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Sophie W. Penney, PhD

About Sophie

Fundraising and AI: Bots Don’t Trot

I have been doing major gifts work for many moons now. Back when I first started, there was (and still is today) one significant challenge for major and planned giving fundraisers, no matter the size of the shop: to determine to whom to reach out, when, and for what purpose, as easily and efficiently as possible.

Use of AI in Major and Planned Giving Fundraising

In my article Artificial Intelligence and Fundraising: Is a Bot Coming to Take My Job?, I mentioned Gravyty, one of the companies that helps higher education institutions harness the power of AI. If you are not fully familiar with AI, what is and isn’t, and how it is being used in fundraising, I encourage you to take a few moments to read that piece.

I recently met Adam Martel, a former gift officer and cofounder of Gravyty, and one of its clients at the CASE District II Conference. Adam and Rodney Grabowski, VP of Advancement from the University at Buffalo, copresented a session where they focused on how Buffalo is using Gravyty’s AI to identify prospective campaign donors. With a limited number of major gift staff members and being in a campaign, Buffalo has a great need to identify prospective donors, inform gift officers about who those people are, and have those gift officers schedule meetings with these individuals.

Products like the one offered by Gravyty (and let’s be clear, Gravyty is not the only purveyor of such products) marry institutional data and external data that is in the public domain to identify people who are considered high priority. The AI will then even go so far as to draft an email that a gift officer can customize and send to a prospect to request a visit. That same AI can help a gift officer or a dean or another person with thanking a donor following a visit by providing a draft thank-you letter which can also be customized.

MarketSmart uses AI to help nonprofits more efficiently and effectively identify and build authentic relationships with planned giving donors. MarketSmart notes that its goal is to help clients generate leads, qualify prospective donors, and cultivate a relationship using an automated drip marketing type approach. Automation permits a gift officer to spend less time in front of a computer drafting messaging and more time trotting off to see donors.

To learn more about this, you could access the March 2019 edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The front cover of that issue contains a drawing of a robot typing and the headline reads: “Your New Assistant? How artificial intelligence could make fundraising easier.” You will learn about how the Cleveland Clinic is using AI to process more gifts more quickly and about how that the shift has allowed a researcher to spend more time learning about potential major gift prospects. You will also read about how an Arkansas PBS affiliate is finding success using AI to increase average annual gift size.

In short, it’s easy to keep a couple of variables in your head, such as the number of years that a donor has contributed and the amount. So, if you have a goal to ask a donor to increase the size of an annual gift, you might use these variables to determine how much to ask for (or, more likely, to ask a group of donors to give a larger annual gift).

However, you might have a different goal that requires adding more variables. What if you want to ask a person to become a legacy-gift donor to help build an endowment for a specific program that you expect will exist for decades. Let’s add the fact that you maybe have a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand people who might fit the criteria for receiving such a solicitation.

As it’s easy to see, this amount of data quickly becomes overwhelming! Even a simpler task, such as identifying and prioritizing a list of prospective major or planned giving prospects, can be a challenge. Have you or a development officer who reports to you ever sat in front of a computer screen, wondering what query will produce the right list? Or have you sat with a printout, but realized that it is not prioritized in any way? Are you nodding your head yes right now?

Bots Don’t Trot

Does this mean that a bot will one day trot off to a donor visit? Well, as the title suggests, Bots Don’t Trot (at least not in this particular case, and not yet). That said, AI may prove a useful tool that will enable gift officers to do more of what they should: have face-to-face meetings with prospective donors.

What’s more, in many cases an executive director might be the gift officer and battle to find time to spend on fundraising. There just isn’t time to review lists and there are only so many hours available to be on the road. It seems, at least so far, that AI could prove a boon to these nonprofit leaders who need to be not just as efficient as possible, but to engage in fundraising activity that will prove productive.

Even if a nonprofit were amply staffed, the more information that a gift officer or ED has about the preferences and passions possessed by a prospective donor, the better. This is where AI can be of great assistance. Machines can cull through massive amounts of information in minutes or hours, maybe even seconds. It might take a gift officer days or weeks to review that same data, taking time away from making calls and visiting with donors.

