A Smarter Money Chase? How Artificial Intelligence is Changing Fundraising

Artificial intelligence is disrupting many industries throughout the U.S. and the world, including 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 multiple levels of fundraising, such as facilitating 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 are expected in 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 reducing “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 their performance worsens. Machine learning, on the other hand, performs better with more data, which is preferable, since constituents often have many data points over time.

Machine learning can create better models that improve over time. Data is dynamic; CRMs are ideally updated with new data points every day. As a result, Futurus’ predictive model for gratitude runs 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 with stale data. 

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

And both Gravyty and Wisely can push the “right” prospects to gift officers. 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 person most loyal 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 point out who to contact, while Gravyty creates 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 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 to ask, “How does this tech deepen or accelerate authentic relationships with people who are aligned or resonate with the mission?”

Some are concerned that leadership may see AI tools and services as a way to reduce staff, an example of a machine making jobs obsolete. The Cleveland Clinic and its eliminated 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? Regarding the next five years, Chappell says, “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 its durability rests on its ability to foster better relationships with nonprofits’ constituents.