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April 27, 2022

How can your organization stay human-centered in an automated world?

Allison Fine, Beth Kanter

Farra Trompeter, co-director, chats with Allison Fine and Beth Kanter, co-authors of The Smart Nonprofit, Staying Human-Centered in an Automated World about how we can reduce potential harms such as embedded bias and surveillance capitalism, and share some insights into how nonprofits can prevent these harms from taking root.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner at Big Duck. Today, we’re going to ask the question, how can your organization stay human-centered in an automated world? I am excited to explore this question with the authors of a recent book, The Smart Nonprofit, Allison Fine and Beth Kanter. I had the pleasure of working with Allison on a project connected to Jewish day schools and social media back over 10 years ago, and Beth and I were just remembering meeting more than 15 years ago at NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference and we had the pleasure of serving on the board together. Allison and Beth, welcome to the show.

Beth Kanter: Great to be here, Farra.

Farra Trompeter: Great. So, let me tell you a little bit about Allison and Beth. Allison Fine is among the nation’s preeminent writers and strategists on the use of technology for social good. She is the author of the award-winning book Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age and Matterness: Fearless Leadership For A Social World. Those are two books. And co-author with Beth Kanter of another book, the bestselling, The Networked Nonprofit. She’s a member of the National Board of Women of Reform Judaism and was chair of the national Board of NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation and the founding board member of Civic Hall. She has keynoted conferences around the world, and she and her husband, Scott Freeman, have three sons and live in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Farra Trompeter: Beth Kanter is an internationally recognized thought leader and trainer in digital transformation and wellbeing in the nonprofit workplace. She’s a co-author of the award-winning The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout and co-author with Allison, again, of The Smart Nonprofit, which we’ll be talking about today. Named one of the influential women in technology by Fast Company and recipient of the NTEN Lifetime Achievement Award, she has over three decades of experience in designing and delivering training programs for nonprofits and foundations. As a sought after keynote speaker and workshop leader, she’s presented at nonprofit conferences around the world to thousands of nonprofits. So there’s a chance you may have seen Allison and Beth speak at a conference or a webinar near you, and again, welcome.

Farra Trompeter: So your book, The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered in an Automated World, published on March 9th, 2022, just a few weeks before this recording, which will publish in April. In case our listeners have not picked up their copies yet, let’s discuss the basics. So the book focuses on the idea of smart tech. What is that? What does it do? What does it include? Allison, can you start us off?

Allison Fine: Sure. Farra, you know that Beth and I have worked together for a very long time, which is both an honor and a pleasure, to work with Beth Kanter, and our work focuses, generally, on the intersection of technology and social good. And a few years ago, we were supporting work at the Gates Foundation, looking at how AI could accelerate giving, and that led to a bigger exploration of how this whole new chapter in technology can remake social change and more importantly, Farra, rework work. You know, that the last generation of digital tech created an always on, 24/7, often toxic workplace environment for people. It’s exhausting, it’s led to the great resignation.

Allison Fine: This field that we call smart tech, which Beth will tell us about more in depth, it automates functions in organizations. Throughout the organization it is being embedded in accounting and marketing, communications, fundraising, all throughout, and what that’s doing is it’s having machines make decisions that only people could make just a couple of years ago. The real opportunity here, the reason that we got so excited about writing this book is that when we can hit that sweet spot of having the tech do what the tech does well right now, which is rote activities like looking over invoices to be paid or answering the same questions over and over again, it creates what we call the dividend of time, the opportunity for staff to pivot, to become deeply relational, and that, Farra, we hope is the future of work.

Farra Trompeter: Allison, that’s great. Beth, maybe you can go into a little more detail and tell us exactly what smart tech is.

Beth Kanter: Sure, we came up with the term smart tech as an umbrella term to describe different types of technology such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, smart forms, chatbots, robots, and computer vision and more, but it’s really not about the tech. And one of the reasons why we landed on the term smart tech is that we’ve been looking at artificial intelligence and nonprofits for a long time, and when we went out to speak to leaders about it, they lean back and kind of think, okay, it’s not for me, I don’t know how to code. And really, we wrote this book for nonprofit leaders because it’s really a leadership challenge. It’s not like grabbing software off the shelf or just sending it down the hall to the IT department, although the techies do need to be involved.

