You Can’t Automate Empathy: The Future of Labor in the Nonprofit Sector

Originally published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy as Rise of Robots Makes Nonprofit Workers More Essential Than Ever (4/30/2018)

The race to deliver last-mile goods to customers robotically is being accelerated by Amazon. The most recent patent awarded to Amazon gives them IP on the idea of “mobile bases” that can be used to robotically deliver packages through various means. As more of these delivery bots take to the skies and sidewalks, the oncoming wave of automation and job obsolescence will increase in visibility.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

While robots on wheels may be on pace to replace many package and food delivery jobs, one thing they won’t be threatening are groups like Meals on Wheels. More important than delivering food, programs like these are delivering human contact that helps connect homebound seniors with the outside world. This is the kind of work that depends on social intelligence, and it won’t easily be replaced by a robot.

So even as experts predict half the US workforce could find their jobs wiped out in coming decades, the nonprofit world faces a great opportunity: The jobs that are the safest from automation rely on creativity, social intelligence, perception, and manipulation. For at least the next two decades, machines will continue to struggle in matching the human brain’s ability to understand and empathize with others.

This means that, in the coming decade, America’s nonprofits will go from a nice addition to a necessary player in our economic and labor success.

Embracing the Empathy Economy…

That nonprofits are destined to flourish in the age of AI is by no means a passive, pollyannaish statement. Rather, our inability to automate empathy is a real wakeup call for those industry leaders and policymakers who overlook the nonprofit world’s role in our economy. And nonprofits and foundations face an important challenge now: They can start using the power they will increasingly have as the nation’s biggest employers to push adoption of an Empathy Economy.

The Empathy Economy is not just about the jobs nonprofit workers hold, but also the compassion we all show to one another in public policies that find ways for people who lose their jobs to automation to transition smoothly to new approaches, be it training for new types of jobs, a guaranteed basic income, a new wave of public-service jobs that pay people who volunteer to help others, or other efforts that ensure every American can pay for the necessities of life and find a sense of purpose and community.

Many nonprofits are already working on ways to ease the transitions in the workforce, exerting job creation influence on for-profit sector through incentives and adult education programs. Organizations like Goodwill, which has placed over 313,000 people into employment as of 2016, set an example for how nonprofits can move the needle outside of their sectors. Local groups like Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow* work deeply in the New York City community to create adult education and career building for thousands of disadvantaged people. There are also operations like the Opportunity Fund and Fund Good Jobs*, which seek to support families and businesses whose hiring practices meet both living wages and living standards. By offering financial incentives like loans and management trainings to provide better working-wage jobs, such organizations are impacting the way companies do business.

While we may still be a couple decades away from any significant job elimination from automation, we do know that this is an eventuality — not a possibility. Forecasts for elimination rate vary greatly, yet whether the eventual number of jobs lost is 38% (according to PricewaterhouseCoopers) or 47% (per the The Future of Employment), that total won’t be 0, as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin would have us believe.

For jobseekers, hope lies in an industry that has made hope its currency — a currency earned through action and empathy. The nonprofit world is built on our service to each other and the world around us. The work being done is real and depends on compassion, insight, and a community of interests.

…While Still Leveraging Technology

That doesn’t mean nonprofits aren’t using technology to transform their work — and they certainly will continue to do so. Case in point: New York Common Pantry, a nonprofit that helps feed over 300,000 annual visitors, transitioned to a digital system nearly a decade ago. Prior to the transition, volunteers made the same package of items for everyone based on family size. Now, 10% of the organization’s customers order online while the other 90% use on-site tablets. The importance of volunteers, however, hasn’t changed. They are still needed to support and connect with visitors as they interact with the tablets and wait to be served. The tablets and tech didn’t put people out of work — in fact, they enhanced the quality of service and helped the organization to grow.

The resilience of the nonprofit labor market has been clear for more than a decade. A 2012 study from Johns Hopkins University* notes that, through the Great Recession, nonprofits gained jobs at an average of 1.9% per year while the private sector lost jobs at 3.7%.

That’s in part because more people were in need — and they turned to nonprofits for help.

More recently, the 2017 Nonprofit Employment Practice Survey showed that 50% of nonprofits surveyed were planning to create jobs in the coming year, well above 40% of for-profits planning to hire. Over the past few years, the leading nonprofit job site Idealist.org*, has seen consistent year-over-year increases in nonprofit job postings. They are currently projecting continued growth going into 2018 based on current Q1 growth of around 10% vs this time last year.

Beyond Automation

It’s not just automation driving growth in the nonprofit workforce, it’s also demographics as more Baby Boomers move into retirement, more Millennials level up in their careers, and the first members of Gen Z enter the workforce. More than half of nonprofit jobs come from the healthcare and social services industry because those groups rely on millions and millions of people to provide aid — and they will soon need millions and millions more.

In light of this, it’s time for policy makers to lean in: rather than penalizing the nonprofit sector with tax code updates, our government should be looking to build labor-friendly policies. Right now, despite being tax exempt, nonprofits still pay payroll tax for their employees at the same rate that companies like Amazon and Apple do. Removing or reducing this tax burden on the sector’s employees is one place to start to support job growth needed in the coming years.

Meanwhile, the next time you see yet another article about the impending unemployment wave coming at the hands of automation, consider that with this wave will come a greater need for the human touch. Rather than fight the wave of AI and risk being swept away by the undertow, let’s also invest and promote the Empathy Economy.

*Idealist.org, Fund Good Jobs, Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health are all former clients of Whole Whale.