What Impact will Artificial Intelligence Have on Nonprofit Fundraisers?

Over the past half-century or so, interest in artificial intelligence has ebbed and flowed with periods of growth and dormancy. Some refer to these periods as summers and winters.

With each summer has come increased investment and research in artificial intelligence. Along with these have come promises of a work-free utopia fueled by robot servants and laborers. While others have made ominous predictions of economic disaster, humans as slaves to the robots, or worse.

Another persistent phenomenon is disappointment that all the hype about artificial intelligence didn’t amount to much. When in fact, each summer has resulted in remarkable advances, given available technology at the time. This is known as the “AI effect”.

Loosely, it’s what happens when something that was previously considered the stuff of science fiction is demonstrated or applied in practice and is suddenly demystified, losing its luster and “AI” label.

We’re surrounded by examples of this in our everyday life: search engines, recommendation engines, and navigation apps, to name a few.

This is important to note because we’re currently in the midst of an AI summer, and thanks to the AI effect, you may not realize it. And with the currently available technology, the potential impact on your work is considerably greater than ever before.

In a recent post, Andrew Yang, author, founder, and CEO of Venture for America shared several sobering statistics about the looming effects of automation on millions of American jobs.

Similarly, McKinsey & Company estimates that as much as 45% of our work can instead be performed by “currently demonstrated technologies”.

Ever since the first robots were installed in manufacturing, we’ve seen countless jobs lost to automation. We’ve gotten used to machines flying our aircraft, dispensing our cash, and in some cities, we’re even growing accustomed to the presence of automated vehicles. But that could never happen in fundraising, right?

The answer is “It depends.”

There are four ways that artificial intelligence and related fields can impact you as a nonprofit fundraiser.

Your Role

Using this interactive graphic from McKinsey & Company via Tableau Public and filtering the view on occupations similar to, if not specifically related to your day-to-day activities, we quickly see that the potential impact and number of jobs affected varies considerably between management, front-line, and admin roles.

The potential impact to front-line fundraisers and managers hovers around 10-15%, while the impact on admin roles is between 50% and 90%.

If you’re a fundraiser or manager, start looking for new technology that can improve your efficiency. Managers should also start looking at what advances your vendors and their competitors are planning that could improve team efficiency.

In the near term, advances in artificial intelligence should allow you to focus on more creative, strategic, and human-to-human aspects of your role.

If you’re a fundraising administrative assistant, particularly one who is also responsible for data entry, you should really start to pay attention to what’s going on. Consider training or education that will help you transfer your fundraising knowledge to other roles within the department.

The Size of Your Team

The larger your team, the greater potential there is for automation to impact your role.

Even 15% redundancy from machines on a team with multiple people performing the same or similar functions could spell trouble for less productive team members.

This should be true regardless of the state of artificial intelligence, but to preserve your position, make sure you’re one of the better performers on your team. Look to develop or highlight your skills in the more creative, cognitive, or human-facing aspects of your role.

And if your team is small, you’re in luck. At least for now…


In 2017, the threat of redundancy to fundraisers and their managers isn’t significant. It’s maybe even a welcome prospect when you consider the more routine or mundane aspects of your role. But things are changing rapidly.

No one knows for certain how fast change is coming, but many agree that the point at which machines significantly outperform human brains on a wide variety of tasks is about the middle of this century.

Of course, that level of advancement isn’t necessary to begin affecting jobs. Just ask auto workers, travel agents, and soon, accountants.

For now, the real impacts to most fundraising roles are largely in repetitive or boring tasks. As a result, we still have time to learn to harness technology to enhance our work and make us more innovative, effective, and/or efficient.

When/if the time comes that fundraiser’s jobs are truly in jeopardy from machines, those who have embraced technology as a kind of intelligence prosthesis will enjoy longer careers.

The Donors

It’s not just your job that may be impacted. On the other side of the coin are the donors, and without them, there is no fundraising.