Beth Kanter: So we came up with smart tech and, you know, smart tech’s really good at automating tasks, as Allison mentioned, like filling out forms, answering questions, the kind of stuff that we’d like to call grunt work, which is exhausting and time consuming. And smart tech’s really good at analyzing huge data sets, as Allison likes to say, Library of Congress-size data sets, and providing insights and options for decisions. So smart tech has recently reached an inflection point, common to technologies that reach everyday use. So there’s been an enormous increase in computing power, and it meets a dramatic decrease in the cost of the technology so the technology is becoming democratized and that means it’s becoming more available to everyday people and nonprofits of all sizes to use for fundraising, accounting, human resources, service delivery, and much more. There’s lots of benefits, but in order to get those benefits, nonprofits really need to take this human-centered approach that we write about in the book.

Farra Trompeter: Great, that really helps understand what smart tech is all about, and I wonder if we just make it a little more particular to nonprofits. You include a lot of great use case examples in the book, particularly where some organizations are able to use smart tech to really help achieve their mission or make their workplaces more fulfilling and less exhausting, and I would love it if each of you can just think for a moment and share one of your favorite examples. So, Beth, how about you, what’s your favorite example in the book or that you’ve come across recently?

Beth Kanter: Well, my favorite example and, certainly, Allison has heard me share the story a million times already, but it’s from The Trevor Project, which Farra, I’m sure you’re familiar with their work–they provide crisis counseling to LGBTQ+ people. And so, they had a problem. The biggest problem they had was a shortage of highly trained counselors to deliver this fine tuned method of counseling to reach these young people who were in crisis. And so, rather than say, oh, we’re going to replace the counselors with bots, they’ve actually thought about, like, what is the problem? The problem is the fact that the staff who works nine to five but also has to train these volunteers, was having to train them after hours, and there just wasn’t enough staff and hours to train the number of counselors, who were volunteers, that they needed to be on the front lines.

Beth Kanter: So, they said, okay, so that’s the use case for our chatbot, which name was Riley, and it uses a very smart type of technology called natural language processing, and it learns through interaction. And so, they also took this pledge to do no harm and so they knew that if you put this type of bot out there to the general public, it could be interacting, maybe, with trolls, and it could learn things that could be harmful to those end users who are seeking crisis counseling. So, they used it to actually go through a data set that was actual transcriptions of the counseling conversations, stripped of all the personal information, and Riley’s only used in this very controlled environment of training potential volunteers in this very specific methodology. So, I like this because it’s really human-centered, and they really spent some time at the beginning to really think through, what is the problem we’re trying to solve, which is so important.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. Allison, how about you? You have a favorite example?

Allison Fine: I have many, Farra, but I’ll tell you about the opening chapter in the book. We compare two diversion efforts at automating systems in that opening chapter. One is an assessment tool called VI-SPDAT, used by social workers to assess the needs of people who are at risk of being homeless. And that process of automating that tool, where people couldn’t see the back end, couldn’t understand, fully, how it was being added up, had a whole bunch of different biases built into it, and the originator of it had to stop supporting it. We compare that effort to an effort by a group called TalkingPoints, started by a woman named Heejae Lim out in California. Now, to give greater context, our framework for using smart tech. Well, the reason why we called the book Smart Nonprofit is that we’re looking for efforts that are human-centered, where the people who are originating the smart tech are prepared and knowledgeable and are reflective in the use of smart tech, and Heejae has done all of this.

Allison Fine: The pain point she’s trying to fix is that parents who are not English speakers are often quite distanced from their children’s school, and parental engagement in schools is one of the key factors in childhood success in schools. So Heejae has created this app using smart tech to translate between teachers and parents, and she and her team have done it in such thoughtful ways. You know, they had a very small pilot where they began to really see how was the language being used. You can’t grab software off the shelf that’s going to get the nuance of what teachers are trying to say, and maybe slang or other informal uses of language. They still have staff that are looking at the responses so it’s deeply human-centered as the system continues to learn. And in just, I think, five years or so, since it’s been launched, they have automated over 2 million conversations between parents and teachers. We really love that example because it hits all of our key points of being deeply human-centered and thoughtful and reflective.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great, and I think when technology can be all those things, and like you said, rework work, hallelujah, we all want that, but I also want to acknowledge, and I think you also talk about this in the book, that it’s also important to think about, with technology, how we can reduce potential harms such as embedded bias and surveillance capitalism. And I’m wondering if you could speak to what these harms are and share some insights into how nonprofits can prevent these harms from taking root. Allison, I think you talk a lot about this.

