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Kevin Barenblat headshot

Nonprofit Builders are Pivotal in Pioneering AI for the Public Good

By Kevin Barenblat
careerVillage team at a meeting - nonprofit that created an AI driven chatbot to help students perfect their resumes and grow careers

Over 7 million learners from 190 countries have accelerated their careers with the help of CareerVillage.org. Among the nonprofit's offerings is a free AI chatbot that can help students perfect their resumes, hone their interview skills, choose a college major and more.

This story is part of AI for Good, a guest-contributed column focused on harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to reduce environmental impact and improve quality of life. If you're interested in contributing your perspective to this column, please get in touch with us here

A big announcement rocked the philanthropic world at the close of 2023. Ten leading funders pledged $200 million to advance artificial intelligence (AI) “for the public interest.” The initiative aligns the philanthropies’ grantmaking with the framework advocated by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. During her landmark speech last fall, she discussed the future of AI and how the technology has the potential to bring "profound good" and "profound harm."

Most of the discourse around AI to advance public interest is about mitigating harm with stronger governance. While this is critical, it’s also worth thinking about the other side: How do we ensure AI improves life for communities who have been left behind? 

After a decade of working closely with over 100 tech-powered nonprofits, I have seen tech's potential to address our most pressing challenges. I’ve also seen vulnerable populations get left behind in moments of innovation. This time, it should be different. AI should not only protect but actively work for the public interest. And nonprofits are crucial in fulfilling this mission. 

The evolving AI for humanity landscape

As part of their $200 million philanthropic commitment, the coalition aims to “leverage AI to innovate in the public interest and deliver breakthroughs to improve quality of life for people around the world." Fortunately, this future is not hypothetical. It is unfolding now thanks to AI-powered nonprofits.  

Builders are already deploying AI to address every problem humanity faces. Since the release of ChatGPT, AI innovations for social causes have massively increased. For instance, 37 percent of the nonprofits that applied to Fast Forward’s most recent tech accelerator are building AI tools. This trend is a significant jump from last year's applicant pool. 

Like any other industry, the nonprofit sector is realizing the vast opportunities of AI. We also shouldn't fail to notice that nonprofits are uniquely positioned to innovate with AI in the public’s interest since they operate without a profit motive. When it comes down to it, public interest isn't a side project for most nonprofits — it’s the main thing. 

Here are just a few examples of nonprofits using AI to create a positive impact on humanity. 

founder Jared Chung shows off his AI based career development and resume assistant Coach
Jared Chung, founder and executive director of CareerVillage.org, shows off the company's AI career mentor, Coach — which provides free, 24/7 guidance for students.

Providing career advice to under-resourced youth

The opportunity gap is persistent and complex. A convergence of factors like race, economic status, and family background significantly shape employment prospects and income disparities. Jared Chung, the founder and executive director of CareerVillage.org, has been tackling this issue for over a decade. His tool of choice? Technology. It’s what inspired CareerVillage and its AI career mentor, Coach. Unlike traditional (read: human) career advisors, Coach is free and available 24/7, offering students personalized guidance in navigating their career paths. 

This level of accessibility is key for students who may have a job that takes up their free time or might not have anyone to talk with about career paths. Learners have used CareerVillage to enhance their resumes, conduct mock interviews, get advice on college majors and much more. With CareerVillage's support, over 7 million learners from 190 countries have accelerated their professional journeys. Bridging the opportunity gap is crucial to addressing societal inequity, and it begins with efforts from AI-powered nonprofit builders like Jared.

Laura Kleiman - founder of AI driven cancer drug development platform RebootRX - talks with her team on video call
Laura Kleiman, founder and CEO of Reboot Rx, walks through existing generic drugs that could potentially treat prostate cancer with her team on video chat. 

Making cancer treatments accessible

Scientific research is rapidly advancing thanks to AI. This trend holds in developing affordable cancer treatments. Pharmaceutical companies are typically more incentivized to develop new, high-revenue-generating drugs over more affordable options. This leads approximately 40 percent of Americans with cancer to exhaust their life savings within two years of diagnosis. 

This harsh reality reveals an area of opportunity. Dr. Laura Kleiman, now founder and CEO of Reboot Rx, was a research center leader at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. The experience showed the potential to repurpose affordable generic drugs to treat certain types of cancer.

Bringing new cancer treatments to market tends to be a lengthy and expensive process. It often takes years and significant cost. Reboot Rx developed an AI tool to comb through thousands of published research studies to identify generic drugs suitable for cancer treatment. Without the use of AI and machine learning, this process would be manual and take years. But with machine learning, Reboot Rx brings the research timeframe down to mere weeks and substantially reduces costs. 

