Like their for-profit peers, the concept of an automated future fills most nonprofit executives with a mixture of excitement and anxiety.
As more and more human tasks succumb to robot hands, legitimate concerns abound—the accountability of AIs, the obsolescence of human workers, the sense that no skill is quite safe.
But these concerns can distract us from the value of smaller-scale automation. Also known as RPA (Robotic Process Automation), it holds significant promise for organizations across the nonprofit sector.
1. Automation, not autonomy
Many confuse RPA with autonomous AI. BDO defines RPA as “the use of software that automates manual tasks…[eliminating] the need for employees to perform repetitive tasks by integrating software that performs the same set of steps the employee does.”
BDO goes on to remark that “about 25% of the CEO’s tasks could be automated” in this manner.
Does this mean even the CEO’s job isn’t safe? Of course not. The point is that, from the bottom to the top of an organization, employees spend a disproportionate amount of time on repetitive and manual tasks. RPA narrowly targets these necessary but inefficient processes. By targeting these laborious processes, RPA can promote balance between the mission-importance of a task and the time that it requires.
As fundraising expert Kyle Crawford puts it, “The point of [small] automations is simply to give you and your staff more time back so that you can do the most valuable parts of your work.”
2. RPA heightens process efficiency
RPA has several efficiency-related advantages over manual labor.
First, RPA accomplishes tasks more quickly and accurately than humans could. Take bank reconciliation, for example. Using manual processes, a human accountant can only reconcile about ten entries per minute. That’s working quickly, and it includes a high margin of error. By contrast, RPA in a system like Xledger ERP can reduce bank rec to less than half an hour every month.
Second, RPA ensures completion and consistency. Too often, overworked humans fail to complete mundane tasks or perform them on an irregular basis. Nonprofits are especially prone to this, with employees feeling “like they are letting down the whole mission” if they admit being overwhelmed. By performing mind-numbing tasks, RPA can even help with staff burnout.
Third, RPA promotes uniformity and transparency. Automated processes accomplish tasks on time and in a traceable manner. According to Ron Grant, this renders “database maintenance, event management, fundraising, and email marketing efforts less burdensome and more uniform.”
3. Integrated RPA streamlines collaboration
One of RPA’s most significant advantages appears only when it is part of a unified system. An advanced ERP solution like Xledger uses RPA to streamline mundane tasks. But it does more. Xledger integrates these tasks and the data they generate into one system.
Prone to fragmentation and siloes, many nonprofits stand in desperate need of such task and data unification. Single-process RPA can’t provide that. But RPA in a unified system can. And given the glaring divisions between most finance and fundraising departments, nonprofits would do well to take advantage of it.
4. RPA helps nonprofits prepare for the future
Autonomous AI is the way of the future. It’s a mantra we’ve heard from all sides. Robots are outperforming humans in a rapidly widening variety of tasks. From strategy games to factory lines, machines pose an increasing threat to the way humans work.
But there are still things ‘autonomous’ AI can’t do—or at least, can’t do well. And these are, in most cases, the very skills that nonprofits thrive on. “For at least the next two decades,” writes George Weiner in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “machines will continue to struggle in matching the human brain’s ability to understand and empathize with others.” Human connection, human communication, human care and concern—these will continue to demand actual, flesh-and-blood human beings.
By automating manual tasks, nonprofits can free staff resources for these uniquely human activities. Weiner even suggests that workers from other sectors who find themselves suddenly nonessential might flock to nonprofits, to jobs where humanity is still necessary. Nonprofits, he says, must “start using the power they will increasingly have as the nation’s biggest employers to push adoption of an empathy economy.”
Whether or not you agree with Weiner’s exhortation, his analysis is sound. With RPA, nonprofits can major in core competencies—competencies that will only rise in social value.