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Crawl, Walk, Run: Navigating the AI Adoption Journey for Nonprofits

By: Renee Davis

In the fast-paced landscape of nonprofit operations, staying ahead often means embracing innovative solutions that can drive impact and efficiency. Enter Artificial Intelligence (AI), a transformative technology with the potential to revolutionize how nonprofits operate, engage with stakeholders, and achieve their missions. 

However, navigating the journey of AI adoption can seem daunting, especially for organizations unfamiliar with its intricacies. Just like any journey, adopting AI for nonprofits can be best approached through a phased strategy, akin to the familiar concept of "crawl, walk, run". Let's explore how this approach can guide nonprofits through their AI adoption journey, from initial exploration to full integration and mastery.


At the crawl stage, organizations are just beginning their journey with AI adoption. This phase involves the basic integration of AI tools and technologies into existing systems, typically focusing on automating manual tasks or implementing simple AI-driven solutions. The goal is to establish a foundation for AI usage and gain initial experience with its capabilities.

Crawl examples:

  • Automated Data Entry and Cleanup:
    Example: A nonprofit service center that provides food assistance to families in need uses Salesforce to manage client information. Implementing AI-powered tools within Salesforce, such as automatic data capture from intake forms or receipts, streamlines the process of entering client data into the system. Additionally, AI algorithms can help identify and correct errors or inconsistencies in the data, ensuring its accuracy and reliability for future use.
  • Chatbots for Constituent Support:
    Example: A humanitarian organization operating a helpline for refugees utilizes Salesforce with integrated AI-powered chatbots to provide immediate support to individuals seeking assistance. The chatbots can handle common inquiries about available services, eligibility criteria, and application processes, allowing the organization's staff to focus on more complex cases and emergencies.


In the walk stage, organizations advance their AI adoption by expanding integration and sophistication. This phase involves deploying more advanced AI applications and strategies, such as predictive analytics or personalized engagement, across different functions or departments. The emphasis is on scaling AI initiatives and achieving tangible improvements in efficiency, effectiveness, or outcomes.

Walk examples:

  • Personalized Donor Engagement:
    Example: A nonprofit organization focused on education programs for underprivileged youth leverages AI-driven analytics within Salesforce to personalize donor outreach. By analyzing donor preferences and giving history, the organization can tailor fundraising appeals and communications to match donors' interests and motivations, ultimately increasing donor engagement and contributions.
  • Volunteer Matching and Management:
    Example: A nonprofit service center that relies on volunteer support to run its programs utilizes Salesforce with AI algorithms to match volunteers with appropriate opportunities. By considering factors such as skills, availability, and location, the organization can efficiently assign volunteers to tasks like food distribution, tutoring, or administrative support, ensuring that volunteer efforts are maximized and aligned with organizational needs.
  • Grant Opportunity Identification:
    Example: A humanitarian organization working on disaster relief efforts integrates AI-powered tools into Salesforce to identify relevant grant opportunities for emergency response initiatives. By automatically scanning grant databases and analyzing eligibility criteria, the organization can quickly identify funding opportunities that align with its mission and priorities, enabling timely and effective grant applications.


At the run stage, organizations have fully embraced AI as a strategic enabler of their mission and objectives. This phase involves leveraging AI capabilities to drive innovation, transformation, and competitive advantage. Organizations at this stage are adept at harnessing AI-driven insights and technologies to proactively address challenges, seize opportunities, and achieve their long-term goals.

Run examples:

  • Predictive Analytics for Fundraising:
    Example: A nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental conservation employs predictive analytics models within Salesforce to forecast donor behavior and identify potential major donors. By analyzing past giving patterns, demographic data, and engagement metrics, the organization can prioritize fundraising efforts and tailor cultivation strategies to maximize donor contributions and long-term support for its conservation projects.
  • Fraud Detection and Prevention:
    Example: A humanitarian organization providing financial assistance to vulnerable populations implements AI algorithms within Salesforce to detect and prevent fraudulent activities, such as identity theft or misuse of funds. By analyzing transaction data and patterns, the organization can identify suspicious activities in real time and take proactive measures to mitigate risks and safeguard resources intended for humanitarian aid.

