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Does AI Have a Role in Major Gifts?

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By David Lawson, Co-Founder & CEO, NewSci, LLC

There is no more human of an action than giving time and treasure to help people who you have never met and for benefits you may never receive. It has been proven this act releases pleasure chemicals in our brain, making it something we want to do again and again.

Lower level giving relies on this fact of biology to bring in donations through the mail, on-line, events, and kettles. This serves as the base of the giving pyramid.

Major gifts is perched atop this pyramid, demonstrating year after year that no sector on earth can monetize a relationship better than our own. Name another industry as capable of using value-based pricing. You can’t…

So, if people instinctually support philanthropy, and major gifts can turn those small dollars into big gifts, why expend energy and dollars incorporating AI into the mix? The answer is simple – the giving pyramid is a myth. What we actually have is an hour-glass, formed by a base of low-level donors we are not retaining, and a top populated with too few donors, many of whom feel overburdened by the increasing share of campaigns their gifts represent.

AI can help organizations build a solid giving pyramid, capable of supporting not only today’s needs but also future needs. This addresses two critical issues: increase donor retention and expansion of the number of high-level supporters.

Before I go into how this could be accomplished, we need to address the fears of AI.

Start with how we define AI. I prefer the term Augmented rather than Artificial Intelligence. This more accurately portrays what AI can do, and it moves us away from the Hollywood depiction of robots taking over the world. Think of AI more like you do Waze; it helps you get to your destination rather than selecting your destination.

The first time I trusted Waze and took an exit which made no sense, until I later learned there had been an accident I had avoided, was unnerving. It was even more so when the directions took me through a rural area, and I admit for a moment I did think of sci-fi stories where technology herded humans to their demise. Instead, it enabled me to arrive safely and ten minutes early.

Another fear is AI will replace humans. There are plenty of stories about the jobs that will be eliminated as AI automates more and more tasks. Bill Gates and Elon Musk are two people who know technology, and both are warning of a jobless future. Their arguments have validity, yet do not tell the full story.

Let’s say Musk’s Tesla successfully launches their driverless trucks. What will happen to all the truck drivers? Turns out, we are going to need nearly 900,000 drivers over the next decade and people are not choosing the long-haul life like they use to. The same problem is being found in construction and fast-food restaurants. It could be that many of the lost jobs are in fact jobs that would have gone unfilled by humans.

It is also important to keep in mind we are much better at worrying about losing the jobs we know, than imagining the jobs to come. As we entered this century, did you think organizations would routinely hire Social Media Managers? While data scientist is one of the hottest jobs today, only a few years ago most people had never heard of it.

Most of the push-back about AI sounds very familiar. In the 80s the debate was whether it was worth databasing your records; in the 90s it was the need for a website and the value of e-mail. In the 2000s, we entered a debate centered around whether online giving was a fad or here to stay followed by the value of social media, CRM, and the cloud. And here we are – debating AI.

When I recently read a headline in The Chronicle of Philanthropy about how AI “lacked the personal touch,” I smiled as this was what had been said about every other innovation. Our unmatched ability to personally connect with our givers has made us blind to the reality most of our work is impersonal or, at best, personalized with low-level automation.

This is where AI can transform philanthropy by humanizing all donor interactions, no matter how small the gift, using the same techniques employed by Amazon and Netflix, and by increasing the ability of organizations to personalize the giving experience as supporters move up in giving levels, which, in turn, will create the missing middle of the pyramid.

For fundraisers who personally manage relationships, AI has the potential to fundamentally alter how they do their work. Let’s start with maximizing the most precious resource of a major gifts officer – time.

What if you could be presented with a plan for your next fundraising trip based on an analysis of the location; potential; and likelihood to donate of your assigned prospects? This would not only give you a list, but also a calendar with dates and times. This could be expanded to plan the next quarter; 6 months; your goal for the year or even your entire campaign.

The only thing all major donors have in common is the ability to make a large gift. Beyond that, they are a unique individual with interests and passions that change over time. Our focus on capacity has made us blind to affinity, for when a relationship is just about money, it rarely lasts.

What if you could be presented with the top five campaign priorities your prospect is most likely to be interested in? This a great use-case for a recommender engine, the same technique used to make sure you don’t miss a product or show you are likely to enjoy. This information might be the difference between a small gift to what you thought they would give to and a large gift to what they are passionate about.

Our sector is one of the few allowed literally into the homes of the people who support it. This rare opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of why a gift is made is too often lost, as the contact report is either not completed or is filled out with only the bare minimum needed to say it was done.

What if you could record your meeting notes; have them accurately transcribed; and then be able to associate the notes with the applicable constituents in your CRM? And let’s take this one step further – what if you were prompted to answer specific questions?

All of this, and so much more, is possible yet too many sit on the sidelines trying desperately to make their old technology work so they don’t have to learn something new.

I have the grey hairs to remember people telling me they were fine with note cards and didn’t need a database. They may have been fine, but the people they serve – the students, patients, hungry, and homeless – were not.

Don’t let your fear of the future make your organization unable to deliver the goals of its mission to its maximum abilities. Augmented Intelligence is here to help and not harm us, but only if it is used by people who are doing good. That’s where you come in.

David Lawson can be contacted by email:

Editor’s note:

He is the author (2017) of Big Good: Philanthropy in the Age of Big Data & Cognitive Computing. Available at Amazon

“While the debate rages over whether Big Data and Cognitive Computing are going to save or destroy our way of life, or even perhaps life itself, most non-governmental organizations are on the sidelines waiting to see who wins. In the meantime, we have never been faced with more urgent, and complex, problems needing solutions now. From climate change to homelessness to helping students turn into successful alums, the answers are not going to be found on traditional business intelligence dashboards or by using old-school analytics based on incomplete data.”


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