Is artificial intelligence the future of charity?

Techforgood Feature

We’re living in a digital age.. Everyone else has to keep up with the pace of technological change, and that includes charities.

While some lag behind, others – like The Children’s Society – see the huge potential behind artificial intelligence in particular.

What are The Children’s Society doing?

Having already trialled an AI chatbot to promote their fundraising events, The Children’s Society are sponsoring and supporting 10 social tech start-ups, presented to them by the brightest minds, over 2-3 years to be part of the Bethnal Green Ventures accelerator programme.the-childrens-society

They’re looking for projects they think can be realistically translated to help them achieve their objective of making life better for vulnerable children and young people.

Kirsten Naude, Head of Investment and Partnerships, says that they’re looking for a range of ventures focused on social good for the accelerator programme. This will fast track and scale impact by complementing current provision with a digital layer, which might prove more accessible. This will engage young people who aren’t traditionally able or willing to access face-to-face services for whatever reason.

Kirsten told us how it will work. “A social tech startup will apply to the programme, we will shortlist them to see the different aspects of the team, what the products look like and what the ambition is for scale, then we’ll decide which ones go on the programme.”

What are they looking for?

It doesn’t have to be AI-related, but it does need to have an impact for young people. The charity has invested in two projects so far, one of which is a chatbot to help young people who need answers to urgent questions.


“It might be for young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, or perhaps they want access to benefits. They would use the bot, which replicates human interaction and provides a response. Bethnal Green Ventures help the creators by accelerating the process, so perhaps by helping them to build the database of responses quicker. We help them by giving them access to their key audience, which is vulnerable young people.”

The Children’s Society have pledged to invest in 10 of these types of startups in the next 10 years, and Kirsten says that the type of technology they’re looking for will help improve life around a range of issues important to young people.

“It might change as time goes on, depending on what we see to be the major challenges facing vulnerable children. For example, it might focus on mental health, which we know is a big issue facing our young people today, or supporting young refugees.”

How do they decide who to invest in?

The Children’s Society take their time picking projects. They want to make sure that the young people they’re helping will truly benefit from the tech they invest in, so they test potential ideas on young people first to make sure they’re going to be well received.

“We won’t just assume that young people will engage with tech. Recently we invested in a couple of Google cardboards and took them to our mental health hub, where young people spent the day speaking to some of our virtual therapists.”

“They loved it. The therapists said it was a good way to talk to young people whilst they were in a safe environment, without them having to be there on the scene, and it was well-received by the young people, too. This way, we know that our young people are going to engage with what we’re offering.”


Is this advancement necessary for charities?

Kirsten thinks so.

“It’s so important that charities move towards this kind of innovation. It’s so innovative out there at the moment, and it’s basically adapt or die. You have to do things differently now. Charities can’t continue to do things the way we have always done them and have a stake in the market.”

“Investors and donors are very strict now about where they send their money. There’s a risk that you’ll become irrelevant, especially to young people. Their lives are very different from the lives of people their age 20 years ago.”

How do other charities get started?

According to Kirsten, it can be as simple as fostering important conversations within the organisations, something they facilitate through what they call an ‘incubator’. Staff can plug in conversations or thoughts they’ve had, and the incubator gives them the space to grow.

“It has changed the way that we work. I can see it slowly moving across the organisation. More people are starting to realise that this is a good way of working. It has given us the authority to go out and do things, and there have been amazing things that have come out of this. Having that permission to go out and just do it is really important for us.”


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