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The top 3 benefits of AI for fundraisers

By Allison Fine & Beth Kanter
December 7, 2020

Hands typing on a laptop computer while a mechanical hand with the pointer finger extended comes from the screen

We are often asked, “What’s the next big thing?” The answer right now is easy: artificial intelligence (AI). AI is a uniquely powerful set of technology tools for making sense of enormous amounts of data. It isn’t a new field—it has been around for decades—but recent increases in computing power combined with decreases in the cost of that power have created a new generation of AI-powered tools and applications that are available to everyday people and organizations. AI’s new accessibility is similar to the moment when the computational power of mainframe computers was suddenly available on every one’s desktop.

For the last several years, we have been researching the ways AI can, should, and will be used to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of nonprofit organizations. AI is what we call an equal opportunity disrupter; it will impact every part of organizational life, from the back office to programs and communications. Recently, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we published research on the impact AI is having on giving.

Here are the top three benefits AI has for fundraising and fundraisers:

AI saves staff time

Artificial intelligence is providing enormous labor-saving help to fundraisers, helping them research prospects, talk to donors, and increase retention rates. Take for example, the mundane and time-consuming task of culling the donor database to create a prospect list. It may take an experienced major gifts officer an entire week to complete this task. An AI-powered tool can accomplish it in minutes—and doesn’t get interrupted for meetings or a phone call or a birthday party for Toby the newish office manager who just turned 27.

Artificial intelligence can also predict donors who are about to lapse and need re-engagement.

The use of AI for these tasks is not just for major gift officers from larger fundraising shops who focus exclusively on five- or six-figure gifts. Smaller development offices now have an array of choices of affordable products to use for AI-powered fundraising. For instance, NeonMoves, a mobile application, is designed to help fundraisers spend less time trying to figure out whom to contact and more time in conversation with donors.

Software vendors in this category include Blackbaud, boodle.AI, Gravyty, and Neon One.

AI can increase online donor conversion and retention rates

Artificial intelligence tools can help fundraisers personalize donor engagement and communications, convert donors via customized landing pages, and analyze unstructured social media data to personalize donor communication to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of donors. AI thus enables fundraisers to treat smaller donors with the same personal touch that has been typically reserved for larger donors.

Quilt.AI is AI-powered software that indexes and clusters millions of conversations and expressions across public social media, news, blogs, institutional sources, and search engine trails. It also integrates marketing principles and human behavior models into its machine-learning-based model. Using all of this data, Quilt.AI helps fundraisers understand the motivations and desires of potential donors, thereby increasing online donor conversion and retention rates, and, ultimately, ROI.

Rita Ko, director of the USA for UNHCR innovation unit called HIVE, manages an internal multidisciplinary team of data scientists and user experience specialists. They have been applying machine learning for programs and fundraising. In 2017, they started working on Civis Analytics to build “micro-targeting” algorithms to identify low-dollar donors online who could be converted with personalized messaging.

Ko told us, “The refugee crisis is polarizing. There is a lot of noise and strong feelings around the crisis. In collaboration with DataKind, we developed an algorithm that sweeps through 44 news media outlets and any stories they publish on refugees or immigration. We use natural language processing, a machine-learning technique, to generate a summary of topics and sentiment of individual news stories. The report is automatically shared via Slack with our communications and fundraising teams so they can figure out how to change the conversation or develop messaging that will help convert or acquire new donors.”

Persado is another online fundraising tool using AI. It analyzes the performance of a fundraising campaign’s creative elements: narrative, emotion, calls-to-action, formatting, and word positioning. It cross-references words with its database of more than one million tagged and scored words, phrases, and images in 25 languages. It learns continuously and is able to generate insights about what resonates with and motivates donors. charity:water is using Persado to better understand which content and images on Facebook generate more recurring donors for its monthly giving program.

Software vendors in this category include Salesforce Nonprofit Cloud, Quilt.AI, Civis Analytics, Persado, and GiveLively.

AI can improve donor engagement and online support

Chatbots are online conversational interfaces that can automate answering basic questions from supporters, directing them to information, or collecting contact information. Chances are you’ve engaged with a chatbot already by clicking on a “representative” for a company and having a typed conversation about, say, how to return the wrong size shoes.

In 2016, Facebook opened up Messenger to allow companies (including nonprofits) to program their own chatbots on the platform for the purpose of customer support, e-commerce guidance, content, and interactive experiences. By 2018, more than 300,000 Facebook Messenger bots were in use. Since then more bot-authoring programs aimed at non- technical people have become available.

Chatbots increase a nonprofit’s ability to interact and engage with supporters and donors 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at almost no cost. Not only are they more convenient for supporters but they also save nonprofits enormous amounts of time answering questions like, “Is my donation tax-deductible?”

Extra Life, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals’ 24-hour fundraising marathon, has a large number of Canadian participants and donors. Staff were answering the same question over and over again from Canadian supporters about the currency in which their donations would be processed. They added a chatbot to their donation page to specifically answer this question. They even used an algorithm to personalize the landing page so that the chatbot only appeared for Canadian donors.

Closing thoughts

AI holds great promise for fundraisers to raise more money in an efficient way while improving the donor experience. Even at this early stage of adoption by fundraisers, there are tremendous benefits already being accrued by users.

It is critically important that staffers understand what AI is and isn’t, how it operates, what could go wrong, and, perhaps most importantly, how to create a balance between tasks done by bots and those done by people. In the end, our greatest hope is that every nonprofits will use AI and receive the AI Dividend, the gift of time freed up for staff to spend more time building strong relationships with donors and supporters.

Want to learn more?

Please join us on January 13, 2021, for a free webinar on AI & generosity to explore these issues further. Register for the webinar.

Tags: Technology; Fundraising