Band together to harness AI, charities urged


Charities must engage with generative artificial intelligence in “safe and targeted ways” to fully understand its role in the voluntary sector, charity leaders have urged. 

Speaking at the online launch of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ latest Road Ahead report, charity leaders stressed the importance of banding together as a sector to harness new developments in generative AI.

NCVO’s Road Ahead report, which examines external forces, issues and trends that will affect the voluntary sector over the next 12 months, says charities will need to adapt to the “once-in-a-generation shifts being created by AI”.

But it warns that “many voluntary organisations are unprepared” for the continued advancements in AI. 

Dan Sutch, director of the charity Cast, which aims to support social impact organisations in the use of digital technologies, told delegates at the launch: “Generative AI is moving at such a pace, the only way we can really understand its role in our work is if we engage with it in safe and targeted ways.”

He added that one way to think about generative AI is to consider that by using it, every organisation effectively has access to “unlimited interns”.

“It’s a tool that can create all sorts of content: video, text, adverts, policies, first level research, funding strategies. And it can say, as an intern would: ‘This is my first example. I don’t know anything about your expertise or your context but here’s my first offering.’”

Sutch said this posed big questions for the sector, including about how it would help to ease staff capacity.

“Will we be able to adapt to the huge changing technologies landscape if we experiment and share our learning? So not only are we adapting to change individually as organisations, but we’re doing it together as a sector,” he said. 

Panellists also discussed other upcoming challenges for the year predicted in NCVO’s report, including the impact of an election year.

Jac Bastian, chief education officer at the education charity Diversity Role Models, said: “The current political context in which we’re operating as a charity remains quite challenging. Increasingly we found that cultural issues are seen as a large electoral battleground.

“And this has made work that perhaps was previously seen as part of our statutory obligations appear more controversial in some quarters.”

He added that with the election on the horizon, there is some uncertainty about statutory duties and non-statutory changes that are currently being discussed at government level, and whether these changes will come into effect before the election date, which is yet to be set.

Alexis Kolodziej, executive director of locality impact for the Stroke Association, added that her charity was planning its general election activity with a focus on creating a “value proposition about how the Stroke Association can support all political parties in tackling strokes at the highest level”.

She said the report’s message about reinforcing the value and skill of the voluntary sector “really resonated” with her, adding: “Obtaining cut-through in a crowded environment is going to be really challenging.”

Kolodziej added that the economic predictions in the NCVO report were concerning, saying: “We’re seeing far more services under threat this year than we have previously.

The 2024 Road Ahead report predicts an increasing number of local authorities will declare bankruptcy. It adds that a 2023 survey by the Local Government Association found that nearly one in five council leaders and chief executives in England think it is likely they will need to issue a Section 114 notice this year or next.

Kolodziej said: “Our biggest losses of this year and last year have been with local authorities. So the fact that so many local authorities are kind of preparing bankruptcy notices is of real concern to us.”

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