Are Bots the Future of Nonprofit Communications?

Many people hearing “bot” today may think of the recent boondoggle over at Microsoft. In March, the tech giant launched a Twitter bot named Tay – a fully automated AI capable of communicating, constructed to project the tone and language of a teenage girl. The seemingly innocuous project went south quickly. As often occurs with online PR initiatives, the internet’s ever-committed trolls set out to do their dirty work. After a torrent of racist, pro-nazi, misogynistic input from the public, Tay turned around and began imitating the hateful rhetoric, praising Hitler and deploying violent language against minorities.

This simple technology – deployed here to dubious effect – may have more far-reaching implications than one would imagine. Some tech insiders are saying that bots are the future of digital communications, and will rewrite the playbook for mobile technology. In case this turns out to be true, nonprofits need to pay heed.

To provide a bit more context, bots are essentially chat-based interfaces. While digital consumer goods have made voice assistants – such as Siri – a common fixture of daily life, text bots may be just around the corner. The most optimistic vision sees bots as a one-stop location for information – a portal through which a user can receive messages and data from her/his email, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and virtually any other digital portal, all collected and accessible in a centralized location. Additionally, bots are designed to learn. This means that manual information searches will develop an AI that can predict a user’s next move, pointing to a future in which people’s consumer technology may preempt their own search queries.

Facebook recently revealed bots on the platform’s messenger service, a product that the firm hopes to develop to the point that users can begin interfacing with businesses and costumer service portals in real time without waiting in line. While less disastrous than Microsoft’s Tay initiative, initial reviews of the Facebook bot are lukewarm at best. David Marcus – head of product design for Facebook’s message service – nonetheless has a more optimistic take on the development of M, Facebook’s bot:

We have two goals with this one. One is building the product into something awesome, and that’s going to take years for everyone to have access to it. And then also building tools so that the whole ecosystem of things can be built around it. And those two can coexist, because if you have awesome bots that can do things, then if you ask M it can point you in the right direction.

If bots pick up steam, it could alter the digital communications landscape. Apps – the most common way that businesses and organizations can circumvent the slowness of mobile internet speed – faced a number of issues in 2015. Studies revealed that the average smartphone user only accessed three apps on a regular basis. Marketing to garner more attention on the medium continues to be insanely expensive. Taken together, these realities make apps a less-than-ideal investment for organizations looking to make optimum use of their resources.

Bots could theoretically render most applications obsolete, as the AI would be capable of navigating, collating, and explaining vast sets of data from a variety of different portals and platforms. Applying this vision to nonprofit communications, fundraising professionals could stand to benefit from the streamlined communications channel presented by bots. How best to insert your organization into this inventive and constantly evolving field, however, is still a little murky. Stay tuned as Key Elements Group continues to cover these fascinating tech trends for the benefit of nonprofit and development professionals.

Fundraising Essentials: Mobile Giving

Earlier this month, Paypal announced its 2014 charitable giving statistics. If there is one thing that the numbers tell us, it’s that donors are moving toward mobile devices as their preferred means of digital giving.

Paypal – an online payment service – saw a 50 percent overall increase in year-end giving, totaling $212 million in donations. #GivingTuesday had its best year since its founding in 2012. Donors gave 66 percent more than they did through Paypal the previous #GivingTuesday, and mobile giving leaped an astonishing 101 percent.

The trend in mobile spending is not unique to nonprofits. On Black Friday this year, retailers witnessed a 62 percent increase in Paypal purchases made through mobile devices.

The biggest reason for this development is that mobile giving is extraordinarily easy. Revolutionizing during the tragic earthquake in Haiti, nonprofits adapted text-based donations into their campaigns with great success. By simply responding to or sending text messages, donors could send gifts in response to ongoing events completely hassle-free.

Political campaigns took the strategy one step further during the 2012 presidential election. Campaigns stored their donors’ credit card information, soliciting funds via emails that allowed repeat donors to merely click a giving level to immediately send a gift.