A White House report (Obama) on artificial intelligence and the economy released last month indicates researcher “estimates on the scale of threatened jobs over the next decade or two range from 9 to 47 percent”. If actual unemployment is even remotely as severe as this, we’re in for trying times.

Lest we think we’re immune because the economic effects of automation will only impact lower and middle-income households, research suggests a clear–if somewhat obvious–relationship between unemployment and giving.

Likely outcomes are continued accumulation of wealth amongst a very small percentage of the population, and increasing unemployment subsidies for the masses.

Neither of these bodes well for nonprofit fundraising as we know it.

This is something I spend my days helping nonprofits think through in developing strategic plans and designing organizational productivity and knowledge management systems.

So far, the best advice I have with respect to AI is to pay attention to advances in technology. Even if on the surface they don’t appear to directly affect your work. Ask your vendors what they’re doing to help you take advantage of smarter technology, and reward those that do by giving them your business.

So what do you think?

Should we be fearful of the potential impact of artificial intelligence on fundraising, or should we embrace it? Have I missed a piece of the puzzle?

I’m still figuring this stuff out and am anxious to hear from others who are thinking about these things. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or by liking this post.

Photo credits: via Visual Hunt. Tableau Software.

Sum your butts featured image

Sum Your Butts to Save Your Fundraising

A few months ago I shared the story of how Ashley and I once failed so miserably at making butternut squash soup that we didn’t try again for over 10 years!

To make a long story short, we both have an aversion to the flavor of ginger. Yet somehow, we failed to realize that the amount of ginger called for in this particular recipe would cause such a stew.

I used the story as a way of explaining the difference between strategies and tactics, and to introduce the idea that despite having a perfectly solid strategy and tactics, many people still lack the confidence they need to successfully reach their goals.

As promised then, I’m following up with a report on a second attempt at butternut squash soup–and an explanation of how to develop confidence that your strategy and tactics will work.

When Planning Is Not Enough

Let’s cut right to the chase: Our second soup endeavor was much more successful. The image above is of me preparing the squash, and I can assure you, there was no ginger in sight!

In the case of this second attempt, confidence came easily. We knew exactly what the problem was and how to fix it.

Of course, it’s not always so simple. Consider a fundraising campaign or a new event. These have many more–and often more complex–variables.

Whether you’ve conducted the same project a few times before or you’re working on something new, you make a plan for each effort (I hope!). At the very least, your plan should spell out how you intend to achieve your goals, and the tactics you’ll use to be successful.

Once that’s in place, you’re all set, right? Not exactly.

Having a plan is a huge step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. You have to be confident that your plan will work.

Sum Your Butts

Short of having a crystal ball, you can never be 100% confident in a plan–there are simply too many variables outside of your control–but the idea is to get as close as possible. So how do you do that?

Sum your butts.

This phrase is one I came up with; it comes from a line of questioning I direct to clients when they’re planning a new campaign. It originally referred to estimating the number of guests expected to be in attendance at an event or performance (a.k.a. butts in seats) based on observing how specific promotional tactics had worked previously. Despite its origins, the concept works equally well on non-attendance efforts too.

The academic term that underlies this concept is called “inductive reasoning.” It means seeking to derive strong evidence of something based on specific observations.

For example, if the same bird lands on your windowsill every morning for three weeks, through the use of inductive reasoning you can be reasonably–though not absolutely–confident that it will do so again tomorrow.

Applying this logic to fundraising can help you predict success and determine whether you’ve planned sufficiently to meet your goals. In other words, a little more forethought can help you gain confidence in your plan.

Gain Confidence Through Inductive Reasoning

The process is simple, and requires nothing more than asking yourself whether the goals you’ve set are reasonably achievable based on specific observations of elements of your plan.

Let’s say you’re planning a new event and need to attract twice as many guests as you ever have before. Do you use the same tactics you’ve always used, cross your fingers, and hope for the best? Of course not.

