The Genesis of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation
The Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, under the astute leadership of Vilas Dhar, stands at the confluence of technology and philanthropy. With a generous gift from Patrick McGovern, a visionary publisher and businessman, the foundation was created to explore a world where information technology, neuroscience, and innovations pave new avenues for global opportunities. Dhar reflects, “We realized that we were in the very early innings of a major transformation that was going to happen because of artificial intelligence.”

Dhar emphasizes that the foundation’s mission transcends mere technological advancement. Instead, it seeks to leverage AI to challenge fundamental assumptions about political systems, economic opportunities, and human dignity worldwide. “If AI really is going to be a driver of incredible opportunity,” Dhar explains, “we need to have a different posture. We need to think about these powerful tools as something that’s owned by and for communities where we create the futures we want.”

The Role of Nonprofits in the AI Revolution
Nonprofits, often tasked with solving humanity’s most pressing issues, are central to the McGovern Foundation’s vision. Dhar points out the unique position of nonprofits: “I think it’s a primary and central role that nonprofits— who so often are asked to be responsible for the problems that face humanity —when it’s climate change or malnutrition, or a lack of education, we look to nonprofits to step in and do something about it.” Yet, historically, nonprofits have had limited access to the advanced tools that could amplify their impact.

The foundation aims to bridge this gap by not only providing financial support but also ensuring that nonprofits have access to the necessary technological resources and expertise. Dhar illustrates this with a compelling example of how AI is used to identify illegal gold mining sites in the Amazon, transforming satellite data into actionable insights for local governments. “I could tell you hundreds of stories like this, of amazing people who are stepping forward and saying: How do we use these tools to do something great?” Dhar says.

Empowering Communities Through Technology
One of the core philosophies at the McGovern Foundation is the empowerment of communities through technology. Dhar is passionate about shifting from a paradigm where technology is done to or for people, to one where it is done by people. “As long as we feel like civil society is in the position of being a consumer of what somebody else creates, we’re never going to be in the driver’s seat,” he asserts. The foundation supports this shift by investing in technological capacity within civil society.

This involves hiring AI experts who work directly with nonprofits, helping them harness technology effectively. Dhar’s approach is transformative, moving from traditional philanthropy to an active, engaged partnership. “We built programs where I went out and hired data scientists and AI engineers and said, ‘Look, we will bring you in. We will pay your salaries, but we’ll also give you a deep sense of mission, and then we’ll make you available to our nonprofit partners as experts to come in and help guide them through their journeys.’”

Ethical AI: Beyond Technology
The conversation around AI ethics often focuses narrowly on the technology itself. However, Dhar argues for a broader perspective: “Let’s stop talking about ethical AI, and let’s think instead about ethical societies that are powered by AI.” This shift in focus underscores the need for diverse, thoughtful individuals in AI development, who can anticipate and mitigate biases.

Dhar is acutely aware of the potential for AI to exacerbate inequalities. He stresses the importance of ensuring that the economic benefits of AI are equitably distributed, cautioning against a scenario where a few companies reap the vast majority of AI’s rewards. “What are the ethics of the way we’re thinking about distributing economic gains? How do we make sure that communities participate?” he asks. This holistic approach to AI ethics integrates justice, equity, and human rights, aiming for a future where AI serves the common good.

A Call to Action
Dhar’s vision for AI is one of collective empowerment and shared responsibility. “The greatest potential of AI is to let us own our own agency and realize that a better world is within our reach and our control,” he asserts. For the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, this means not just funding projects, but fostering a participatory process where communities and nonprofits are central to technological advancement. The foundation’s work is a testament to the belief that with the right tools and support, nonprofits can be the architects of a digital future.


To listen to the full interview or read the transcript, just click here.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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