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By Kevin Leahy • May 7, 2019

AI IDEAS: Sam Caplan of the Walton Family Foundation

Walton Family Foundation

Sam Caplan is Chief Information Officer at the Walton Family Foundation, the family-led foundation that awarded more than $595 million in grants in 2018 to improve K-12 education, protect rivers and oceans, and invest in Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. As a thought leader in nonprofit philanthropy, when Sam speaks – we all listen.

Sam Caplan

Recently, Sam has covered topics from uncovering unconscious bias in philanthropic giving with artificial intelligence (AI) to analyzing the impact that giants like Microsoft, Salesforce, and Blackbaud are having on nonprofit technology. His interest in the use of AI to help nonprofits succeed in their missions sparked a friendship with Gravyty and he was happy to bring his ideas to our blog.

Gravyty: Thanks for joining us, Sam. Here at Gravyty, we’re laser-focused on building fundraiser enablement tools with AI to change what’s possible for nonprofits, higher eds, and hospitals. But you have a very different perspective on this world from your work with Walton Family Foundation. Rather than frontline fundraising, your focus is on the strategic use of technology to improve the grant process for organizations. Can you describe how you think AI can improve Social Good?

Sam: At Walton Family Foundation, we awarded 2,000 grants last year, totaling almost $600 Million in giving. The philanthropic sector is very process-driven – everything from accepting a grant proposal to accounts payable and measuring the impact of giving. Neural networks are one branch of AI, for example, that has ample opportunity to examine patterns in our data that are simply too obscure for even seasoned analysts to notice.

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I recently wrote about how, when trained for this particular use case, neural networks can help foundations do amazing things such as discover and address unconscious organizational bias. AI could alert a foundation to unconscious leanings towards certain types of grantees, projects, or teams. It could reveal a preference towards a particular type of leadership team, and notice exclusions in specific demographics, such as gender or race.

Flipped on its head, nonprofits applying for grants could use neural networks to improve their chances of receiving funding. For example, if we establish a data trust, we can analyze hundreds of grantmakers data and provide critical insight to all nonprofits.

Gravyty: How do you see AI impacting the role of fundraising at nonprofit organizations?

Sam: AI certainly has a role to play in successfully managing fundraising campaigns, especially in peer-to-peer online fundraising. For example, AI can give organizations an analysis of the content – the words, phrases, even images – that are being used in a campaign. Insights such as messaging, why one fundraiser was successful over another, and how to improve campaigns in real-time becomes possible.

Gravyty: You wrote about the role that technology (nonprofit and otherwise) giants play in the overall health of the nonprofit sector. Can you explain what you see happening and the impact you expect to see?

Sam: It’s great that organizations like Salesforce, Blackbaud, and Microsoft are so interested in the nonprofit sector. Just look at Microsoft alone: 200,000 nonprofits in the U.S. are already using their products. By building solutions that are created specifically for the data structure of nonprofits and for use cases that are unique to the sector, there are opportunities for organizations to evolve their ability to serve constituents and causes.

Gravyty: And you see AI as playing a critical role in this evolution?

Sam: AI will become a part of everything, it’s just a matter of when. While nonprofits have historically lagged behind for-profit organizations, that does not have to be the case for AI. In fact, non-profits can look to use cases in the for-profit space and almost have a crystal ball. It’s been well-documented what large organizations like Walmart are doing with AI. It’s a given that nonprofits will adopt and tailor those AI use cases to their own unique challenges.

Gravyty: Sam, thanks so much for your time. It was a pleasure learning about your vision for AI in the nonprofit space.

Sam is constantly producing great content and engaging in meaningful conversations online. If you want to tap into the pulse of technology in philanthropic giving, we encourage you to follow Sam on both LinkedIn and on Twitter @samcaplan.

To read more on why every nonprofit organization needs to develop an AI strategy, see Gravyty’s recent blog post.