An example is the FDA-approved drug Anastrozole to prevent breast cancer in postmenopausal women. While its initial purpose was to treat breast cancer for women who already have it, it was recently approved as a preventative measure by the United Kingdom’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. Now, thousands of women in the U.K. can get the treatment they need, potentially saving their lives and preventing them from going into medical debt. 

Laura's experience, coupled with AI, has been key to unlocking this elegant, life-saving solution.

Abdulhamid Haidar - founder of AI driven math chatbot Darsel
Abdulhamid Haidar, creator of the math education chatbot Darsel.

Enhancing learning for low-resourced students

Two-thirds of young people globally lack home internet access. That's 2.2 billion young minds missing out on learning opportunities that could profoundly shape their futures. This is a problem that Abdulhamid Haidar felt a deep calling to solve. Growing up as a middle-class kid from Syria, Abdulhamid's trajectory was unlikely. His father tutored him in math, and it paved his way to MIT, Harvard and Stanford. Abdulhamid recognized that not all young learners have the privilege of personalized math intervention, but most have access to text messaging and other social messaging platforms — which don’t always require internet access. He created Darsel so students in low-income countries could receive the same personalized and interactive math support he got as a child. 

Darsel is a math-learning chatbot accessible via text message. Using AI, Darsel creates personalized curriculum by adapting content to each student’s levels. The chatbot provides hints and explanations that make learning math fun, while requiring less effort from teachers. It also bases its lessons on the local curriculum to keep students on track to meet their school requirements. 

The chatbot is deployed in over 2,000 schools across countries like Jordan, India (Delhi) and Nigeria (Lagos). Local curricula differ in every region, so Darsel must personalize its learning algorithms to meet various standards. It does so by training the AI on proprietary content directly from the schools in these countries. Thanks to Abdulhamid's vision and AI, quality education is now just a text message away for countless learners.

Gramhal team during inauguration of its first crop quality lab
The Gramhal team strikes a pose during the inauguration of its first crop quality lab. 

Improving the livelihoods of rural farmers 

Achint Sanghi, co-founder and chief technology officer of Gramhal, grew up in Bengaluru, India. He was deeply disturbed by the onslaught of news about farmers facing crop losses due to climate change and the resulting deaths by suicide. The devastating epidemic is a harsh reality, with 30 farmers dying by suicide each day as of 2022 (there is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the topic). Achint believed that we could — and should — provide farmers with better agricultural information to curb this injustice. 

He developed a solution. By pairing a WhatsApp chatbot with weather data, government agricultural data and crop price market intelligence, he unlocked access to good data that helps farmers increase their livelihoods and curb the effects of climate change at the same time.

The innovation doesn’t stop there. Using natural language processing (NLP), which is a computer’s ability to understand natural human language in written or spoken form, farmers can receive weather advisories in their local languages. 

Gramhal’s newest innovation is an audio-based digital community knowledge platform called Matar. It allows farmers at various literacy levels to ask questions, and its AI generates answers which are validated by other farmers, resulting in a shared hub of knowledge. Using AI to scale the collective wisdom of the local community enables farmers to do their best work. Achint and his team at Gramhal are unlocking access to essential information to improve farmers' quality of life.

The imperative of supporting AI for humanity

These stories illustrate the importance of supporting the builders of AI for humanity. Philanthropists like Reid Hoffman, Google.org, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and Salesforce, which began exploring “AI for humanity” long before AI became mainstream, understand the value of supporting the builders. These AI-powered nonprofits wouldn’t have impacted as many lives as they have today without the support of these trailblazing philanthropists.

It’s clear that AI has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities. But it also has the potential to scale solutions in ways we’ve never seen before. By supporting the good actors — the AI-powered nonprofit builders who are in a unique position to spearhead social impact with AI — we can meaningfully address the big problems we face across education, health, climate and more. Philanthropists are starting to pay attention to AI, but there is a need for more support. More funding will enable AI-powered nonprofits to build more, better and faster. 

Editor's Note: This story was updated on February 5, 2024, to correct Dr. Laura Kleiman's title.

Kevin Barenblat headshot

Kevin Barenblat is co-founder and president of Fast Forward. He is a seasoned tech entrepreneur who believes nonprofits can leverage technology to accelerate their social impact. Prior to Fast Forward, Kevin founded Context Optional, a social marketing software company, and served as CEO through the company's acquisition by Efficient Frontier, and later, Adobe. 

Read more stories by Kevin Barenblat