Artificial intelligence is disrupting many industries throughout the U.S. and the world, such as energy, healthcare, and even mining. And now, AI has joined the fundraising fray.

Several AI companies have emerged in the past few years catering to the needs of fundraisers. These firms provide diverse services at the different levels of fundraising, from facilitating in writing outreach letters, creating personalized news feeds, chatbots and engagement scoring. 

For instance, Gravyty’s First Draft helps identify donors and then drafts an editable letter for gift officers to set up meetings with new leads. Another company, Wisely, is a donor management system, or as CEO Artiom Komarov explains a “sales enablement tool.” Ruffalo Noel Levitz, LLC created AL, their fundraising AI chatbot and “messaging solution,” that provides “a new channel to connect with [an institution’s] constituents and give them key information in a way that seems personal.” Futurus Group creates a dynamic gratitude score based on a person’s interactions with an organization, excluding wealth data. These are just a few of the companies in the AI fundraising space.

Bolstering Traditional Approaches

Some of these companies are beginning to partner with more traditional fundraising tools. Gravyty partnered with iWave in late 2018 to bring together Gravyty’s AI capabilities with iWave’s wealth and philanthropic data. Futurus announced a partnership with DonorSearch in July that provides customers the Futurus gratitude score as well as DonorSearch’s wealth scores. Future partnerships with other AI tools is expected in the upcoming months and years.

The push of AI into fundraising may evoke some concern among development professionals. Fundraising is supposed to be all about human relationships and the engagement of a prospective donor with a nonprofit. AI seems to be the opposite of that idea; by definition it is non-human. How can something so technical and technological be relevant in philanthropy? 

Leaders in AI fundraising don’t see a tension here, viewing their work in AI as bringing the focus back to relationships. Nathan Chappell, President of Futurus, says his firm is working “to connect the right people to the right organization and help deepen those relationships. The tool makes fundraising more relational and less transactional.” The idea was “to find the people most likely to align with us” to help fundraisers find the people that care most about their organization. 

Wisely has a similar premise: by providing a “dedicated workspace for fundraisers,” the tool “lets the fundraisers do what they are really good at, relationships. It’s what they are fundamentally hired to do,” Komarov explains. Gravyty also sees its work as helping reduce “time-consuming steps for any fundraiser as they work to cultivate large and mid-level donors on behalf of their organization,” says Adam Martel, CEO and co-founder at Gravyty, in a press release.

What Machine Learning Brings to Fundraising

AI tools and services provide nonprofits with a whole host of advantages. First and foremost, machine learning, a subcategory in AI, can embrace a lot more data than traditional regression models, according to Chappell at Futurus. There’s only a certain amount of data that regression models can handle before they start to perform worse. Machine learning, on the other hand, performs better with more data, which is great since constituents often have many data points over time.

Machine learning can create better models that improve over time. Data is dynamic; CRMs ideally get updated with new data points every day. As a result, Futurus’ predictive model for gratitude is run on a weekly and even daily basis for some clients to incorporate all those new databases. It’s quite an improvement on doing a wealth screening once a year where the data becomes stale. 

Gravyty’s First Draft learns the writing patterns of gift officers as they use the tool. The example Gravyty uses is the system learning the gift officer’s preferred salutation “Dear Mrs. Smith” or “Dear Jane.”

And of course there’s the pushing of the “right” prospects to gift officers, which both Gravyty and Wisely do. For any prospect researcher or manager, one of the trickiest things is “selling leads” to gift officers. But with Wisely, the workspace helps “present the right info at the right time” Komarov says, so that gift officers get the “nudges” they need to see the right people.

With the variety of these tools focusing on different parts of the fundraising cycle— whether it is figuring out the most loyal person to a cause or figuring out how to push out new leads to gift officers—some shops are using different AI tools that complement each other. Chappell talks about fundraising offices using both Gravyty and Futurus because Futurus can help point out who to contact and Gravyty can create the first draft of the letter for outreach.

A Tool, Not a Magic Wand

Expectations about AI in fundraising need to be managed. With new technological advances, some leaders think AI will be the shortcut to imaginable fundraising riches as some have seen with dashboards and predictive modeling. “In the end, AI is a tool,” Chappell points out. He’s particularly worried that some of the new AI products in the fundraising sector may actually increase the transactional nature of fundraising. It’s important for companies and fundraisers think about “how does this tech deepen or accelerate authentic relationships with people who are aligned or resonate the mission?”

Some are concerned that leadership may see AI tools and services as a way to reduce staff since a machine has made jobs obsolete. The example of Cleveland Clinic and their now defunct donor assignment positions might be a particular concern. 

But the human component is necessary for any of these tools to work. Someone has to review the 5 percent prospects in the case of the Cleveland Clinic. Someone has to research leads to get them to the point that they can be pushed out. As Chappell and others explain, these tools are supposed to help focus the human staff on the productive work, which is developing relationships.

And what does the future hold? In the next five years, Chappell believes “I don’t think there will be a single nonprofit vendor that isn’t using AI in some way.” It remains to be seen if AI is here to stay or is just another passing fad. But it’s durability rests on its ability to foster better relationships with nonprofit’s constituents.  

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