What about your next fundraising appeal? Are you confident that continuing to do the same thing you’ve done before will raise 10%, 20%, or 30% more money than last year? I hope not!

Odds are, you have a standard set of tactics you use for events and appeals. It likely consists of some combination of email, postal mail, telephone, social media or traditional media.

Sum Your Butts Calculation ExampleTo determine whether your typical approach will be successful, you need to review each tactic and ask how many butts in attendance or dollars in donations each is likely to yield. Base each decision on your previous observations of that tactic in similar circumstances, and then add up the results.

When considering new or unfamiliar tactics, you can ask others in your network or do a little digging online. Just be sure to adjust your expectations downward the further you get from personal experience.

If, based on your research and past observations, the sum of butts or dollars across tactics is equal to at least your target number, then you’re in good shape! If not, then you should add more tactics or plan to execute the same tactics in a more effective way (a huge topic we’ll have to save for another day).

Use this same technique to evaluate each new tactic or approach until you become sufficiently confident that you’ll meet or beat your target. Depending on your level of confidence, you can aim a lot or a little higher than your goal to increase your odds of success.

Deceptively Simple

What I learned on that fateful day over ten years ago is that following a recipe is such a simple concept, and had become so brainless an activity, that I had completely failed to consider the potential of each ingredient to make or break my meal.

Almost every week, we encounter nonprofit fundraising or marketing teams who make similar mistakes with their planning, and face worse consequences than having to toss out wasted ingredients.

Don’t make the same mistake when conducting your planning. While it’s simple to fall into the trap of thinking you’re already doing it or that it’s too much work, inductive reasoning is important–and ignoring it can have disastrous results.

And remember: Taking a little time to sum your butts just might save yours!

For more tips and suggestions on adopting a more thoughtful and systematic approach to your work, subscribe today!

Solution Fundraising Featured Image

Solution Fundraising: The Cure for What Ails Your Nonprofit

“The ¼” drill bit is the number one selling drill bit in hardware stores across the US. Who can tell me why?”

This question was posed to my classmates and me by our marketing professor in college many years ago. The answer seemed so obvious that many students quickly raised their hands. The first answer was, “Because it’s the most frequently needed drill bit, and people don’t want to buy a whole set.”

“Wrong!” the professor said with a sly grin.

Another student offered, “Because it’s the most commonly used drill bit, so it’s the one that’s most likely to break or go dull first and need to be replaced.”

“Try again,” the professor replied.

This went on for a few minutes, with variations on the theme that it was the most common size. Eventually, the professor explained that the reason why the ¼” drill bit was the number one selling drill bit was not because so many people needed a ¼” drill bit–it was because they needed a ¼” hole!

While his big reveal elicited a few muttered exclamations from the class, he was introducing us to an important concept: “solution selling.” In other words, working with your customer to understand their need or pain, then designing a solution that solves their problem.

Solution selling differs considerably from the classic approach often associated with sales, which finds the salesperson indiscriminately asking people if they want to buy something, until someone says “yes”.

The underlying problem with the classic approach is that the salesperson is focused on their own need to sell their product, and not on the needs of the buyer. Beyond the obvious drawback of not being very efficient, this approach creates other problems, from alienating would-be customers to fostering the frustration that can stem from frequent rejection. These problems tend to compound, making it increasingly difficult to maintain sales over time and contributing to extremely high rates of turnover in businesses where a more classic sales approach prevails.

So what does this have to do with fundraising? So glad you asked.

Whose perspective is it, anyway?

Fundraising and sales share many similarities. One unfortunate similarity is the tendency of many to approach fundraising from the perspective of their organization rather than that of the donor. In other words, focusing on their own need to receive a donation rather than the needs of the person they’re asking for money.

As with sales, this infraction is often unintentional. Most fundraisers are simply doing the best they can to convince people to support their cause–often with very limited resources. But the long-term effects of this approach can make it very difficult to sustain a consistent, much less growing, level of contributed income. Many of the same problems crop up that are seen in the sales industry, from disengaged donors to high turnover.