Allison Fine: I do. I talk a lot about smart tech in general, Farra, but in particular, this topic, because we cannot allow this generation of technology to do the kinds of harms that we’ve just seen the social media companies do to us, right? In stealing our data, using it for their profits instead of our benefits, taking our attention and sticking us into these tiny filter bubbles. So, the first thing is, we have to make sure anybody who is implementing the technology is making sure it’s not causing harm out there, and they need to be thoughtful about that and continue to assess it over time. You don’t just implement it and walk away. The second thing is, we want organizations to be really careful with other people’s data. We have lost any sense of privacy in the world. We believe that nonprofits ought to set the bar even higher in terms of the ethical use of data, like European Union does, and offer donors and volunteers and others the opportunity to be forgotten.

Allison Fine: But perhaps the biggest issue is the issue that we call embedded bias, in the book. Cathy O’Neil, the data scientist, says algorithms are opinions embedded in code. Somebody had to make the code in the first place, and generally, that is going to be a white man who may not be familiar with social sector issues. So that’s one place where bias can be inadvertently built into the code, and the second part is, Beth used one of my favorite phrases, Library of Congress-sized data sets, lots and lots of data is needed to train these systems. Where do you get those data sets for social services from the historic record? And those records have historically been biased against Black and brown people. So, Farra, if you’re trying to create a system to screen people for housing and you’re losing historical data sets on housing, you will, from the get go, be probably likely to screen out Black and brown people from your system.

Allison Fine: We have even seen instances where service providers assumed the needs of Black and brown people were lower because they weren’t accessing the systems. And unless you’re really thoughtful, you wouldn’t even know they couldn’t even get through the first gate. So, this is why we are so adamant that this is a leadership issue, not a technology issue. You have to really understand, what is the possibility of embedding bias inside of your own systems and systems that are largely invisible inside and outside, and you have a moral obligation to dig deep to ensure that that isn’t happening.

Steven from Bloomerang: Steven from Bloomerang here. One of the reasons why we’re so excited to sponsor this episode is because we also love helping fundraisers stay human-centered in their use of technology. That’s why our donor management software includes stewardship alerts, communications audits, and donor surveys. So, if you need a new donor database check out Bloomerang. You can watch a short video demo at And now, back to Farra, Allison, and Beth.

Farra Trompeter: I want to pick up on this thread about leadership issue. I was actually just in DC, and I got to see the Laurie Anderson: The Weather Exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum. There’s lots of quotes on the walls, if anyone has seen it, you may have seen this one that really, really spoke to me was, “If you think technology will solve your problems, then you don’t understand technology and you don’t understand your problems.” And it really does feel like that also speaks to the ideas in your book, and really, particularly as you get into how tech can help rehumanize work and workplaces, not replace people or be the solution without considering people and the culture. And I’m just curious, what does that quote spark for you, and can you talk more about how leaders can put humans first and promote ways machines and people can and should actually work together? So Beth, you want to take a stab at this one first?

Beth Kanter: Sure. I wish that we saw that exhibit and quote before we had to turn in our manuscript because it really nails a lot of what we’re talking about. There’s this false narrative, I think, out there in the popular media, you know, that humans and machines or robots are in competition. That’s false and it’s unimaginative and it’s, you know, it’s just plain wrong. Smart tech and humans are not competing with one another, they are complimentary, but only when the tech is adopted in a really thoughtful, knowledgeable, and reflective way. When we think about the big benefit, which is killing off that grunt work, getting rid of some of those manual processes that are so exhausting and time consuming, there are some parts of our jobs like that that are really suitable for automation. But few, if any, that should be completely replaced by the tech because there’s always room for the human aspects of intuition, problem solving, creativity, and of course, empathy.

Beth Kanter: Automation, smart tech’s going to help make a better experience at work, and we’re hoping that nonprofit leaders don’t kind of say, okay, yay, we can do faster and just do more of the same. That really, if we can eliminate some of this time and exhaustion from the grunt work and really re-engineer and redesign our jobs to focus on why we got in this sector to begin with, and that really take advantage of our human skills, I think we’ll be a lot better. And by the way, this concept is called cobotting, but before you can get to that, you really need to invest in the readiness process. In this sector, we want to get to solutions, we want to move forward fast, but with this technology, we really can’t do that, we need to, like, sit with the problem, as Laurie Anderson said, if you don’t understand the problem, you don’t understand the technology. So you really have to sit with the problem, understand what is the right problem to be solved, and not just a group of people in a conference room projecting onto their donors or their end users, but really thinking about it from the end user’s point of view. And this is where we get to use all those great techniques like design thinking, which encourages us to be empathetic. And once that’s done, you also have to spend a lot of time thinking about the user journey. I know in communications, Farra, I see you nodding, that this is something that we do, but with smart tech adoption is this sort of thinking about what’s appropriate for the tech to do, what’s appropriate for the humans to do, and making sure that humans are always in charge, not the other way around.

