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Nonprofits need enterprise-grade tech. What if they can’t afford it?

Grand Marshals from the Trevor Project attend the WorldPride NYC 2019 March in New York City in June 2019.

Welcome to Protocol | Enterprise, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This Thursday: nonprofits embrace the digital reality, gauging the longevity of the call center and IBM gets downgraded.

Also: Don't miss our upcoming Protocol | Enterprise event, "Data in the Enterprise: Risk and Opportunity." On May 11 at 10:30 a.m. PT/1:30 p.m. ET, Protocol's Joe Williams interviews PayPal's Kristie Chon, Melissa Goldman of JPMorgan Chase and Phil Venables from Google Cloud on the challenges of protecting data and dealing with ever-changing regulations. RSVP now to save your spot.

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The Big Story

AI for good

When volunteer counselors at the Trevor Project go through training, they're introduced to Riley. A teen from North Carolina, Riley is anxious and depressed — unfortunately typical of the at-risk LGBTQ+ youth that call, text or online chat the nonprofit organization.

Unlike them, Riley isn't real. Riley's an AI bot. And more robot personas are on the way that "represent a wide range of life situations, backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities and risk levels," John Callery, the project's vice president of technology, told Protocol.

  • Callery came on board as the Trevor Project's first-ever tech hire in 2015. Since then, the 23-year-old organization has been going through a digital transformation.
  • It's seen big payoffs already. The investment in AI-backed training, for example, helps the nonprofit onboard as many as 200 counselors per month, up from 30 counselors per quarter.
  • The Trevor Project also uses an AI-backed risk assessment model that analyzes caller responses to initial questions — like "How upset are you?" or "Do you have thoughts of suicide?" — to determine how quickly an individual needs to be connected to a human counselor.
  • And it's beefed up security. Previously, managing access to applications and data was done manually. Now, Okta does all of that for the organization. That's particularly important as the Trevor Project grows; it has over 700 digital volunteer counselors right now, and plans to triple that number in 2021.
  • LGBTQ+ youth "are already a marginalized population, so their data is some of the most important information we have to secure," said Callery.

Since Callery's arrival in 2015, the tech team has grown to include four divisions: AI and engineering, user experience, product development and technology operations.

  • Hiring in the nonprofit world, he admitted, is a challenge, particularly given the salaries that skilled technologists can command in the private sector — which the likes of Google, Salesforce and Facebook gladly pay. But that's just one of the hurdles Callery has to navigate.
  • "Tech roles are incredibly expensive, infrastructure is incredibly expensive, and nonprofits, especially smaller nonprofits, aren't really resourced to develop their own AI or to bring in incredible tech talent in order to build a strong strategy and vision," he said.

It's why partnerships with Google and Okta are so important to The Trevor Project's digital overhaul.

  • Okta, for example, gives nonprofits a number of pro bono licenses. Google sent two cohorts of fellows to work with the Trevor Project on its tech modernization effort, including coaching Callery's team on goal-setting. And, through a partnership with the tech giant's philanthropic arm, Google is providing the backbone for the organization's AI-backed risk assessment tool — its NLP processing engine, Albert.
  • "The work that is being done by the for-profit corporations in making the technology more accessible to nonprofits is vitally important for nonprofits' ability to catch up to for-profit companies in terms of their innovation and ability to deliver on their missions," said Callery.
  • Without that assistance, there's a substantial risk that nonprofits, especially smaller ones, would be unable to keep up with the fast-moving tech landscape, he added, creating yet another major digital divide.

It's easy to forget how expensive cloud software can be when most of the discussion involves corporations that have hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars to throw at the problem. For comparison, the Trevor Project pulled in $35 million in funding in its fiscal 2020. And while it's unlikely nonprofits are going to lead the way on tech, even common-sense improvements, like better IT security or hiring UX designers, can make a huge difference.

It's why the nonprofit assistance programs at Google and Okta, which are largely overshadowed by their sprawling enterprise businesses, are so critical. And, ultimately, it puts into focus just how important software is. While it can be easy to view some tech as trivial, the impact is anything but. In the case of the Trevor Project, that means helping even more at-risk LGTBQ+ youth. The challenge becomes maintaining those social impact programs as the pace of tech accelerates.

— Joe Williams

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This Week On Protocol

Shut it down: The call center is one of the few human touchpoints consumers have with businesses in an increasingly digital-first world. And Pypestream CEO Richard Smullen wants to get rid of it. Instead, he sees the creation of a new customer engagement center, in which the support function is just one aspect of a larger integration of operations to help companies begin to create digital replicas of their customers.

Coming Up

May 11: Palantir and Unity report earnings. IBM's "Think 2021" conference kicks off with appearances expected from all of Big Blue's top decision-makers. Salesforce's Marc Benioff is slated to speak at the WSJ's "The Future of Everything" conference.

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