How to Start an AI Strategy

As a disruptive technology, generative AI has few peers. But old-fashioned planning can help you address it.

Sometimes it seems to be in the nature of CEOs to catastrophize: A PwC survey released last month found that a growing percentage of CEOs fear their organizations won’t survive the next decade, thanks in part to concerns about generative AI. Forty-five percent of CEOs expressed that worry in the new survey, compared to 38 percent the year before.

The caveat in the survey is that the leaders say they worry about their organizations’ viability “without reinvention”—so let’s take a look at what reinvention might look like. 

Writing at Inc., tech executive Soren Kaplan points out that digital transformation is in many ways no different than any other change process, something associations have been used to since the pandemic. “The best transformations, whether digital or not, focus on quick wins and early adopters to build momentum,” he writes. “While a bigger-picture strategy can be helpful, just getting started is what’s most important.”

Kaplan’s path for leveraging AI and other tools, as it happens, doesn’t look much different than the process around creating a new meeting or member benefit—define your goals, assemble a team, develop a roadmap, and set a path for implementation. Where AI differs from other strategic initiatives is the breadth of uncertainty that surrounds it. That’s led to a lot of anxiety about “getting started” among nonprofits: A 2023 Salesforce survey found that just nonprofits were lagging the corporate world in terms of using or planning to use AI in the next 18 months.

Where AI differs from other strategic initiatives is the breadth of uncertainty that surrounds it.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of large companies are working to encourage nonprofits to step it up: Last month Microsoft launched a dedicated Nonprofit Community focused on tech and AI, hoping that as more organizations talk to one another the fear factor will diminish. “Combining the power of AI with the community that we are building here means that everyone can be included in the opportunity of AI at this key turning point,” the announcement stated. “Nonprofits are the changemakers of the world: Who better to lead by example in the era of AI change that we now face?”

Sounds nice—and flattering from a tech company plainly sensing a market opportunity. But what might it look like in practice for an association looking to transform but set realistic goals? There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit in terms of chatbots and similar tools; recently I’ve covered how associations have used AI to streamline legal processes and improve email marketing. But there are opportunities to think even bigger: Last week a story at Stanford Social Innovation Review laid out some ways that AI can help decisionmaking processes become more inclusive, addressing what the authors call the “perspective deficit” at organizations. It’s not hard to see how associations can benefit from that approach, from boards and committees to DEI initiatives and more.

All of which is promising and a little terrifying, as change often is. But associations have been here before, and the pandemic has primed them for it. The shifts that AI promise are still being written, but leaders have an opportunity now to open up the discussion about it.

What has your association been doing to leverage AI? Share your experiences in the comments.

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