Where AI Fits in the Nonprofit Org Chart
The Communications Team (Part 1 of 5)
Some nonprofits have resources to support a communications department, while in the vast majority of smaller organizations, just a handful of team members wear all the hats. Whether you're from the former or the latter, my goal is to help you think from the perspective of common positions within a communications team. Every nonprofit regardless of size or stage of development has communications responsibilities, and this week's edition of The Process is for all of us to consider and discuss.
Nonprofit Comms Teams + AI
For this series, I’m going to adapt a framework put forth by nonprofit and technology experts, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine in their book, The Smart Nonprofit. They lay out three characteristics of smart nonprofits, which serve as an excellent guide for how to think about adapting to the reality of AI in our workplaces.
Smart nonprofits are:
Human-centered: A human-centered approach means finding the sweet spot between people and smart tech, while ensuring that people are always in charge of the technology. Smart nonprofits ensure that the use of smart tech always aligns with their values.
Prepared: Organizations need to take intentional preparation steps. They must actively reduce bias embedded in smart tech code and systems. They also thoroughly correct and label data to be incorporated into a smart tech system. And lastly, they must have a formal process to select systems, vendors, and consultants that align with their organization’s values.
Knowledgable and reflective: Learning about what smart tech is and does is an ongoing process in the boardroom, the C-suite, and for nonprofit staffs. Once automated system are in place, organizations need to be vigilant about whether they are performing as hoped or unintended consequences have arisen, and how clients and end users feel about the systems.
I’ll quickly review some of the AI tech already available to use to create digital content, go through four common roles held by nonprofit communications professionals and describe what I think it means to be human-centered, prepared, knowledgable, and reflective in the role. In each section, I’ll also share short pre and post-AI scenarios to illustrate how daily tasks may change with intelligent software.
AI communications technology for nonprofit communications
Text and graphics are staples of modern digital communications across channels such as social media and email, both of which AI can now generate from simple prompts. Video is another increasingly relevant form of communication and AI is making rapid progress to be able to generate custom video from text, as well.
Two leading types of generative AI software are text and image generators like ChatGPT and DALL-E, both from the AI research company, OpenAI. These kinds of software receive text-based instructions and generate novel creative outputs in seconds.
Spend a little time with these tools and it's easy to see how people working on communications at nonprofit organizations will need to adapt to a new reality. The cost to create basic copy and imagery is rapidly falling, as are the time and skill required to create them.
Here's an example of a prompt a social media manager at a nonprofit animal shelter might give to ChatGPT:
And here's an example of DALL-E creating an AI-generated graphic to go along with the post:
With two minutes of work, I was able to ask AI to help me craft a decent message complete with hashtags and an appropriate custom image. I expect AI content software to soon be able to anticipate content needs and suggest or create drafts without human prompting.
Some AI-assisted communications trends to watch
Many organizations are about to get digital makeovers
Organizations will start to look and sound more similar
The sheer volume of content will dramatically increase
A significant percentage of people will be very averse to AI-generated content
With these general trends in mind, let's take a more detailed look at communications departments by role.
This person is responsible for guiding overall strategic direction and overseeing the implementation of a nonprofit's communications efforts. Communications directors will often be a part of the nonprofit’s leadership team working closely with the CEO or Executive Director.
Directors often play a role in setting and deploying organizational budgets, which means the bottom line is often a key factor in their decision-making. AI will present many opportunities to cut costs by replacing human labor. Human-centered communications directors must be able to see the big picture and not limit their vision to the bottom line. In some situations, utilizing AI to reduce the amount of burdensome work for teams is a great move, while in other situations the changes may cause disorientation and disrupt team dynamics in harmful ways.
The speed and volume of content in digital communications will be breathtaking as AI joins the party. Communications directors will need strong systems in place to ensure the quality of both inputs and outputs of AI content creators. Team members who have had time freed up by AI can be trained to help monitor everything going in and out.
Knowledgable and reflective
Sometimes high-level leaders like to delegate new tech adoption to someone else on the team. AI is tech capable of learning and making decisions, which means leaders must take an active role in deploying it. Communications directors should familiarize themselves with AI tools by trying them or even asking certain ones like ChatGPT to educate them on the subject.
After securing the necessary funds in the annual budget, a communications director leads an effort to overhaul the organization's outdated website. It is a weeks-long process to interview and hire an outside web development firm to build the site for many tens of thousands of dollars. The communications director participates in a series of meetings providing feedback by email and on video calls, and after several months the new website is launched.
A communications director leads a days-long 360 review of the current website gathering input from stakeholders inside and outside of the organization. Feedback is analyzed by leadership and key narrative decisions are made. The comms director gives the findings to a team member with an eye for design, who spends a day building the new site using an AI website builder for less than $50 a month. The new website looks great, but the communications director catches some details in both imagery and text created by the AI that needs to be changed to align with the organization’s values.
Understanding enough about AI tools to make sound platform decisions
Hiring well when anyone can easily create an AI-generated portfolio
Empowering teams to learn new tools and build new workflows
Exercising sound judgment as we rely more and more upon high-speed and automated communications
Figuring out what to do with AI-generated time savings
Social Media Coordinator
This person is responsible for managing all of a nonprofit’s social media channels. Shaping overall social media strategy, finding and creating content, scheduling posts, commenting, and analyzing engagement metrics are all common responsibilities social media coordinators oversee.
