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Mary Mazzoni headshot

AI for Impact: Skilling Up Nonprofit Leaders for the Latest Generative Technology

Salesforce's AI for Impact accelerator provides funding, technology and coaching to help nonprofits unlock the potential of AI to further their missions.
By Mary Mazzoni
person using AI chatbot on their phone

The artificial intelligence boom is in full swing, as generative AI tools like Jasper and ChatGPT take over our workplaces and AI-based chatbots play feature in everything from the way we shop to the way we learn. Globally, 77 percent of businesses are using or exploring AI, but smaller companies with fewer resources tend to be slower to adopt. The technology giant Salesforce is looking to extend the potential of AI to another group at risk of falling behind. 

Nonprofit organizations provide a vital lifeline to underserved people and communities worldwide, but many are understaffed, strapped for budget and could use some help of their own. AI technologies have the potential to automate mundane tasks and support dynamic new tools for the people and communities nonprofits serve. But nonprofit leaders aren't exactly known as technology trailblazers, and lack of resources when it comes to tech means that many miss out on the opportunities emerging technologies can afford.

"When we think about digital transformation and the AI revolution that we're in right now, how the world is undergoing this incredible shift, we want to make sure the organizations that are serving our communities — those on the front lines, working day in and day out — really have the tools they need to do that work," said Naomi Morenzoni, SVP of philanthropy for Salesforce.

Indeed around 74 percent of nonprofits consider digital transformation a “need-to-have” or “must-have,” according to 2022 Salesforce research, but many struggle to move beyond the row of dusty desktop computers donated in decades past.

Salesforce's newest accelerator, AI for Impact, is looking to change that by providing funds, technology and coaching to help nonprofits unlock the potential of AI to further their missions. 

"I think of AI, and generative AI in particular, as augmenting the superpowers of nonprofit staff and leaders. It helps them do what they do best in a more efficient or effective way," Morenzoni said. "The AI for Impact Accelerator brings together unrestricted funding, donated technology, as well as one-on-one coaching from Salesforce experts and staff to help them as they're shaping and developing those strategies." 

From skills-matching to teacher simulations: Inside the AI for Impact Accelerator 

The first round of the AI for Impact Accelerator will distribute $2 million in funding to help six nonprofits develop new solutions using AI.

The organizations vary in their size and approach, but all focus on education and workforce development. The U.S. organization Per Scholas, for example, connects people with the skills and resources they need to switch careers into technology. That takes the form of free technical training, as well as coaching and consultation. It's highly impactful work — with more than 20,000 graduates moving on to successful tech careers — but it often relies on individualized services that can be difficult to scale. 

"These are often individuals who've maybe been a cashier at Walmart or a floor manager at Chipotle. They have a lot of skills and experience managing a high volume of customers, doing operations or dealing with complex situations, but it's hard to translate those skills directly to a traditional tech resume," Morenzoni explained. 

Per Scholas' career coaches work with learners one-on-one to build resumes and cover letters that clearly connect their skills to what's needed by technology employers. "But that's really time and labor intensive," Morenzoni said. 

Through AI for Impact, Per Scholas is looking to automate the first pass of the process with an AI tool that matches each learner's experience with in-demand skills, allowing career coaches to spend more time on the nuanced conversations that can really set learners up for success. 

The nonprofit is definitely onto something: Surveys suggest nearly half of all jobseekers now craft their resumes and cover letters with the help of generative AI tools like ChatGPT, so it's easy to see how a custom AI solution could make this crucial step of the job search faster and easier for Per Scholas staff and the people they serve.  

Salesforce AI for Impact

Meanwhile, in the U.K., the nonprofit Teacher Development Trust is looking to mirror the success of another industry to help educators do their jobs better. "Flight simulation has transformed the way that pilots fly," Morenzoni explained, and the nonprofit hopes to do the same with teacher simulations.

As a former teacher, Morenzoni knows all about the difficulties that come with managing a classroom and the doubt that can creep in after facing difficult situations. "Being in the classroom can be a really lonely experience, and classroom management is really, really hard," she said. "I used to leave a situation and and think, 'Oh gosh, how could I have handled that differently?' Maybe I'd talk to my department chair, and they would give me some coaching." 

The Teacher Development Trust aims to automate this process for the 4,000 educators it serves annually across the U.K. "Their idea is creating an on-demand, chat-based simulation for teachers where they can put in their exact environment, what happened in the classroom, what their mix of students are, and get fed back a real-time simulation — based on the pedagogy we know is trusted from the Teacher Development Trust — to help guide those teachers in the process of responding," Morenzoni said. "Again, it's taking that superpower of one-on-one coaching and making it scalable and making it faster so those teachers can really get the support they need." 

Likewise, the U.S. organization College Possible is developing an AI-driven platform to assist coaches as they work to get students from underserved communities into college, while the global organization CareerVillage.org aims to leverage AI to "put the world’s greatest career coach in the pocket of millions of young people."  

The organizations will be incubated in a six-month cohort, where they'll receive coaching from Salesforce experts about how to build their solutions effectively and ethically in order to maintain user trust. More than 300 Salesforce employees signed up to provide pro-bono coaching to nonprofit partners. Six will ultimately serve as coaches, with their skills closely matched to each nonprofit's needs. 

"One of the things we hear consistently from our nonprofit partners is that the talent gap and being able to access top talent around technology is a real challenge," Morenzoni said. "Being able to connect them with our developers, architects, and data scientists to provide one-on-one coaching and support is invaluable for those organizations." 

Coaches will be available for another six months after the cohort wraps, and the nonprofits will have free access to Salesforce products for two years to support the development of their AI solutions. 

More work is needed to help nonprofits unlock the power of AI

While it's too early to tell how an accelerator model like this can work for nonprofits, Salesforce is already seeing promising results from its first nonprofit accelerator launched last year. The four nonprofits incubated in Salesforce's Accelerator for Nature are already starting to implement new solutions using technology — including the nonprofit Rainforest Connection's AI acoustic monitoring tool that can pick up the sounds of illegal deforestation.

Results like these demonstrate the untapped potential of AI for nonprofits, but much more work is needed in order to help them realize it. "During this moment of an AI revolution where everyone is moving as fast as possible, we need to make sure that these organizations are not left behind," Morenzoni said. 

Salesforce pioneered the 1-1-1 model of philanthropy, donating 1 percent of corporate equity, 1 percent of product and 1 percent of employee time to community causes since its inception. Thousands of companies have signed up to do the same through the 1% Pledge, and Salesforce is looking to get more leaders on board. 

"Every company should be stepping up with its technology, its products, its services, and its people to serve our communities," Morenzoni said. "And to do that effectively, they have to start with listening. They have to start with trust, and they have to be led by the organizations who are doing the work day in and day out."

Image credits: terovesalainen/Adobe Stock and Salesforce

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni