One prominent example, according to Kanter, is The Greater Boston Food Bank. The organization not only automated its food distribution using digital analytics, but also prototyped a warehouse-disinfectant robot created in part by researchers at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“They had a plan for overall digital transformation that was kind of sitting on the back burner until the pandemic hit,” Kanter says. “They wanted to use automation to make their whole operation efficient so they could get to people. But they also did a lot of experimental things. They brought in robots to do the inventory and stock shelves when it wasn't safe for volunteers to come into the food bank.”
Fine adds that while approaches like these may sound experimental, they reflect overarching trends.
“Everything that we were seeing is just the tip of the iceberg of what's about to come with automation in the nonprofit sector,” she said.
Bringing Leaders into Discussions on Automation
The different goals nonprofits have — including their concerns for diversity, equity and inclusion — can inject ethics into the automation conversation, stretching beyond the technology team to include the C-suite or board.
Kanter says that it is important to research automation technologies before deployment, as off-the-shelf products may not be able to tackle algorithmic bias or accessibility, considerations that are fundamental to many nonprofits’ missions. In their book, she and Fine offer a framework for analyzing software, including what to look for with specific types of technology.
“You need to really do your due diligence around vendors and understand what you’re getting into,” she says. “Before that, figure out if you’re solving a real problem with this, and what is the point of view of the end users, whether that’s your staff or your clients.”
In this process, the IT team’s role is one element of a broader discussion about choosing and implementing the technology.
“They're not driving the discussion and aren’t responsible for decision-making — they're more convening, providing the technical point of view. They're there as collaborators,” Kanter says.
The Potential of Automation for Nonprofits
When implemented effectively, automation offers something Fine refers to as “the dividend of time” — relieving nonprofits of some tasks so they can focus more effectively on the mission.
“Staff won’t have to do all of that paperwork, all of that double-checking, all of that record-keeping that we spend hours and hours — up to a third of our time — doing,” she said. “Then the question is, what do you do with the dividend? We hope it isn't invested in continuing to do the same kind of busywork.”
That reclaimed time could be invested in building healthier work environments, closer relationships with donors and constituents, or perhaps a shorter work week.
“The result is going to be very different-looking and different-feeling organizations than we've seen,” Fine says. “It really is a new century that's going to be powered by smart tech.”