Artificial Intelligence and Philanthropy, Why Not?

World leaders in technology converged on San Francisco in late 2015 to discuss the future of work at Tim Oreilly’s Next:Economy summit. Certain of an uncertain future, Venture Capitalists, CEO’s, and Social Justice Warriors convened. From Microsoft to industrial giant General Electric to social innovators like Code for America everyone had a piece to discuss. Some of the burning topics included Unions of the Future, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Network Model Corporations (like Uber), mobile benefits, and the impact to people’s jobs that the future holds.

As a member of the philanthropic community I observed the discussion from the lens of a grantmaker. Almost everything discussed seemed to have great implications for Philanthropy, but the most interesting new trends was Artificial Intelligence.

Will AI have an impact on Philanthropy?

In short: Absolutely. During the conference, Sebastian Thrun, regarded as one of the foremost leaders in AI recalled a story of how he and his team invented the first Self Driving car at Stanford. Perhaps most interesting was that it started with a call from Sergey Brin, CEO of Google. Brin told Thrun, “AI is advanced enough, we can create self-driving cars now.” To which Thrun replied, “Sergey, that will never happen, it is impossible.” But after a night’s sleep, he wondered “Why Not?” And indeed within the next year he and his team of students had used AI to invent the first self-driving car. Thrun’s advice for all of us at the conference was really to expect AI to come faster than we think and have broader impacts than most realize.

With that charge from Thrun, I reflected. Will AI affect Philanthropy? At first I thought No. But Thrun’s words have me thinking: “Why Not?” And, like Thrun, after a night’s sleep I am certain that AI will greatly impact all our work.

What problem is AI solving for Philanthropy?

In short: Information Overload. 7 billion on earth and soon it will be 8. There are trillions of opportunities, billions of social problems to solve, millions of partnerships to ponder. With the Internet all of these opportunities present themselves to us every day. Sometimes the right people are missed, the right organization is rejected, or the right partnerships are never even considered. All the information is there, we just simply need to parse it. And we can’t parse fast enough. But computers can. Until recently computers were not “smart” enough to be of much use.

The problem with traditional computers is that they have always been good at quantitative problems (e.g. 1+1=2), and historically bad at qualitative (e.g. happy+sad=rueful). But innovation in AI computers are getting much better at the qualitative and that spells good things for Philanthropy. Let’s take a minute to dream and consider possible impact that AI could have.

What might AI in Philanthropy look like?

Sataya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, believes that the greatest personal assistant of the coming decade will be Cortana, the new AI in new versions of Windows. I believe the greatest philanthropist within a generation or two will be an AI system. Self-aware: Definitely not. But I believe AI will be absolutely excellent at philanthropy. Let’s take a moment to dream and consider a few impact areas;

Grant Applications Review

AI could pre-screen applications against core values, mission fit, and size-up potentially applicants. Advanced AI systems may one day instantly size up and grant awards greatly reducing the time from idea to impact for a grantee side.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Automatic monitoring of grantee organizations to identify key concern issues. For example high turnover on linked-in combined with lack of twitter focus may flag a grant needs review. AI may one day read grantee reports and match evaluation criteria against impact. One day advanced AI may be able to write initiative overview summaries across multiple grants greatly reducing time and effort spend on aggregating and reporting information.

Impact Investing

Impact investing refers to investments made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate a measurable, beneficial social or environmental impact alongside a financial return. AI may one day identify “B” corporations that fit mission goals for investment allocations. One day AI may allow individual investors to have a social component in their portfolio as easily as they allocate across asset classes today.

Board Reports

The Associated Press has robot journalists write over 3,000 reports each quarter on various companies. This activity is 10 times what was possible before. Eventually the task of synthesizing activities and delivering reports could be a burden of the past.

Landscape Awareness

The Gates Foundation set it’s sights towards ending Malaria. They determined a wide range of approaches worked, some low-tech such as mosquito nets, and others high-tech such as disease research. All of these approaches produce some kind of return on investment towards the goal of total elimination. One day an AI working around the clock thinking about Malaria might have additional novel ideas and approaches. Perhaps monitoring market conditions, cost of research, or linkedin profiles of people with Malaria credentials AI might discover groups of people to convene and fund that didn’t even know of each other’s work. In the distant future, AI may one day identify emerging social problems and tackle them before they become major social problems.


It is a good time for our sector to form a think-tank dedicated to the study of Artificial Intelligence and Philanthropy. We solve big problems and enrich humanity in novel ways. AI can help us. Almost every industry is busying itself with training and innovating their AI systems. There is an AI for driving, AI for Finance, AI for media publishing, AI for Flying, AI for medicine, AI for manufacturing. Some we interact with already and have names we recognize like Siri and Cortana. These virtual brains are getting smarter by the day and pushing the envelope of progress in their industries. I think it’s time we all ask the question, “why not an AI for philanthropy?”

About The Author

Orion Matthews a technologist, non-profit expert and an entrepreneur. He serves as Lead Consultant at Orion Consulting an independent information technology consultancy. Our motto “Aut viam et faciam” is Latin for “I shall either find a way or make one.” We are professional digital way finders and bridge builders. Our team serves some of the world’s largest companies, foundations and non-profits. @orion.matthews

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