Identifying Your Place in the Journey

As nonprofits embark on their AI adoption journey, it's essential to assess where they currently stand to chart a path forward effectively. Understanding your organization's readiness and capabilities in adopting AI can help tailor strategies and initiatives to maximize impact. Here are a few indicators to help identify your place in the journey:

Crawl Phase: In this initial phase, nonprofits are at the starting line, exploring the potential of AI and dipping their toes into basic integration. Signs of being in the crawl phase include limited AI usage, focusing on simple automation tasks, and a general curiosity about AI's capabilities.

Walk Phase: Organizations in the walk phase have progressed beyond the basics and are actively expanding AI integration across different functions or departments. Signs of being in the walk phase include deploying more sophisticated AI applications, such as predictive analytics or personalized engagement, to achieve tangible improvements in efficiency or outcomes.

Run Phase: At the pinnacle of the AI adoption journey, nonprofits in the run phase have fully embraced AI as a strategic enabler of their mission. Signs of being in the run phase include leveraging AI-driven insights and technologies to drive innovation, transformation, and competitive advantage, achieving long-term organizational goals with AI at the forefront.

By identifying where your organization stands in the journey, you can better tailor AI adoption strategies and initiatives to meet your unique needs and goals, ultimately maximizing the impact of AI tools on your nonprofit's mission and operations.

Moving Forward: Next Steps on the AI Adoption Journey

Once you've identified your organization's place in the AI adoption journey, it's time to map out the next steps to propel your progress forward. Here's a roadmap to guide your organization towards successful AI integration:

  1. Set Clear Objectives: Define clear and measurable objectives for AI adoption aligned with your organization's mission and strategic goals. Whether it's improving operational efficiency, enhancing constituent engagement, or optimizing fundraising efforts, establishing clear objectives will help focus your AI initiatives and track progress effectively.
  2. Consider Ethical and Privacy Policies: Develop comprehensive ethical guidelines and data privacy policies/practices that prioritize transparency, fairness, accountability, and the responsible use of AI technologies. This involves understanding ethical implications, implementing robust data privacy measures, mitigating bias and discrimination, ensuring accountability and oversight, and fostering a culture of ethical awareness and responsibility among staff members.
  3. Prioritize Use Cases: Identify priority use cases where AI can deliver the most value and impact for your organization. Start with low-hanging fruit that can provide quick wins and demonstrate the tangible benefits of AI adoption. As you gain momentum, gradually expand to more complex use cases that address broader challenges or opportunities.
  4. Invest in Education and Training: Invest in education and training programs to upskill staff members on AI technologies and best practices. Empowering your team with the knowledge and skills needed to leverage AI effectively is critical for successful adoption. Consider partnering with AI experts or leveraging online resources and training platforms to facilitate learning and knowledge sharing.
  5. Collaborate and Iterate: Foster a culture of collaboration and iteration by engaging with stakeholders, AI experts, and industry partners throughout the adoption process. Solicit feedback, iterate on your strategies, and continuously refine your AI initiatives based on insights and lessons learned. Collaboration and iteration are key drivers of innovation and success in AI adoption.
  6. Monitor and Measure Impact: Establish metrics and KPIs to monitor the impact of your AI initiatives and track progress towards your objectives. Regularly evaluate performance against these metrics, identify areas for improvement, and make data-driven decisions to optimize your AI strategies. By continuously monitoring and measuring impact, you can ensure that your AI adoption efforts are delivering meaningful results and driving organizational success.

By following these next steps, your organization can navigate the AI adoption journey with confidence and purpose, unlocking the full potential of AI to drive innovation, efficiency, and impact in the nonprofit space.

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