Farra Trompeter: Allison, anything you want to add to this?

Allison Fine: I do, and that was just a terrific answer from Beth. I will add that we have an opportunity with this technology, Farra, to turn the page on the transactional cultures that have powered so many of our organizations, right? This feeling of turning the turnstiles faster and faster. When we first started to do this work, there were EDs when we started to tell them about how the technology could take over rote tasks, we could see them in their heads going through the budget calculations and thinking about cutting staff. And that’s not at all what we’re talking about because when you get to the heart of so much of our work, what we’ve done is, we have taken up measures that inform and support this transactional nature of work, right? Can we go faster? What that’s done, say in fundraising, is created what we call the leaky bucket problem. Only one quarter of donors make it from year one to year two. That’s abysmal.

Allison Fine: Like you, I’ve been on lots and lots of boards over the years. I have never, ever been part of a board discussion on donor retention rates. All we do is keep trying to fill the bucket up again as the donors all leak out. We need to pivot to a deeply relational model. Internally, in terms of our culture, taking care of staff, making healthy workplaces, a topic, Beth is one of the leaders in the world about, and just as importantly, building strong relationships with donors and volunteers and supporters online, on land. This technology is giving us the time, the space to do that if we choose, and we certainly hope organizations will choose to do that.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I appreciate that you just brought up fundraising. You know, most of the people who, we believe, listen to the Smart Communications Podcast, work in communications, marketing, fundraising for nonprofits, and I’m just curious, with that in mind, do you have any parting words of advice or thoughts for communicators, fundraisers out there beyond what you’ve already shared with us? Allison, anything more you want to share?

Allison Fine: A lot of the smart tech commercial products that we’re seeing come online right now allow people to customize communications with people at scale, right? So there’s an organization, Rainforest Action Network, that used a smart tech product to customize thank yous and communications past that first donation to people and increased the percentage of monthly donors by over 800%. So, we can absolutely customize it, but again, Farra, all of this has to be managed well by staff and carefully with staff. We are not advocating just sending more emails out to people. The world doesn’t need one more email. What it needs is, really, human engagement. So, we hope that all of the marketers and communicators will be able to use smart tech well, to be able to provide information, stories with supporters that are meaningful to them without ever losing the human touch.

Farra Trompeter: I love that. How about you, Beth? Anything you’d like to share with our listeners out there, parting words of wisdom or advice or thoughts?

Beth Kanter: I’m remembering a quote that we did in our report on AI and fundraising products, and it was something like,”Imagine if you had a hundred percent response rate to everything,” and that’s what this technology allows people to do. As Allison outlined, you can get extreme customization at scale, and it also allows you to continuously improve so you’re not wasting time, you’re getting results, and with results, hopefully, it’s freeing up space. We know that fundraisers are high on the list, after the people on the front line, to experience burnout and turnover and lots of pressure at their jobs. And so, with tools like this, they can be more successful with retaining donors or reaching new ones. And if the pandemic has taught us anything, the kind of stress and high rates of burnouts, we need to stop. We need to turn this around, and smart tech can really help us open up possibilities like that, but only if leaders and fundraisers take this human-centered, reflective, and knowledgeable approach to adopting it. You know, we just have this really great moment to change things in our sector.

Farra Trompeter: Well, thank you both. If you have not already picked up your copy of The Smart Nonprofit run to your nearest bookstore, Bookshop, Amazon, wherever it is you get your books, check it out. If you’d like to learn more about Beth’s work, go to You can also follow Beth on Twitter and Instagram, @kanter, K-A-N-T-E-R, and find her on LinkedIn. If you’d like to connect with Allison, go to You can follow Allison on Twitter, @Afine, and find her on LinkedIn as well. We will link to all of their profiles in the transcript on our website as we release this podcast. Beth and Allison, thank you so much for being here.

Allison Fine: Thank you for having us, Farra.

Beth Kanter: Thank you so much, Farra.

This podcast has been sponsored by Bloomerang