Market Spotlight: Nonprofits Use Speech to Their Benefit
With limited budgets and resources, many nonprofits find it difficult to adopt new technologies as quickly as for-profit entities. But that disadvantage is lessening, thanks to more affordable and accessible speech products.
Inspirational examples across the industry are plentiful. The National Federation of the Blind, for example, employs speech-to-text and text-to-speech software that enables members to participate more fully in society. Planned Parenthood offers a chatbot, “Roo,” that answers intimate questions that young people might find too awkward to discuss in person. AARP is helping families stay connected via Oculus Quest voice-enabled virtual reality headsets. The Zello push-to-talk voice messaging app helps first responders stay connected. Radish Systems’ ChoiceView Visual Phonebot is being used at Mile High United Way’s 211 Help Center, which permits callers to visually navigate COVID-19-related information during typical 211 calls.
Cindy Valentin, operations and marketing coordinator at drawchange, a nonprofit that provides art therapy-based programming for homeless children, believes speech tech has made a big difference for her organization in the past year.
“Since COVID-19 hit, our operations had to move 100 percent remote. Now, we use several speech technologies, such as text-to-voice and Facebook Workplace audio messaging, which helps us better communicate with staff and interns,” she says. “Instead of waiting for a written reply, we can resolve internal matters, complete tasks, and brainstorm using speech technology in a matter of minutes.”
Deborah Dahl, principal of Conversational Technologies, says nonprofits usually have two cases for speech: either providing general information about the organization, such as hours, locations, and ticket prices, that would otherwise need to be supplied by humans; or to attract users through a particularly innovative use of technology. A good example of the latter is Chicago’s Field Museum’s chatbot that lets visitors chat with Máximo, the museum’s titanosaur fossil, she notes.
“Since nonprofits provide a broad range of services in areas like education, healthcare, culture, and the arts and don’t have profit as a goal, their missions are more wide-ranging than for-profit organizations. This means that nonprofit applications can sometimes be very innovative,” Dahl explains.
At a minimum, nonprofits can leverage intelligent virtual agents (IVAs) to provide more efficient and engaging service to members.
“Natural language applications can be deployed over voice, text, or chat channels to help organizations route incoming calls more accurately, answer frequently asked questions, schedule appointments, process donations or payments, and other routine tasks. Automating these tasks with conversational self-service allows nonprofits to serve more people, provide 24/7 support, and free human employees for more complex conversations and activities,” says Callan Schebella, senior vice president and general manager of Five9. “IVAs can help these organizations keep up with spikes in demand, such as during a crisis or busy seasonal period. And natural language IVAs can improve the service experience by asking open-ended questions, like ‘How can I help you?’ This eliminates the need for lengthy call tree menus, which often cause user error and frustration.”
To help determine the right speech solutions for your nonprofit, consider practicalities and best-use scenarios.
“Answer important questions: How can we best communicate with our clients or users? Can we answer their calls and questions 24/7, on their time, not ours? Are there questions that are repeatedly asked? Is there guidance or process information that is regularly requested? If so, think about how you can automate your responses, which will save staff time and increase stakeholder satisfaction,” suggests Jon Stine, executive director of Open Voice Network.
Be realistic about expenses involved, and if you have limited resources, start with a speech app that has a smaller user base and doesn’t require a lot of maintenance.
“Starting out small and simple also allows you to get feedback on user reactions before investing in a large-scale effort,” Dahl says.
When budgeting, think carefully about costs for hardware, software, and content creation, recommends David Ciccarelli, CEO of Voices.com.
“Depending on the problem you are trying to solve, you may need special hardware, such as listening devices, smart speakers, or kiosks,” he says. “Or, if you are creating an Alexa skill, you can choose between the default Alexa voice that’s free or hire a professional voice actor to read lines to create a unique experience.”