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Fundraisers Reach for A.I. to Boost Productivity

Written by: Rasheeda Childress
Published on: Feb 26, 2024

Fundraiser Ali Colbran had heard the buzz about development professionals using A.I. tools in their work, but she was reluctant. Colbran worried that “donors will feel like this is being lazy as opposed to being connected and engaging.”

But what Colbran learned is that A.I. has given her more time to connect with donors, not less, she told participants at a recent Chronicle event. Colbran is not the only fundraiser to test out A.I. and like what she finds, says CJ Orr, president of the Orr Group, a fundraising consultancy.

“You’re able to save time,” he says. “You’re able to put out more letters, send more emails, do more proposals, more solicitations, more meetings and raise more money. At the end of the day, it is really just making fundraising more productive.”

It’s been a little more than a year since ChatGPT and other A.I. tools began being used widely, and the adoption of artificial intelligence continues to increase. The Chronicle spoke with several organizations to find out how they’re using A.I. in fundraising. The applications run the gamut, from simple tasks like helping fundraisers generate appeals or thank-you letters to sophisticated ones like identifying which donors to target.

‘A Little Robot Assistant’

Many fundraisers in small shops are using free and low-cost tools like ChatGPT or Google’s Bard, to tackle the many writing duties inherent in development.

“For organizations with less resources, these tools are a game changer,” Orr says. “A one-person shop could only reach out to 100 people over the course of a year. Now that one-person shop can ramp that up and do a lot more. So these are going to be so helpful for smaller shops without a doubt.”

More advanced, paid tools help fundraisers figure out which donors to contact. These tools offer analysis of a nonprofit’s donor database and suggest which donors, based on their previous gift patterns and interactions — such as events attended, emails opened, etc. — might be likely to give, might need outreach from the nonprofit, or might have the deepest connections with the organization. Barbara Coury, vice chancellor for development at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, uses the A.I. tool Levitate to figure out which alumni to target for communications and solicitations.

“We were able to focus on a few hundred likely supporters and then communicate in a meaningful way,” she says.

Using the software, their email open rate shot up from 20 percent to 80 percent. She attributes this to better targeting of alumni with content aimed at appealing to them. Coury says that in one targeted mailing, the organization “raised twice what the service cost us [for the whole year] in one day.”

Colbran, who oversees fundraising at Feeding San Diego, has been using the A.I. platform RAISE, which combs through her donor database and suggests people to contact. The software might suggest she contact someone because they gave at this time last year or to wish them a happy birthday. Knowing who to reach out to, and when, makes her more efficient, without being impersonal.

“Instead of being able to hammer out 10 personalized emails in an hour, I can do 40 because it’s using A.I. to tell me who I should be reaching out to, why I should be reaching out,” Colbran said. “I kinda feel like I have a little assistant right now, a little robot assistant that’s helping me and other front-line fundraisers on our team reach out to donors at an increased rate.”

While much of fundraising is focused on individuals — whether they’re everyday donors or major givers — reaching institutional funders is important, too. A.I. products can also help with grant seeking, Orr says. He has seen programs that help answer foundation questions and learn to improve their responses.

“It just cuts down on the time that it takes to write these large proposals,” he says of such programs. “It’s something that we’re seeing a lot of folks start to use.”

The Matching Game

Some colleges are using A.I. to better engage donors and other alumni. The University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Denison University use the Protopia A.I. system to connect alumni to students. Students ask questions, and then the system searches alumni databases to find the alum who is best suited to answer. For example, a question from a student majoring in dance might be routed to an alumni choreographer living in New York.

That exchange is “an opportunity for alumni to easily engage and feel like they’re giving back and contributing and feeling connected,” says Jeremy Serkin, CRM manager at the UNC School of the Arts.

Because neither the alumni nor the student have to register or sign up for a new password — the discussion takes place over email — it has a high adoption rate. Campuses can choose to have A.I. find matches throughout its entire database or limit it to donors, lapsed donors, or other criteria to focus on engaging a specific category of alumni.

The tool also helps update alumni databases. If an alum is tagged as an engineer in the system, but responds that he can’t help with engineering questions because he’s now a poet, that information gets updated. Denison has used the system for just a semester, but in that time, 347 Denison alumni updated their contact information in the course of using it, says Sallie Sistare, executive director of alumni and family engagement.

Universities can monitor the communication between students and alumni to ensure nothing inappropriate takes place. That feature allows other uses. At Denison, gift officers are notified when their prospects answer questions. It’s a sign that they’re willing to engage — even if they don’t always return gift officers’ calls. Sistare says she and her colleagues are evaluating how much that engagement improves the likelihood that someone will give, along with other questions. Already, though, the system has helped Denison identify alumni open to more engagement.

“We have a young man who was answering several questions,” Sistare says. “We now have pulled him in as a volunteer to share his experience outside of that platform. It shows you the value and the ripple effect of what’s really possible with this.”