Hardly a day goes by, or an hour for that matter, without hearing about Artificial Intelligence, or as it is more affectionately known — AI.
The explosion of activity is mind-numbing — venture capitalists have been throwing money at AI start-ups, investing over $11 billion in May alone, according to data firm PitchBook, an increase of 86% over the same month last year. And recently, AI chipmaker Nvidia became one of only a handful of companies in the world to hit $1 trillion in value.
Everyone is talking about potential applications and the way that AI can add value to their professions and industries. Fundraising and the nonprofit sector are no different.
I’ve never been one to turn my nose up at technology and have enthusiastically embraced nonprofit CRM and database systems, donor research tools, smartphones, video conferencing, and so much else.
There is certainly a place for AI to improve productivity and efficiency in fundraising. It can expedite research, gift processing and acknowledgments, preparation of proposals, contact reports, and monitoring and reporting on the impact of precious donor gift dollars.
But there are clear limits and boundaries to be recognized and respected.
Fundraising is one of the most intimate professions.
As is repeated over and over again, we are in the privileged business of nurturing relationships. More to the point, we are in the business of sustaining long-term friendships (since I once heard that a relationship is something you have until something better comes along).
Nothing can be more personal than establishing, maintaining, and earning friendships. With it, the door opens to boundless opportunities in securing the uber competitive gifts of time, talent, and treasure.
Ours isn’t a complicated business. To succeed we need to get donors to know, like, and trust us. Never forget that being a donor is an extremely difficult job in which you’re not just choosing between the good and the bad, but between the good and the good.
AI cannot connect on the most powerful level — emotionally.
It doesn’t have feelings, and can’t cry, smile, laugh, or give a donor a hug.
It takes the Jeffersonian virtues of a knowing head and an honest heart to genuinely connect with the donor. Perhaps, robotic infrastructure can support those challenging goals, but it can never achieve them by itself.
This is profoundly true in the rarefied world of major gifts. Most major gifts are obtained through face-to-face solicitations. During Covid and social distancing, the window opened for solicitations via video-conferencing, but primarily with donors who were already supporting specific nonprofits and causes.
Can AI solicit a face-to-face major gift of five, six, or seven-figures?
As a lifelong fundraiser and consultant to fundraisers, we know that nothing tops the value of information and insights gathered through in-person visits. I relished seeing the photos, books, mementos, and other personal artifacts that donors displayed in their homes and offices. They revealed clues in volumes. Can AI gather such intelligence?
As Laura Fredricks, author of her the book, Hard Asks Made Easy: How to Get Exactly What You Want, emphasizes:
“In a successful meeting, the donor talks 75% of the time, while the solicitor talks only 25%. That means the professional or volunteer nonprofit leader must make every moment and word count while tactfully guiding the conversation to discover alignment between the donor’s passion and the nonprofit’s mission.”
One of the most concrete signs of friendship is when the donor and nonprofit leader know each other’s family and loved ones. For that reason, I always made it a priority to bring along my wife when attending donor events. Can AI bond with family members?
We hear a lot about the efficiency of AI producing immediate stewardship correspondence and gift thank yous. Over the years, one of my constants has been the unrivaled value of handwritten notes that emphasize very personal interests and characteristics learned about the donor. How many handwritten notes do you receive? These will set you apart from other nonprofits and can result in being kept and re-read by recipients.
I am sure that the role of AI will continue to grow and evolve in every part of society. Nonprofits will reap the benefits as well, but nothing can take the place of human interactions, especially after we had to give them up during COVID and social distancing. As one of our respected colleagues, Steven Shattuck, wrote a whole book on: Robots Make Bad Fundraisers. Give me the human touch any day of the week!
Jim Eskin's leadership roles span more than 30 years in fundraising, public affairs and communications in the San Antonio area. During his career, he established records for gifts from individuals at three South Texas institutions of higher learning. He enjoys training non-profit boards on fundraising best practices and overcoming the fear of asking for gifts. His consulting practice Eskin Fundraising Training builds on the success of his fundraising workshops and webinars and provides the training, coaching and support services that non-profits need to compete for and secure private gifts. He has authored more than 100 guest columns that have appeared in daily newspapers and business journals across the country, and publishes Stratagems, a monthly e-newsletter exploring timely issues and trends in philanthropy. Sign up here for a free subscription. He is author of 10 Simple Fundraising Lessons, which was recently released and can be purchased here.