Mobile fundraising simultaneously taps into the immediate psychological gratification that derives from charitable giving, while also satisfying consumers’ ever-growing preference for convenient, streamlined, and user-friendly digital designs that simplify financial transactions.

Take tipping at restaurants and cafes, where a similar trend has emerged. Tipping has increased due largely to the intuitive design of iPad checkouts, through which a click of a button enables the consumer to tip without experiencing any interruption to flow of the transaction

Advancements in computer technology have driven the size of consumer electronics down, while greatly increasing their capability and utility. In thirty years, we’ve seen seen the arc of technological progress span between the release of the household desktop to this year’s highly anticipated iWatch.

Consumer behavior – part catalyst for this rapid change, but itself molded and affected by technological progress – now evolves at a quicker rate than ever before. Keeping track of this evolution is essential market-watching for fundraising professionals.

Nonprofits Innovate with Drone Technology

Drones: a technological development whose connotation has evolved from mysterious military weapon to an everyday recreational consumer good with a growing array of practical applications. Improved and cost-effective designs have shrunk the price for basic models to around $500. This has led to a rapid proliferation of the devices – also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

While U.S. businesses (including Amazon, which expressed interest in developing a drone delivery service) have had their drone plans shelved by a federal government uncertain of how to regulate commercial usage, nonprofits and humanitarians around the world have been quick to adapt the remote-flying devices for their work.

PETA uses drones to monitor illegal hunting practices in Upstate New York. The organization has even branded drones with their logo, selling them to activists. A Belgian engineering graduate named Alex Momont designed an “ambulance drone,” which will enable medical professionals to deliver defibrillators to cardiac arrest victims in remote or obstructed areas. Doctors Without Borders enlisted the help Matternet, a Silicon Valley-based drone company, to figure out how to transport tuberculosis samples from remote communities to urban testing centers.

This recent burst of innovation and integration of drone technology appears to be the start of a trend. Staff at the nonprofit Global Medic predict a number of other applications for disaster relief, including search and rescue operations, mapping damaged infrastructure, and tracking population movements. Environmental groups are also exploring the utility of UAVs; a group called ConservationDrones is raising money to develop a fleet to monitor endangered animals, such as the elusive snow leopard.

Right now, nonprofits that possess modest numbers of drones face minimal regulation. The nonprofit Texas Equusearch brought a case against an FAA employee who ordered the organization to cease its drone operations. After review, a panel of judges from the Federal Appeals Court threw out the case stating that there is no legal justification or precedent that prevents the nonprofit from using drones.

That might soon change, however, as the technology faces tougher scrutiny in the wake of high-profile incidents underscoring the danger and potential criminal applications of drone technology.

On Monday, January 26, a UAV crashed on the Whitehouse lawn. A drunk employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency was operating the drone from a nearby apartment building and steered the device over the Whitehouse fence. While this incident did not pose a direct threat to the president or his family, it occurred just days after the Department of Homeland Security held a conference that demonstrated how easily a terrorist could use UAVs to deliver explosives.

A number of other cases have officials mulling over security risks. In France, drones have been seen flying above nuclear reactors. In South Carolina, a drone carrying phones, drugs, and tobacco for inmates crashed at a correctional facility.

Some proposed regulations would mandate safety protocols programmed into drone firmware, which would render drones non-operational or send them back in the direction of their users the moment they entered restricted airspace. The Chinese company DJI – designer and producer of the model used in the Whitehouse incident (pictured above) – announced that it will program such firmware, and that they will develop further programming to prevent drones from flying over national boarders.

This self-regulation, however, will not prevent the inevitable. Specialists agree that these safety configurations are easily hacked, and that with individuals would be capable of circumventing them with minimal know-how. Other controls will be needed to safeguard against misuse.

To what degree drone usage will be regulated remains unclear. One proposal would require users to hold flying licenses, a measure that the Washington Post describes as “overkill.”

Nonprofits should continue integrating technological innovations like drones into their operations. While organizations should also anticipate the conversation around regulation to gain momentum this year, that should not prevent them from demonstrating how technology – when responsibly used – can make profound, positive impacts on the world.

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