Imagine the ideal point person for your favorite nonprofit organization.

Whether you work with charitable nonprofits or merely support them, you’re probably thinking of someone who listens empathetically, answers thoughtfully, never tires of responding to the same questions no matter how often asked, and is always available when visitors need help.

This ideal point person exists. But this person isn’t a human. It’s a conversation bot.

Nonprofits have taken an early lead in the adoption of bots to drive conversations between their organizations and donors, visitors, researchers, and the populations they serve. Let’s explore how nonprofits are putting conversation bots to use in their quest to change the world.


What Conversation Bots Do

At its heart, a conversation bot is adaptive software. To other humans, a nonprofit’s conversation bot serves as a liaison between the organization and the various communities it serves and relies upon.

“The bot represents your business/organization and handles tasks that are requested by a person,” says Vince Greenfield, founder of BellyHour and AirWave. “The limit is your imagination.”

And imagination is meteoric. Messaging apps gather more new users each year than social media platforms, notes Allison Fine, co-author of The Networked Nonprofit. Facebook allows organizations to program bots into its own Messenger app, and more than 100,000 organizations took advantage of the tool in just the first year.

People want to talk to nonprofits. Conversation bots can help strengthen those connections.

How Conversation Bots Change Communication Channels

Conversation bots help nonprofits build the relationships and gather the data they need to fulfill their missions — and they do it in a surprising number of creative ways. Below are five such ways.

1. Handling People’s Queries

The first is to serve as the ideal point person who answers visitors’ common questions: What do you do? Are you a 501(c)(3)? When is the gala? How can I help?

While these questions are often answered on the nonprofit’s website, tasking a conversation bot with replying creates a more immediate, personal feel, says Saroj Kumar, digital marketing strategist at Root Info Solutions.

Worried about putting a computer program in charge of conversing with visitors? Don’t be. “A chatbot used at your nonprofit could theoretically field many of the questions usually addressed by humans,” Kayla Matthews writes in Chatbot Magazine, “then allow a real person to step in” at any strategic point in the conversation.

2. Directing Aid Where It Needs to Go

Organizations are using conversation bots to deliver aid more quickly, too, says Phil Goldstein, web editor for BizTech.

For example, while Crisis Text Line still connects texters to actual humans, the organization has used bot-driven AI to identify high-risk texters, Shannon Farley reports at Recode. The software learns which words and phrases are most likely to signal immediate need, and it bumps those texts to the top of the queue for a human to address more quickly. The result: Response times have dropped from 2 minutes to just under 40 seconds.

UNICEF has also used its bots to gather information more directly from those it seeks to help, notes Dan Shewan at WordStream. UNICEF’s U-Report “is a social messaging tool that is free to everyone, wherever you are in the world, to speak out on development issues, support child rights and improve our communities,” according to the organization’s website. By connecting directly with those who need help, UNICEF has been able to better understand and respond to issues worldwide.

3. Sharing an Organization’s Message

Conversation bots present powerful ways to tell humanitarian stories. A good example is WaterAid’s “Talk to Sellu,” a conversation bot hosted on the WaterAid website that allows visitors to meet Sellu, a farmer and father of three in Sierra Leone. Visitors can chat with Sellu and learn more about the challenges he faces, Nikki Gilliland at Econsultancy writes. They can learn about what WaterAid is doing and how they can help.

4. Connecting Donors With Organizations

Some organizations are using conversation bots to guide people to the nonprofits that inspire them most. Ida, a bot created for Idealist by the agency BBDO, uses what it learns from conversations to point its human conversation partner to the charities and causes that matter most to them.

“Our inspiration came from Idealist’s mantra that there’s good in all people,” BBDO senior creative director Joyce Pedretti says. “But people don’t know where to begin or get distracted – life gets in the way. We want to bridge intention and action.”

Pedretti’s last point is important. For conversation bots to bridge that gap, they need to be able to compel action from users.

5. Helping Raise Money

Raising is where AI-powered conversation bots can truly shine for nonprofits. That’s because the technology does a much better job than human fundraisers at understanding why a donor might choose to give. The bot can then speak directly to those factors.

Adam Martel, CEO and co-founder at donor-outreach platform Gravyty, illustrates how AI can comb through any organization’s CRM to identify the people who are most likely to be receptive to a message from a member of the fundraising team. Perhaps these are donors who have given money in the past, and your CRM has logged what issues are important to them. When those donors return to your website, your conversation bot can greet them with a personalized message that’s informed by your CRM data, friendly, knowledgeable and always available.

All of these functions make it easier for people to connect with nonprofits. They also make it easier for nonprofits to tackle an enduring problem: reducing administrative overhead.

“Non-profits need chatbots, because there are approximately 1,009,375 other things for them to focus on,” says Alexandra Jayeun Lee, UX design researcher and creative director at Civic Design Lab. When a conversation bot can answer common questions, do research, or help deliver services more quickly, human staff gain the time they need to do the tasks AI can’t (yet) do.

Solving the Ethics Problem for Charitable Bots

As many nonprofits focus on issues of ethics and social justice, it makes sense that nonprofit organizations were among the first to raise questions about the potential ethics risks of using conversation bots. After all, as Ford Foundation technology fellows Wilneida Negrón and Morgan Hargrave point out, a bot that can learn from conversations with potential donors also has the capacity to manipulate those donors. They also note that automating engagement might further aggravate the problem of “slacktivism” online.

One answer may be to think of your conversation bot as part of the team: a personality who shares responsibility for doing good. To this end, several organizations have begun using their bots to share information rather than to pitch donors directly, Jim Lynch reports at TechSoup. Nonprofits like the Climate Reality Project, Wellpass, and Fight for the Future use their chatbots to share information and provide helpful reminders.

In fact, conversation bots may be the key to our becoming better humans, researcher Michael Schrage argues. “Digital technology can drive greater self-awareness and self-assessment about how individuals create and contribute to enterprise value,” Schrage writes in an article for the MIT Sloan Management Review. “The design focus shifts from digital assistants to digital assistance.

Consultant Adelyn Zhou makes a similar point in a piece for Forbes: “Far from being the menacing robot overlords we’ve read about in our science fiction novels, these new humanitarian bots are fighting on the front lines of important health, political, and social justice battles all over the world.”

In other words, ethics concerns can be addressed by approaching conversation bots from a humanist angle. By designing Conversation Flows to speak to the kindness and empathy of the people you want to reach, your bot will serve as a reflection of your organization’s mission and the people working toward it

Avery Potter