Humanizing Fundraising With AI

The following is a guest blog by David Lawson, fundraising technology luminary and author of "Big Good."


The word artificial does not invoke warm and fuzzy feelings. From sweeteners with an after-taste to Christmas trees that are a little too green, you know it is not the real thing. Given this, it is not surprising artificial intelligence is not being welcomed with open arms by fundraising where the human touch is seen as critical to success.

Fundraising at its best is people giving to people to do good. Closing that loop is what makes our field a special place, where you can combine your career with making a difference. The problem is over the last few decades the humanity has been slowly sucked out of fundraising as we sought to scale the cultivation and solicitation process in every channel except for major and planned gifts. Even when a person is involved, the need to raise ever more money and donors who want real stewardship have made it harder (and at times impossible) to provide a high level of personal touch.

For me, an early sign of trouble was the move away from wanting to know about the interests and passions of donors to needing nothing but information regarding donors’ wealth. This was followed by the desire to have everything boiled down to a score. In less than a generation, I had seen the field move from in-depth profiles to a couple of numbers.

It is no coincidence donor retention has declined as humanity was stripped away in the name of efficiency. It is not without some irony that artificial intelligence offers us a way to re-humanize the giving experience.

AI and the Cognitive Computing that powers it are designed to deal with the right-side of our brains. This is where our passions live, and it has been proven is where giving happens. Money is not given for logical (left-brain) reasons. Don’t let all the talk about tax deductions fool you. That may enable more giving, but it has nothing to do with why someone decides to give.

I wrote Big Good: Philanthropy in the Age of Big Data & Cognitive Computing because this transformative technology is about more than just calculations and the storage of data. It is about understanding the world as we do. It is about augmenting our minds, not our muscles.

We can now ask open-ended questions of our donors, and use their verbatim responses to understand (and respect) their true interests in our missions. We can capture in real-time the changing nature of relationships, and deliver the experiences donors (and prospective donors) want. This is what we have come to expect from Netflix® and Amazon®, and if we fail to deliver it we do so at our own peril.

Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing is enabling the delivery of communications tailored to individual donors. The days of A/B testing are coming to a close. We are moving to a market of one.

I prefer the term Augmented Intelligence to Artificial Intelligence, but whatever your own preference, AI enables us to humanize the giving experience from the awareness stage through planned giving. Donor retention will naturally follow as people come to believe they are being heard.  This will have a dramatic impact on the bottom-line and, in turn, will enable us to do even more good.

Rather than seeing AI as replacing humanity, I see it has enabling us to be human again. Technology, until now, has forced us to reduce data in the name of saving space and increasing the speed of getting answers. In the age of Cognitive Computing, space is cheap and powerful computers can be rented for pennies.  We can now return to a time when a donor was defined by who they are as individuals, not by their score. That sounds a lot more human to me.

David Lawsonaasp17Comment