Social media platforms, ironically, are some of the least human-centered technologies in the world. They are instead mostly ad revenue-centered, which means social media coordinators should be very careful when utilizing AI tools to augment a nonprofit’s participation in these ecosystems. To be as human-centered as possible, social media coordinators might prioritize software that helps to improve the quality of content nonprofit supporters will see, rather than merely increasing quantity or click-ability.
Social media companies are viewed by many as tobacco companies were in the past — purveyors of addictive products with harmful side effects. AI is likely to amplify these effects, and social media coordinators should understand how the values of the platforms align or misalign with the nonprofit’s values. Being prepared means being ready to shift strategies and even platforms to stay on mission.
Knowledgeable and reflective
So much AI news breaks first on social media platforms like Twitter, and social media coordinators are already skilled in finding and following interesting personalities online. Being reflective may also involve reminders to practice self-care when spending so much time on platforms known to negatively impact many people’s mental health and well-being.
A nonprofit social media coordinator builds out a content strategy and calendar on a quarterly basis in a Google Doc. Each week they go about writing copy, stockpiling content to share, and creating some imagery to go along with certain posts. At the end of each month, they look at their best-performing posts and share these wins with the rest of the team. Across all social media channels, the nonprofit makes about 300 posts in a year.
The coordinator asks an AI to write a one-year social media content strategy document for the nonprofit. Based on this document, they use several generative AI tools to create thousands of graphics for posting and live events, dozens of blog posts, and a video series in a matter of days. The posts are scheduled and analyzed by other tools and the social media coordinator spends time querying AI for insights and ideas for how to improve programming. Across all channels, the nonprofit makes about 300 posts in one month.
Content sourcing and fact checking
AI-assisted content generation and curation
Social media health and wellness best practices
Community Outreach Specialist
This person is responsible for building and maintaining relationships with important stakeholders in the community. They may report to leadership and are also sometimes hired as external consultants who leverage their relationships to help a nonprofit make progress by expanding its network and influence.
Trust-building is an activity that will continue to benefit from in-person interaction. The most effective community outreach specialists will have great instincts for where to focus their efforts in the community, and strong listening and communication skills and most of them will genuinely enjoy the process of getting to know people. AI can play a role in helping to manage and augment this process, while the specialist keeps the focus on people and relationships. Don’t get these roles reversed.
Community outreach specialists should start talking to members of various stakeholder groups about AI, asking them what they’ve heard about this technology and how they feel about it. This will inform future outreach efforts and is an effort to create transparent dialogue about how the nonprofit is thinking about smart tech.
Knowledgeable and reflective
Outreach specialists can have an AI, like ChatGPT, write a few meeting invitations and thank you emails and study the result alongside notes they’ve written, themselves. They should look for inspiration in the AI outputs and also try to distill what makes their own narrative voice authentic.
A community outreach specialist meets a stakeholder at a local cafe for a meeting. After the meeting, they return to the office and type the meeting notes they wrote by hand into a spreadsheet used to track leads, meetings, notes, and outcomes.
The specialist takes out their phone and asks if it’s alright for AI to transcribe the conversation. Before the specialist returns to the office, the conversation’s transcription, questions, and action items have already been processed. The AI generates a relevant follow-up email and suggests the next steps to build the relationship.
Using AI-assisted meeting management tools
Imbuing AI-generated content with authentic personality
The person in this role generally oversees all tasks that require visual content creation. Everything from logo design to event decor to website design often involves the nonprofit’s graphic designer. Sometimes this position is outsourced to freelancers or firms specializing in visual design. Traditionally, tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and, more recently, Canva, are popular software options for graphic designers.
It may not be possible, at present, for nonprofits to be human-centered and use AI image generation at the same time. The quote below from this recent article in the New York Times about a work of AI-generated art that won first prize in a contest illustrates the tension and anger many artists feel with the rise of this kind of software.
“What makes this AI different is that it’s explicitly trained on current working artists,” RJ Palmer, a digital artist, tweeted last month. “This thing wants our jobs, it’s actively anti-artist.”
Source: New York Times
Graphic designers can follow and participate in this debate between artists and AI image companies to try and find a new human-centered equilibrium. It may be a step in the right direction to make sure imagery is diligently and prominently attributed to either human or AI sources.
Kanter and Fine write how AI will likely not replace radiologists, but that radiologists who use AI will replace radiologists who don’t. Something similar is likely true for graphic designers. Nonprofits, especially those with limited budgets, will be under pressure to make use of cheap AI image tools. That doesn’t mean they won’t also have the desire to work with a talented human designer to lead the process. Identifying which AI image companies (if any) have the most artist-aligned values, and beginning conversations with nonprofit organizations about reshaping project scopes are important things to begin doing.
Knowledgeable and reflective
It’s likely all digital design software will soon incorporate AI to some degree, which is an opportunity for graphic designers to learn about this new technology from a place of familiarity. It may also present an opportunity to explore new creative avenues for artists using AI.
Facilitating design discussions
Evaluating and presenting digital design trends
Refining AI design outputs
Communication is still ultimately about people connecting with each other
One thing that isn’t going to change with AI is a nonprofit’s audience. The goal is still to motivate, move, and inform people in the community so everyone can come together in support of the nonprofit’s mission. Nonprofit communications teams with human-centered, prepared, knowledgable, and reflective cultures will be in the ideal position to embrace vast new possibilities to achieve goals.