With limited resources and ever-expanding missions, leaders of nonprofits and associations face the challenge of maximizing their triple bottom line—balancing the social, environmental, and financial outcomes of the work. Serving members or constituents at a reasonable cost while delivering the highest impact is paramount.

However, mission-driven leaders have an ethical obligation that goes beyond maximizing returns. They are entrusted with creating positive change and bettering their communities to the greatest extent possible with the resources they steward.

The increasing availability of generative AI and automation tools presents a unique opportunity to enhance service delivery. By thoughtfully leveraging these technologies, nonprofits and associations can extend their reach, optimize operations, and further their missions. But the question remains, “Where do we start?”

Become An Informed Skeptic, Make Low-Risk Mistakes

AI is no longer a future possibility; it’s a present reality. Most mainstream software providers are integrating AI into their platforms. Your team is likely using AI for tasks ranging from writing assistance to workflow optimization. And people in your membership or partner organizations are doing the same. In some form or another, AI is already part of your operational ecosystem.

To create effective policies and evaluate vendor solutions, you need to develop a nuanced understanding of what you can and can’t trust these tools to do. In a recent Time article, author and teacher Rachel Botsman shared, “Business leaders need to innovate with AI because they’re scared of being left behind. At the same time, there is extreme caution not to move too fast because they understand the unintended consequences if they get it wrong.”

The way to work through that is with low-risk experimentation.

Set guidelines to protect privacy and intellectual property and let your staff explore with the understanding that mistakes are part of the process. Low-risk experimentation will help you develop realistic optimism about AI’s potential and grounded skepticism about its limitations. When the time comes to implement organization-wide policies or choose a major technology partner, you’ll know the types of questions to ask, the pitfalls to watch out for, or the experts to pull in.

Experiments To Try

Here are some ways you and your team can experiment with emerging tools to understand where they can enhance your work and save time and resources, and where they fall short. As you explore, remember that AI is most effective as a tool to augment, not replace, human judgment. Never let an unaccountable algorithm make critical decisions for you. (For a look into one association leader’s approach to integrating AI, read Embracing AI with Kraig Conrad of NCMA.)

Efficiency is a cornerstone of resource stewardship. Generative AI and process automation can save valuable staff time at a low financial investment. Try using publicly available large language models (LLM) like ChatGPT, Claude, or Gemini for tasks like generating ideas, creating outlines, summarizing research, analyzing and comparing data, documenting workflows, etc.

Many software platforms, like Microsoft Office, have built-in automation features (with robust AI features coming soon). By leveraging tools you already have in combination with AI, you may be able to reduce the time it takes to create standard documents and presentations and even improve the quality of the output. (Here are a few examples from the Staffing Advisors team.)

It’s important to note that anonymizing information, strategic prompting, and privacy controls can guard against exposing sensitive data through AI. But even with safeguards in place, you need to protect your intellectual property fiercely. A good rule of thumb is if you don’t want the information out there, don’t upload it to a publicly available model.

Subject matter expert volunteers and other stakeholders are busy and often overworked. It’s important not to waste their time by asking them to repeat themselves or burdening them with administrative tasks. AI can help you get more information fidelity than human memory when gathering and synthesizing information.

Record important conversations with AI transcription services that have natural language processing features. This will enhance your team’s ability to distill the information without losing essential details. There is an array of secure low-cost options that won’t train AI models from your conversations. Our team uses Fireflies.ai.

We are all prisoners of our own experience. Generative AI can serve as a thought partner to challenge your thinking and help you consider different points of view. As you develop decision support frameworks, education, and other resources, use AI to suggest alternate approaches, view the materials through the lenses of different audience segments, etc. Prompt the AI to be a skeptic, act as a competitor, point out inconsistencies, or debate the merits and drawbacks of your thinking.

For excellent guidance in using an LLM as a thought partner, check out Coursera’s Navigating Generative AI: A CEO Playbook. The three-hour course has completely changed how the Staffing Advisors team uses generative AI.

To exert influence, you have to deliver information in the format your stakeholders find most useful, which varies across audiences. A book, white paper, and briefing could convey the same content, but the information loses value if the format doesn’t match the audience’s needs.

People want faster, easier access to the most relevant and helpful information possible. Consider the potential of using generative AI to make your content interactive and conversational with a secure chatbot trained on your data. As the world becomes accustomed to interactive content, static formats may become outdated and irrelevant.

Think About Future Implications Now

Generative AI and automation present unprecedented opportunities for associations and nonprofits with limited resources to optimize operations and better serve their constituents. This goes beyond keeping pace with technological change. AI competency will be a necessity for leaders truly committed to driving positive impact for the communities they serve. Falling behind the AI adoption curve risks failing to fully deliver on that commitment. To prepare your organization for the AI-driven future, consider how these tools may fit into your strategic framework, budget, and privacy and technology policies now.