Do Bots Have a Role in Social Change?
February 23, 2017
Chris Eigner, CEO of the digital product agency Epsilon Eight and the engineer behind CiCi, had asked me to test out the sex education bot before he released it publicly. While I'm usually an eager user of technologies in beta, I found myself feeling sheepish about talking to a bot about sex. So I decided to outsource the task to a friend, who had me ask CiCi a question about condoms. The bot's response was both mature and relevant: "There is nothing wrong with having sex so long as you are mature enough to handle the responsibilities and consequences."
Feeling like we were off to a good start, I decided to tell CiCi that I was "asking for a friend," just as one might in a conversation with a real person. CiCi's response was sweet: "You can't put a price on true friendship."
What may sound like a simple exchange was actually a remarkable experience. CiCi was capable of being simultaneously educational and personable. Interactions like this — casual, informative, bot-driven — increasingly will be part of our lives, and we should be careful not to underestimate how significant this development is likely to be for the future of social change efforts.
Despite calls for the sector to be more innovative, our field is a late adopter of new technologies. The ascendancy of bots represents a real opportunity for us to do better. Rather than delaying adoption, we can and should begin developing and using these tools at the same time as — not after — the usual early adopters.
But what does it mean to adopt chatbots as a tool for creating social change? And how can social change organizations use them to advance their cause in a time of political turmoil and resource constraints? Let's look at four valuable applications:
Fundraising growth. Interaction and automation are essential to scaling your fundraising efforts, and chatbots can take those efforts to a new level. charity: water has already launched a chatbot that allows supporters to engage with and donate to the organization via Facebook Messenger. Don't be surprised to see, in the not-too-distant future, other organizations scale their fundraising rapidly with one-click giving that enables anyone to donate to an organization like GLAAD simply by sending a rainbow emoji.
Enhanced transparency. The social sector's approach to transparency is outdated. People want their questions about impact and an organization’s financials answered as soon as they ask them, rather than having to dig around its website, where they may or may not find what they're looking for. Because they are perfectly suited to giving people the information they want quickly and efficiently, chatbots are poised to usher in a new era of transparency — and the trust it engenders.
Navigating bureaucracy. Typically built around a set of burdensome rules and often outdated assumptions, bureaucratic processes are a perfect place for using bots. A great example is Do Not Pay, a bot created by Stanford undergraduate Joshua Browder that is billed as "the world's first robot lawyer." The bot brings free legal services such as fighting unfair parking tickets, arguing tenant cases against landlords, and applying for social services to people who otherwise be unable to afford them. In the not-too-distant future, expect bots to eliminate all sorts of bureaucratic headaches for us.
We are living through a transformative period of history. Not only are sophisticated tools like chatbots becoming available to organizations of all shapes and sizes, but the democratization of the technology underpinning these tools increasingly means we can build them ourselves. All this points to an opportunity for the widespread adoption of chatbots resulting in a new level of organizational effectiveness and impact.
But while chatbots can do a lot, they can't do everything. And that means that, for the foreseeable future, real people will continue to be the primary drivers of social change. It might just be a little easier with a bot by our sides.
Kyle Crawford is CEO and founder of Fundraising Genius, an innovative platform that teaches startup growth techniques to foundation, higher education, and nonprofit leaders. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.