AI in Grantmaking: Taking Careful Steps Toward the Future

By now you’ve likely seen or heard about artificial intelligence (AI), and the predictions that it’s going to upend everything we do. Maybe you’ve even played around with ChatGPT or some other AI language tool. Maybe your organization even uses some early AI for administrative tasks, like a chatbot for questions.

I tried ChatGPT and can tell you it writes wonderful haikus, crafted a pretty decent Valentine’s Day message for my sweetheart, and correctly predicted many of the matchups in my colleagues’ Holiday Movie bracket contest.

On its face, this seems at best a pleasant distraction, or maybe just a waste of time. But if anything is certain, this and other AI systems are only going to get better, and quickly.  Even Microsoft has announced incorporating AI into Bing (I wish them the best) and Google quickly followed suit. With that in mind, I began thinking about how AI might start playing a role in our collective grantmaking. While it’s still very rough, I can see artificial intelligence providing a variety of possibilities to streamline our processes and improve outcomes.

AI in Grant Applications

Perhaps the most obvious place to start would be the application process. AI could certainly be used by applicants to fill out parts of the required forms, such as program summaries, leaving the questions that would need a human touch to finalize. This would free a nonprofit’s resources to apply for more grants or focus on their other outcomes. 

Similarly—though perhaps dangerously—AI could be used to weed through hundreds or thousands of applications to highlight the options that best fit a grantmaker’s desired outcomes. I say dangerously because the downside of AI is that it is still a blunt instrument, and organizations could miss diamonds that the AI doesn’t know to look for. This would be something I’d carefully consider before implementing, or at least test and monitor by ensuring the automated system is weeding out the same applications that you would.

AI as a Grantmaking Support

As it already is in many cases, AI could also be used to handle administrative tasks. A chatbot could help your applicants overcome issues with access or help troubleshoot questions during the application process. This could be an enormous time saver, both for those folks at your organization who would have to field these questions, and also by providing immediate assistance to your applicants—no waiting a day for a response.

You could even use AI to fully automate some types of grantmaking. Think of transactional or in-kind granting. An organization might request X number of gift bags or some other product. The AI could automatically check stock, along with provided guardrails, and if appropriate, automatically approve and send details to fulfillment. No, or very limited, human intervention would be required, the team’s resources are better used elsewhere, and the requesting organization gets their donation quickly.

AI to Source Potential Grantees

Perhaps the most interesting aspect I see for artificial intelligence in grantmaking is the ability to play matchmaker. AI could help both applicants and grantmakers identify respective organizations that are the right fit.  It could scour the web for information that would allow it to alert a grantee when funders have provided grants similar to their needs, or to similar nonprofit organizations.

Conversely, it could alert funders to organizations that the grantmaker might be missing or skipping over that serve the very purpose the funder is looking to address. This could help ensure that, as a funder, you are more targeted in who you ask for funds, and who you fund, helping everyone be more efficient and making the greatest impact with our granting.

Test the Waters, But Don’t Jump in Yet

Of course, few of these use cases are ready for prime time yet. And even as these systems become more commonplace, my advice would be to ‘trust but verify’ anything that an AI is taking on, at least initially. Double check that the outcomes the AI is producing are what you want. After all, these systems are made by humans, and as such they incorporate our innate biases. While nothing is perfect, perhaps a machine can help us see past ourselves, or at the very least, gain speed and efficiency when the needs are so great and time is often of the essence.

Lastly, I couldn’t end this post without asking the entity itself, so I asked ChatGPT what benefits AI could bring to the table when it comes to grantmaking:

Artificial intelligence has the potential to bring many benefits to the world of grantmaking. Here are a few ways AI could help:

  1. Identifying areas of need: AI can help identify areas of need by analyzing data from various sources, such as social media, news articles, and academic research. This could help grantmakers identify emerging issues or underserved communities that could benefit from funding.
  2. Streamlining the grant application process: AI can help streamline the grant application process by automating routine tasks such as verifying eligibility criteria and checking application completeness. This could help reduce administrative burden and increase efficiency for both grantmakers and applicants.
  3. Improving decision-making: AI can help grantmakers make more informed decisions by analyzing large amounts of data and identifying patterns or trends. This could help grantmakers identify the most promising proposals and allocate funding more effectively.
  4. Enhancing transparency: AI can help improve transparency in the grantmaking process by providing real-time updates on the status of grant applications and funding decisions. This could help build trust and credibility with applicants and stakeholders.

Overall, AI has the potential to help grantmakers more effectively identify needs, streamline processes, make better decisions, and increase transparency, all of which could help increase the impact of grantmaking.

Couldn’t have said it better myself, and the first point was one I didn’t even identify.  Perhaps this thing has a future after all! 

What do you think? Do you have other thoughts on where this nascent technology could be employed, or are you already experimenting with AI for these or other purposes? Leave a comment below with your experience or predictions.

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