Continuous Learning: Adapting to Automation in Philanthropy

Full disclosure: I’m a child of the 90s; but even so, I’m often reminded that the way we work is undergoing unprecedented change. We’ve moved from streamlined careers, telephones and paper-based datasheets to meandering career paths, video conferencing and virtually unlimited sources of data on the net.

While these developments have helped us as workers, task automation is much more disruptive and can feel threatening especially as debates around decent work heat-up and tangible examples of job-replacement arise (in 2015, logistics accounted for ~8% of US GDP).

Though automation is largely framed as a corporate question (e.g. manufacturing, banking, etc.), increasing pressure to be financially transparent and results-driven have forced foundations and non-profits to consider, learn and adopt the efficiencies made possible by technology in their day-to-day work. Specifically, what we often hear from EDs and Board members is that routine administrative tasks need to be automated, targeting overhead costs to an internally determined goal. In some cases, they need to easily aggregate data to measure impact.

This often is a trigger for Foundations to ask us to help them with their Digital Strategy, solution selection process and to build their integration/automation strategy. While we are always glad to help, our human-centred approach requires us to take pause. In particular, having completed over 120 projects in the grantmaking space, we see the conversation around automation getting heavy as three core questions and insecurities emerge:

Integrating continuous learning, training, and education into organization’s day-to-day operations and culture is a key answer to many of these concerns. An article by The Economist in early 2017, suggests that as automation puts some jobs at risk, employees need to pursue iterative education and training to learn how to perform new roles. We see this principle echoed in conversations around machine-learning in corporate finance and more recently in Scott Heartly’s book The Fuzzy and the Techie, suggesting that the future of work lies in softer skills and people skills which are needed in order to guide human-centric design in technology. In short, there is always more valuable and strategic work to be done that currently, only humans can do, but re-training will become habitual in order to accommodate this shift. 

Leading up to  TAG’s 2017 conference (with a focus on learning), GrantBook will be sharing our technical and people-focused research and recommendations on integrations, automations and change management. From blog posts to webinars to at-booth workshops, we want to help grantmakers large and small understand and prepare for the future of work. This coming week we’ll start by discussing the what and how of integrations and automations with our partners atSurveyMonkey Apply.

James Law's headshot

James Law

Director, Design & Foresight

Director, Design & Foresight

James Law has worked for 10 years in the social finance and social sectors, designing, exploring, and implementing technologies to help organizations activate mission and achieve impact.

He began working in lean non-profits, employing databases and constituent relationship management tools (CRM) to help track and aggregate data for land conservation and environmental protection. Moving into social finance, he managed the development of an application to administer community bonds and equity.

Moving to Grantbook in 2015, James dove head first into helping foundations—of all types—align on digital values, explore technology options, and select the best path forward. From there, he continued to explore solutions architecture and integrations, connecting best-in-class tools to meet the ideal needs of grantmakers, grantees, and all stakeholders. 

More recently James is investing in Grantbook’s use of service design tools—from personas to service blueprints—to increase resilience and reduce the risk of technology planning and adoption via human-centred thinking. He also helps rally and co-ordinate Grantbook’s new ideas and opportunities as philanthropy and technology change.