By Kevin Leahy • October 1, 2019

    AI IDEAS: Erik Arnold of Tech for Social Impact at Microsoft Philanthropies


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    Erik Arnold is the Global CTO of Tech for Social Impact at Microsoft Philanthropies. Last year alone, Microsoft awarded $1.4 billion in software grants, cash grants, and services to nonprofits and has given more than $1 billion dollars to causes each year for more than half a decade. As a thought leader who has a passion for connecting nonprofit organizations to technologies and leading digital transformations that empower organizations to efficiently execute on their missions, we were honored to sit down with Erik and get his thoughts on artificial intelligence (AI) in the nonprofit sector.

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    Gravyty: Can you tell us about Microsoft Philanthropies and Tech for Social Impact -- its footprint, your mission, and where you are focused today?

    Erik: Microsoft has a long 37-year history of philanthropic giving and philanthropy is in the very DNA of the company. We focus giving on specific causes. First, we are sensitive to the fact that the digital revolution has upset some traditional businesses. We invest in communities that have been hit hard by this revolution to help with job reskilling and investment so the people impacted can participate in the digital economy. We invest in humanitarian action, focusing on refugees, children, the rights of individuals for fair trial, and digital skills. We also invest in disaster response and using technology for damage assessment and routing volunteers who are among the first to respond to disasters. The use of AI to aid in solving some of the world’s toughest challenges is increasing at the core of our contributions.

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    We launched the Tech for Social Impact (TSI) group in 2017 within Microsoft Philanthropies to help nonprofits fully utilize the power of technology to scale their impact and serve more beneficiaries than ever before. The nonprofit sector has been historically left with a variety of technology originally designed for for-profit companies that never quite fits their needs and, coupled with that, nonprofits don't always have the capacity to use the technology, as many small organizations don't have a designated IT team. TSI was created to deconstruct these problems in the industry and to aim to digital transform the industry at scale.

    Gravyty: Your background spans the nonprofit sector and also the technology space. From your perspective, how have nonprofit organizations kept pace with the digital transformation happening in the business world, at large?

    Erik: I came to Microsoft directly from the nonprofit sector, but also spent more than a decade at a Bill Gates funded startup. I saw the rapid pace of innovation happening, particularly around cloud solutions, but I did not see these innovations reaching nonprofits in a significant way until 10 years after the for-profit community was already benefiting from them.

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    What I realized is that the nonprofit sector needed a better relationship with tech. Engagement between for-profit tech companies and nonprofits often relied on personal relationships. Access to technology, offers, purpose-built technology was unevenly distributed, and many organizations were unable to get the attention or resources that they needed to begin a digital transformation. One root cause was that technology providers didn’t treat nonprofit organizations as first-class customers. Nonprofit is a well understood industry and the pace of technology adoption in nonprofit is often slow, and I realized that what was needed was for both nonprofit and for-profit to shift their thinking. Corporate social responsibility programs are enormously useful, but for-profit corporations must lean in and incorporate nonprofit-specific resources, purpose-built technology, and capacity building programs. For nonprofits to have truly engaged partnerships, we had to respect the need for sustainable business models. Focus on ethical pricing, durable solutions, shared models, training and support.

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    As nonprofits, if we were going to be serious about using technology to execute on our missions and expect that tech providers cater solutions to our specific needs, then we would have to change our expectation of ‘free’ and, with ethical pricing, respect sustainable business models.

    This is what we do at Tech for Social Impact at Microsoft. We empower nonprofit organizations across the planet to access and effectively use technology in a revenue-neutral business model. We price solutions in a way that there is a small margin to fuel innovation and fund the team. Anything we make above that goes toward grants and investments into our AI for Good program, without contributing to Microsoft’s bottom line. In this way, we’re balancing our donations and are helping 300,000 nonprofits consume digital technology.

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    Gravyty: In what ways do you see artificial intelligence empowering nonprofit organizations that embrace digital technologies?

    Erik: Uniformly, there’s a lot of interest in how to take advantage of AI. Garnering insights from data; mixing external contextual data with internal programmatic data; shortening the feedback loop for the frontline worker to get real-time feedback from everything from funding to data collection -- there’s a lot here. A quick, practical example: Amnesty International is a strong advocate for the protection of basic human rights. They’re using AI and machine learning to both detect violence against women in social media and to detect executions by crawling global media. They’re using social listening and Bing data to quickly identify potential human rights violations and with Power BI dashboards, prioritize advocacy and social media campaigns.

    We believe advanced technologies like artificial intelligence can unlock solutions for the biggest challenges facing society. That’s why we created the AI for Good initiative, a $125-million, five-year commitment to use artificial intelligence to help address societal challenges. The initiative is comprised of four programs: AI for Earth, AI for Accessibility, AI for Humanitarian Action, and AI for Cultural Heritage. A fundamental aspect of AI for Good is combining Microsoft’s technology and AI expertise with the talent of groups around the world to solve societal issues and create a more accessible and sustainable world.

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    Gravyty: What challenges do nonprofit organizations face when looking to adopt AI?

    Erik: As far as challenges and barriers, it’s not common for nonprofits to carry data scientists on staff. So, while they must do a lot of statistical analysis for monitoring and evaluation, they don’t necessarily have the resources to get into advanced technologies and data modeling. While our research shows that 85% of supporters and 95% of funding decision-makers say they’re more likely to support a nonprofit if it is using technology to run its programs in a better way, technology is chronically underfunded. That’s why Microsoft Tech for Social Impact team doesn’t only focus on turn-key solutions. We also focus on secure data aggregation solutions in Azure, on connectors to contextual data to provide rich analytics, on skill building for nonprofit staff. When we build a solution as we did for Amnesty International, we make it available for free for others to use. Our AI for Good programs have a similar philosophy. They work directly with nonprofits to create AI solutions that contribute to a core set of purpose-built technology available for nonprofits to incorporate into their programs.

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    In my experience, the programmatic tech is sexy stuff. It’s also out of reach for many nonprofits. You must crawl before you can walk or run. How can Microsoft help by building toward systematic efficiencies that leverage AI? How can a nonprofit organization use AI to improve fundraising, understand the influencers in their ecosystems, design events, or bring impact to their constituents? AI presents nonprofits with opportunities to achieve more impact, bring better stories back to constituents, and build the trust necessary to secure additional gifts and funding to further mission impact. In our humble role, we try to make it easier for nonprofits to have clarity for how investment in advanced technology leads to improved impact.

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    Gravyty: Erik, thanks so much for speaking to us. It’s been wonderful learning about your vision for AI in the nonprofit sector.

    Erik Arnold is an active LinkedIn user who constantly produces and shares engaging content and views. You can follow him on LinkedIn here.

    To see what AI-enabled nonprofit organizations look like, check out this video from Cure Alzheimer's Fund.


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