Embracing Artificial Intelligence as a Fundraiser

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“Artificial intelligence,” or “AI,” is the process of machine learning that draws on a wide range of tools including computer science, mathematical optimization, neural networks, search, statistics, probability, economics, psychology, linguistics, and even philosophy to simulate human cognitive functions such as learning and problem-solving.

Although it has been an academic discipline for more than 60 years, it’s still tempting to think of AI as belonging to the realm of science fiction. Yet AI is already altering our relationship to technology and drastically changing our lives. For example, many of us have had an interaction on a website with an AI “bot”—a software application that runs simple automated tasks at a much higher rate (and much more cheaply) than would be possible for a human alone—whether for tech support or finding a product. Even if most of us recognize that web sites use bots, we might be shocked by the growing prevalence of digital assistants capable of responding to e-mails, scheduling appointments, or directing inquiries.

Is the “executive assistant” we think we’re communicating with a person at all?

In fact it might not even matter, since there’s evidence that such fairly simple AI applications serve to improve customer service metrics even when such automation is understood and assumed. And it’s easy to visualize the potential advantages of integrating AI into the day-to-day activities of the non-profit sector, which is always striving to find ways to maximize the effectiveness of donor outreach and improve the efficiency of often-overworked employees and under-skilled volunteers.

Of course, predictive analytics have been a part of fundraising for a while. These tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated to the point that e-mails can be automatically generated for all types of donors, depending on where they are in the donation life-cycle. Raiser’s Edge’s web site declares that it has the world’s largest philanthropic data set, and uses AI to “process, learn, and get smarter” and “transform data into powerful descriptive, predictive, and prescriptive insights.”

Another AI application, Gravyty’s “First Draft,” generates personalized donor-targeted e-mail using a “cloud-based, predictive analytics platform that combines private data with big public data and behavioral insights,” according to press releases from the Boston-based company, “democratiz[ing] the fundraising process by predicting who is going to make the next major gift and when best to contact them,” while eliminating the problem of transferring data between computer storage types or file formats.

So how will AI influence the work we do as fundraisers? Or will “fundraising” itself soon be a profession of the past?

I don’t think so. The valuable in-depth “intelligent” information AI may provide will only make us more productive, by increasing contextual personalization—arming us with the knowledge of how to better target prospects and benefactors, how to be more creative and engaged in our communications with donors and to successfully attract and retain prospective benefactors.

Getting started in AI will seem daunting to many professional fundraisers, but failure to jump in at the right time will leave many organizations too far behind when it really matters. In this environment, it has never been more important to have deep knowledge of the problem to be solved, excellent breadth and depth of data, and champions at the staff and/or board level with the experience to lead this process and make the charity more effective. We still need donors to change the world for the better, and we, as fundraisers and non-profit leaders, must lead these technological trends, both at the strategic and tactical level, to the benefit of our organizations and the causes we serve.

Peacock’s Point – Rob Peacock, MA, is a Certified Fund Raising Executive with 30 years of fundraising experience and is CEO of Peacock Philanthropic and a Senior Associate with Charity Careers Canada. Rob is a Past Chair of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in Canada and is a faculty member for the Masters in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Carleton University.

Originally published: May 29, 2018