Photo: METAMORWORKS/shutterstock
Photo: METAMORWORKS/shutterstock

For some, artificial intelligence and data science are fantastic technologies that will benefit people and society. For others, they’re terrifying assaults on individual privacy and dire threats to human existence. The point is, these latest innovations are evolving fast in the hotbeds of business, science and government, and it can be difficult for regular citizens and civil society to keep up, particularly nonprofits and others involved in addressing the spectrum of society’s needs. What is philanthropy’s role in the growth, use and regulation of these powerful and protean technologies?

These are some of the questions Vilas Dhar considers in his role as president of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, a relatively young grantmaker whose late founder built a fortune in publishing and industry research, tracking the expanding computer industry in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. McGovern’s International Data Group published a number of popular computer industry magazines such as Computerworld, PC World and InfoWorld.

McGovern the person was a believer in technology’s potential to improve society and the human condition. He is remembered for some notable philanthropic moves involving science and technology, including a $350 million pledge in 2000 that established the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.

McGovern the foundation—established in 2015, a year after the death of its namesake—is also active in the information technology world. The foundation has so far made about $295 million in grants, in areas like tech education, climate change, digital health and pandemic response, as well as data science and AI ethics.

Now, in a move common in business but rare in the philanthropy and nonprofit world, the McGovern Foundation has augmented its powers through a high-profile merger. It recently announced that the Cloudera Foundation—a philanthropy created by Silicon Valley data and AI software company Cloudera Inc. to bring data analytics technology to the nonprofit sector—has merged its $9 billion endowment, staff and operations into McGovern.

Dhar says the merger with Cloudera creates an organization that’s neither exclusively a philanthropic foundation nor a technology company. “It’s a hybrid that says we’re an impact-driven organization that will pull from the private sector when we need to, will pull from technology companies when we need to, and will pull from the long history of philanthropy in this country to build something that actually drives outcomes for people,” he said. “To me, that’s the direction of where the field is already going and should be going.”

Most often, grantseekers just require cash to maintain or expand services, pay employees and to keep the lights on. But when it comes to a novel and developing field like data science, it can pay to have a funding partner with the experience to envision potential solutions and the hands-on expertise to design those solutions. Toward that end, the newly expanded McGovern Foundation plans to be something of a technology consulting group for philanthropy and nonprofits.

Claudia Juech, the now-former CEO of Cloudera Foundation, will have a central role in the new hybrid organization, directing activities around data enablement for nonprofits as the head of its new Data and Society program. According to Juech, McGovern’s approach will involve resourcing the field as nonprofits seek new ways to apply data science to their work. While creating solutions for specific nonprofits will be part of the job, more central to the mission going forward will be creating tools to let nonprofits everywhere access new technology. “We can only work with so many organizations,” she said.

McGovern’s Data and Society team will create and share a portfolio of solutions to serve as practical examples of what’s possible in the field of data and AI for social change, guided by equity principles and the ethical use of data. “The bigger question,” Juech said, “is how can we make this accessible to the broader sector?”

What are some possibilities for nonprofits as they delve into these new data and AI applications? As in business, one potential area is predictive tools that let organizations better plan and prepare for future problems and needs. “It’s evolving,” Juech said. “A lot of nonprofits are using data science to look backward, to understand what happened. But what is possible these days is to see more of what could happen.” For example, the Cloudera Foundation helped Women’s World Banking create tools to predict the future of women’s financial inclusion and empowerment in emerging markets. Another grantee is using data to forecast malaria outbreaks in West Africa.

Of course, artificial intelligence and data science are hot-button issues these days, with many observers voicing unease about potential dangers, including racial and algorithmic biases or the loss of privacy. This is no theoretical worry. One of the most widespread applications of AI affects nearly everyone in the U.S. and billions around the world—that is, social media companies’ use of algorithms to populate individual newsfeeds, which has contributed to political polarization, volatility and even violence in the U.S. and abroad.

Those concerns have not escaped Dhar. Though he’s a self-described “tech optimist,” he nevertheless believes philanthropy must keep potential pitfalls front and center, and that nonprofits and the people they serve must be part of the conversation—rather than leaving it all up to tech companies and government. “The answer… isn’t to get rid of one or get rid of the other,” he said. “It’s to let civil society be the ones who are coming into that conversation and promoting all of our best interests.”