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By Kevin Leahy • June 3, 2019

AI IDEAS: John Mohr of The MacArthur Foundation

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John Mohr is Chief Information Officer (CIO) at The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the nation’s largest independent foundations which supports works that address some of the world’s most pressing social challenges in about 40 countries. John oversees foundation-wide technology services and planning, including providing resources to make MacArthur’s grantee organizations stronger and increase their capacities.

John Mohr, CIO, MacArthur Foundation

Gravyty recently had the opportunity to sit down with John to discuss using technology to create efficiencies in the nonprofit sector and he was quick to point to opportunities for artificial intelligence (AI). We captured our conversation in the Q&A below:

Gravyty: John, thanks for speaking with us today. Through its grant program, MacArthur Foundation has an enormous local and global impact. Could you explain what that reach looks like and the critical role technology plays?

John: MacArthur Foundation is the 12th largest foundation in the United States, our endowment is approximately $7 billion and we issue about a quarter of a billion dollars each year in grants to organizations that help us advance our objectives.

Our entire organization is only 200 people, so we have to work effectively and efficiently to research and issue grants. Part of our solution is to work with re-granters, which helps us operate at scale. But at the same time, we can’t double or triple the work of our staff this way. That’s where I see a lot of opportunity in technology. Five years ago, these conversations centered around implementing modern grants management systems. Now, these conversations focus on combining AI and machine learning to create efficiencies that weren’t possible before.

MacArthur Foundation's Impact

Gravyty: How are you looking to apply AI and machine learning?

John: We look for ways to work smartly. For example, we have to do a lot of research on the organizations we issue grants to. We’re looking to answer questions like: how does this organization’s mission compare others that we fund? Does this potential grantee help us advance our objectives in a specific area? AI automation and machine learning can help us sift through the quantitative data to make better decisions to these types of questions, and quickly.

At the end of the day, the best days I have are the ones that end with “John, the technology you’ve developed has helped us…” and that’s the type of outcome we can have with AI and machine learning.

Gravyty: And when you look to the organizations that MacArthur Foundation helps to fund, what ways can they use AI?

John: Many of our grantee organizations do a lot of fundraising themselves. For every dollar they bring in, some of it goes to fuel the mission and some of it goes toward fueling more fundraising. If you could systematically change those percentages a few points (make sure that more money goes to the mission-based activities), that’s a big deal over the course of 20, 30, 50 thousand dollars in gifts.

When technology acts as a multiplier of efficiency, the percentage change it creates for an organization is significant. On the revenue side, we all know which numbers to look at to see ROI flow through. On the staffing and resources side, we have to consider what it’s worth to have another hour in our day, then compound that monthly and annually. That’s what the real transformation stories are about.

MacFound100&Change

Gravyty: Speaking of staffing and resources, do you have any thoughts on the narrative around AI and job loss?

John: It certainly speaks to the disruptive nature and capability of AI technology to make very real changes. What happened to workers when we moved from paper-based systems? We freed up people who could now have different types of jobs with higher-value tasks. In the nonprofit world especially, we have to question if we’re doing things that can make a difference for our mission or if we’re doing work that keeps up stuck in a spreadsheet. We want people to be at a higher level of the hierarchy of high-level tasks. I think of it as moving up that value curve or pyramid, rather than lopping off jobs.

This is why we -- the collective we -- need to advance discussions around AI so that we’re taking the incremental steps to use it to help achieve our missions.

Gravyty: John, thank you so much for your time, it’s been wonderful speaking to you.

For more from John, head over to @johnmohr on Twitter, where he maintains an active feed and regularly shares content about philanthropy, MacArthur Foundation's impact, technology, and organizations that are working to change the world.