Automated World. In their book, Kanter and Fine describe smart technology (smart tech) in this way:

 “[It’s] advanced digital technology that identifies patterns in data and then [uses this data to] automate different tasks. [Smart tech] is embedding itself in nonprofit work and has the potential to profoundly change how we do our work and how we define success going forward.”

In practice, this could mean using artificial intelligence (AI) to run a chatbot to answer frequently asked questions, a machine learning (ML) algorithm to match donors with causes, transcribing voice to text to enhance accessibility, or other processes where technology reduces the burden of typically manual tasks.

According to a study from the AI in Advancement Advisory Council, 89% of nonprofit professionals feel that AI will have a positive impact on their jobs. AI is one of many smart technologies that can be used to automate existing manual processes. This allows employees to focus on more “people-centric” activities, such as building strong relationships and solving problems. This balance is called “co-botting.”

How do nonprofits adopt smart technology?

Smart technology isn’t about reaching for the latest technology trend. It’s about identifying a specific challenge, then working backward from that challenge to design a human-centered solution with technology. Once you’ve identified your challenge, Kanter and Fine describe the road to adoption in three steps:

Ready: Readiness means that you’re solving the right problem. This first step involves the use of design thinking techniques: gathering intelligence by interviewing end users, either donors or program users, to identify pain points. This step also involves thinking through where there is human input and how people’s jobs may change as you implement new technology to replace manual processes.

Set: Select the right tool, from the right vendor, for the right job.

Go: This stage involves piloting, iterating, and testing. Organizations should be prepared and nimble enough to pivot as the process develops and make necessary changes based on user feedback.

Smart technology in practice   

Jacaranda Health, a Kenya-based nonprofit, has embraced smart technology to reach beneficiaries at scale. Jacaranda Health is working to end preventable maternal and newborn deaths in a country with one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates. A recipient of the 2021 AWS IMAGINE Grant, Jacaranda Health launched an AI-based health platform that connects mothers with information about pregnancy care, potentially lifesaving advice, and referrals for facilities where they can obtain the care that they need. The platform uses AWS to power a two-way, AI-enabled helpdesk that responds to thousands of daily messages in both English and Swahili. The platform uses natural language processing (NLP) to analyze the messages for signs of clinical danger, and it alerts clinical help desk agents at Jacaranda Health. These medically trained agents can rapidly respond to mothers, referring them to the closest care facility.

To date, mothers that use this service are 22% more likely to achieve the recommended amount of antenatal care visits (more than four), 3.5 times more likely to get care if experiencing danger signs after delivery, and twice as likely to take up family planning.

More than a chatbot

Although chatbots are one of the more widely recognized ways of implementing smart technology, it’s far from the only way. For example, some organizations aimed at finding missing children and combating human trafficking have used AI and ML services from AWS, such as Amazon Rekognition, to build technology solutions capable of scouring the internet against pictures of missing children, and assisting law enforcement agencies with leads on where to find them. Some animal welfare organizations have used AI and ML services, like Amazon SageMaker, to predict shelter capacity, track the behavior of animals within the shelter, optimize pet placement, and improve the efforts around reuniting lost pets with their families in emergencies and natural disasters, as well as Amazon Rekognition to manage and track feral cat colonies in urban areas.

Getting started with AI and ML for nonprofits

Although AI is one method to replicate tasks that previously required human intelligence, ML uses data to create and validate that logic. And to take this one step further, deep learning is a type of ML that uses neural networks, which replicate how the human brain functions. This allows ML to address complex use cases that weren’t previously possible. AWS offers AI and ML tools that allow developers to add intelligence to applications without extensive ML training. These services include translation, document transcription, chatbots, speech recognition, image recognition, intelligent search, and more.

Do you have a question about how you can use AWS and smart technology for your nonprofit? Start a conversation with us today.

Visit the AWS for Nonprofits main page to learn more about how nonprofits all over the world are using technologies on AWS to enrich their communities, expand fundraising opportunities, accelerate research, and more.

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