Photo of Alex Plumb of Charities Aid Foundation

In this interview, we chat to Alex Plumb, Head of Research at Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), an organisation bringing charities, businesses and philanthropists together to simplify giving. We discuss the key findings of CAF’s research on AI in the sector, what they discovered about how people view the opportunities and risks, and what steps charity leaders need to take next.

1. Can you tell us more about your AI research? What led you to undertake it?

Artificial intelligence is big news. It represents a potential step-change in how we all do our jobs. But what this looks like in practice is still at a very early stage. Like most organisations, charities are considering what AI might mean for them. How can they take advantage of the opportunities while mitigating the risks? As the UK’s biggest connector of donors and charities, CAF knows charities are grappling with practical questions around technical implementation, staff buy-in and training. And they’re also thinking about their donors. How do you use AI to engage them rather than alienate them?

We asked over 6,000 people from ten countries, representing a range of per-capita income levels, for their thoughts on the opportunities and risks of non-profits using AI. Plus, we carried out focus groups in the UK.

2. What are the key findings that charities should know about?

Worldwide, the vast majority of the public will be paying attention to what charities say about AI. Despite a level of caution about the risks, people recognise the opportunities that AI brings to charitable giving.

The more generous the donor, the more favourable they are to AI. Higher-income countries are generally more sceptical than low and middle-income countries. Indeed, Australia is the only country in the survey where more people focus on the risks than see the opportunities. Kenya is the most positive.

3. What surprised you the most?

That age was not a major factor in public perception of AI was definitely a surprise. All age groups have a net positive outlook of +12% or more. It was lower, but still net positive, for 55-64-year-olds (+6%).

CAF is passionate about ensuring AI will be accessible to those organisations that will benefit. Digital advances have the potential to help many charities to further their missions. But I didn’t realise that these sentiments would be shared so widely. 70% of people said efforts should be made to make AI accessible to different sizes of charity, which the sector will find reassuring. From our focus groups, it was clear that people believe it is the tech industry’s responsibility to work with the charity sector to make sure every charity gets equal access to this technology.

4. Based on your research, where do you see the main opportunities and challenges for charities with AI?

In the eyes of the public, the most compelling opportunities for charities are those that help them to have a greater direct human benefit. More than a quarter (28%) thought the most exciting opportunity we presented was how AI could help with a faster response to disasters. 25% thought that it was the potential ability of AI to allow charities to help more people.

What is exciting about AI is how it can increase the amount of time humans can spend working toward their cause. Ultimately, this helps charities to help more people. Donors and charities put their trust in us as charities. It is our responsibility to find and use the most effective tools to achieve our mission and support them.

But AI is still in its relative infancy and people are right to be nervous about the risks. Charities need to stay close to the human essence of their cause. This means communicating with donors about using AI technology to further social impact.

5. What is the one thing that charity leaders should do now to take their next steps with AI?

Be curious. Try it yourself. Explore the opportunities of AI and begin to learn how it can benefit your organisation. This is a learning journey that is going to continue for some time: we know very little of what AI is capable of yet. Speak to and listen to the people around you. There will often be members of your team using AI already and we can learn from each other.

Create a two-way dialogue within your organisation. Think about the opportunities and risks for the use-cases you foresee. There may be unintended consequences (both positive and negative). It’s about both anticipating and being comfortable with these.