How a new app is making charity volunteering worthwhile with AI
Many companies offer their staff volunteering days each year, but all too often highly skilled people spend this time badly doing jobs they’re ill-suited to. Thankfully, a new AI-based app looks to put an end to reluctant volunteers undertaking pointless tasks in favour of a system that matches charities with the skillsets they lack.
Forgive the overplayed buzz phrase, but if there is one industry overdue a dose of digital disruption it’s the charity sector. There are more than 195,000 charities in the UK, employing one million people and spending £80bn a year – a figure that has angered the tabloids and is hardly likely to curry favour with donors. “We need an Uber,” says Ben Maher. And he might have the very idea.
Maher is not a charity insider, but a media man with an ambitious plan to blow up charities’ volunteering model and make them more efficient organisations. Switched on to the social good agenda in his previous role as EMEA head at Mashable, Maher got the bug to do something about charities’ broken volunteering system after watching corporates’ well-intentioned CSR efforts descend into ‘greenwashing’. He points to one tech giant whose company-sponsored volunteering days saw its staff of world-class UX designers, developers, lawyers and accountants put to work… painting a wall.
“We must do better with volunteering,” says Maher. “We’ve got to make it mean something to those taking part. Charities have to have individuals who find tasks for people to do, but the tasks won’t make society a better place or change volunteers’ lives.”
Instead, Maher’s argument goes, it would be much more rewarding for a volunteer to put their real skills to use, and much more valuable for the charity too. “You have to make a life decision to work for a charity because you may not be remunerated in the same way you would in other industries. So there are potentially skills gaps in charities that shouldn’t exist. So we should be taking latent capacity of corporate volunteering days and driving them in a way that will make a massive difference.”
Enter BeWorthwhile. Devised at The Drum’s Do It Day event, BeWorthwhile is an app that matches volunteers’ strongest skills with the charities that need them. It means charities can request an accountant, a lawyer, a designer – anyone with the abilities they lack – in place of the current system where they are forced to find menial jobs for hapless volunteers simply to satisfy a brand’s CSR box-ticking exercise.
So far, so well intentioned. But how do you match up thousands of volunteers’ skills with charities’ specific problems, without creating a new layer of wasteful admin? Well, you need some artificial brainpower.
At Do It Day, Maher teamed up with IBM to crack the challenge of matching people with charities, and they soon realised that Watson’s vast computing power could help “understand the individual, their skillset, their ambitions, and match them to a specific opportunity”. All they were missing was the data. “The challenge was getting enough information about the individual and putting it together to have an enriched version with its own set of skills represented through keywords or natural language,” says IBM’s innovation director Hugo Pinto. One call to Maher’s media friends at LinkedIn later, and they had all the data they needed.
Thanks to LinkedIn’s API, any volunteer wanting to offer their services to BeWorthwhile needn’t go through a frustrating registration process – they can simply sign in through LinkedIn and their skills will instantly join the database and become available to charities. The LinkedIn collaboration adds a gamification element, rewarding volunteers with badges that publicly recognise their contribution to the charity, and their employers’ contribution by extension. The more an individual volunteers, the smarter Watson will become at matching them to charities. “Over time, the artificial intelligence will learn to tailor opportunities to you,” Pinto says.
But even that isn’t the smartest thing about Watson’s involvement. If BeWorthwhile, itself a charity, is on a mission to make charities more efficient, it must stay unencumbered from inefficiencies that add up to that eye-watering £80bn expenditure each year. And thanks to its artificial intelligence engine, it can.
“Apart from having a board or senior leadership team, the platform can run itself,” says Pinto. “If we need a bit more development for a new set of features, maybe it’s IBM’s time that’s involved, with developers going in to help build them. And if we need more admin services provided to charities that are using the platform intensively, we can get someone to actually donate their time to do that.”
For now, there is one human at the helm – Maher. He may just have moved to a new role as sales and partnership director at JCDecaux, but he has no intention of relinquishing BeWorthwhile and development continues apace. “Our aim by the end of the year is to have a million days available in the UK that can be accessed by any level of charity. We have 40,000 skills in our database. Many of those are the skills charities are paying a fortune to access – and it doesn’t need to be that way.”
To find out how you can get involved in Do It Day and help change the world in 24 hours go to doitday.thedrum.com
This article was first published in The Drum's AI issue, guest edited using IBM Watson technology.