It’s More about Data than about AI

This leads me to make a few points that are less about AI than they are about data and its value to you as a nonprofit or fundraising leader. In his book Data Driven Nonprofits, Steve MacLaughlin, the VP of Data and Analytics at Blackbaud (a cloud software company dedicated to supporting social good), writes that there might be $4 million — yes, $4 million — in untapped giving potential in the average nonprofit’s donor database. He makes the case that data is one of the most valuable possessions owned by a nonprofit. To be clear, Steve does not suggest that all data has value. In fact, Steve cautions again collecting data that will prove useless.

Steve cites Roger Craver from The Agitator (which is well worth reading if you are not already a fan), who describes some nonprofits as being innumerate. Put another way, even though nonprofits are in the business of raising money, to their detriment they often are not particularly literate about, or focused on, numbers or data.

I could not agree more. Even if you don’t plan on or don’t have the capacity to use AI for fundraising, it is critical to give thought to what data you possess and its value (or lack thereof).

This might seem too much of a focus on data. However, donor expectations about how they will be treated don’t come just from comparing you to another nonprofit. Donors, particularly younger donors, are increasingly going to compare your performance against Amazon, YouTube, Netflix or the next major platform which comes along. Those companies are spending millions to gather every bit, bite, and cookie that they can to learn about each person and customize messaging to each individual.

Do you know what programs your donors care about the most? You can be assured that Amazon knows, then tells a person more about a topic they searched on. Then it promotes a book or a magazine that could further inform the person about that area of interest (and yes, that could lead to an additional purchase, or what some call up-selling).

That is why, even if you don’t use AI, you need to focus on the valuable data which you possess. If you have not done so recently, or ever, start by cleaning up the data. Steve notes that this might take as much as 80 percent of the initial time spent, but that it is well worth it.

Second, consider doing a development audit, a look back at several years’ worth of data (I request five years of data when I perform audits), to see what trends come to light. You might learn that donor retention is on a slow, slippery, downward slope. Or you might be able to provide information to your board that shows that ROI for an event is decreasing to the point where the time and money used might be better redeployed toward another fundraising method (such as marketing planned giving if you have a large base of older donors).

If you want to raise major and planned gifts, an audit, or even running a simple query, can tell you how many donors you have who have contributed for ten or more years. You don’t need AI to tell you that, if someone has given for that many years, they care about your organization or the cause. No matter the level of the person’s gift, it also means they might be an excellent planned giving or major gift prospect.

If you don’t have the resources to hire a consultant, consider visiting the Fundraising Effectiveness Project’s site and engaging in a do-it-yourself audit. On the site, you will find the Fundraising Fitness Test and the Fundraising Net Analyzer. Both can provide you with valuable insights. Sometimes such insights are such simple ones, like those realized by some of my audit clients, that you need to place a higher value on your data because it is that data which you can use to unlock greater giving.

People Give to People

Your head might be spinning or your stomach churning at this point. Hopefully, my thoughts about how you can use the intelligence you already possess within your database will help allay any fears.

Or, it may be that you are not fearful, only that you are seasoned and have seen systems and bright shiny toys designed to improve fundraising come and go. I can’t promise that after the frenzy dies, AI will prove to be all it purports to be. I do believe that it is safe to say that we are in a time of change and that the frenzy will pass.

Even if AI stays with us and proves a valuable tool, the mantra we all need to remember, bots being the exception, is that people give to people. Learn about the people that you have in your database, go see them, and make magic by raising more and bigger gifts to change and save more lives!


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1 Comment

  1. Gregory Warner on April 23, 2019 at 8:39 am

    Great article Sophie! Thanks for mentioning MarketSmart.

    Two quick things:
    1. MarketSmart helps with major gifts, mid-level giving and (of course as you mentioned) planned gifts.
    2. Also, our Fundraising Report Card does what the Fundraising Effectiveness Project's tool does but it works instantly and seamlessly with a drag and drop or an integration directly into many CRM. That way fundraisers and consultants can see dozens of amazing charts in just 2 - 3 seconds. Other methods require downloading files and fussing with the data.

    Thanks again!

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