At its core, fundraising is about relationships, but our actions often convey a very different message to donors. Take for example the language we see in fundraising letters, case statements, web pages, and asks. Very often, fundraisers ask donors to:

  • Support their organization
  • Help them reach their annual budget, or capital campaign target
  • Enable them to do more valuable work
  • Or in some other way, think highly of the work that the organization is doing

Donors don’t need any of these things.

What they need is something more specific. Depending on who they are, they might need:

  • A cure for a particular disease
  • Equality for marginalized members of their community
  • Shelter for victims of violence or abuse
  • Or to believe that they are personally having an impact on whatever the cause may be (this is especially true of those who have previously given)

When you partner with donors to identify their specific needs and present them with a solution that addresses those needs, you will generate more–and more meaningful–gifts for your organization. This is solution fundraising.

Putting Solution Fundraising to Work for Your Nonprofit

Solution fundraising doesn’t mean working with each individual donor to identify their needs–no nonprofit has the time for that. But it does mean thoughtfully identifying and appealing to the general needs and interests of your donors or subsets of your donors.

The exception to this, of course, is with large requests of major donors and funders. These appeals should always be custom tailored to the unique needs of the donor. This involves spending time with them one-on-one, getting to know them personally, and trying to understand what motivates their giving.

For everyone else, start by removing ALL references to “us”, “we”, “our organization”, etc from your solicitations, and replace them with “you”. Then begin testing different likely solutions and optimizing your approach based on how people respond.

Find likely solutions by identifying what the possible interests are for your donors. Often these will have been identified for you by your major donors and any institutional funders who award grants in your area of specialty.

For example:

  • “Meet Harrold. He never learned how to create a resume or interview for a job. Donate today, so Harrold and many others like him will learn the skills necessary to land and keep a steady job.”
  • “Thanks to the generous donations of you and others in our community, 357 animals were saved from euthanasia last year. Ensure that this legacy continues. Donate today!”

Each of these examples puts the perceived power of impact into the hands of the donor, rather than the organization. Don’t worry about reinforcing your organization’s name or the work you do. When you empower donors to make a difference in areas that they care about, they will never forget who did that for them or where to find you.

For more fundraising tips and suggestions on adopting a more thoughtful and systematic approach to your work, subscribe today!

Image Credit: Hannah

How One Nonprofit Does More of What Works and Less of What Doesn’t

“Not it!” The refrain echoed playfully through the room in response to Louise’s question, “Who wants to kick us off and lead the meeting this week?” After a few chuckles, Katie offered to lead the discussion and Bre agreed to record any new updates that would be discussed.

Louise is the director of external relations at Hedgebrook, a literary nonprofit we work with, and Katie and Bre are external relations managers who report to her. Me, I try to participate in meetings like this as often as possible as an active contributor to strategic development, and an occasional project owner or collaborator on special projects.

Hedgebrook was the first nonprofit to adopt an organizational productivity system based on The SLOWER Framework™. Using this framework, organizations are going slower to grow faster, using familiar tools to break bad habits and adopt a more thoughtful and systematic approach to their work.

The meeting at Hedgebrook is a weekly progress and strategy meeting that the team conducts according to the Framework, and its unique format is one of the ways the team has transitioned from one in a recurring state of chaos and catch-up, to one that now functions in a thoughtful, calm, and confident manner.

I participate in a number of these meetings with Hedgebrook and other clients, and get really excited anytime I witness “aha” moments or examples of teams achieving their goals as a result of their use of The SLOWER Framework. Today was just one of those days.

What’s so Special About this Meeting?

Hedgebrook’s meetings are usually pretty enjoyable, but the the thing I loved most about this one was when Katie reported that one of the earned income projects the team was promoting had far exceeded its registration goals–well in advance of the deadline. As the conversation continued, I briefly reflected on how we got there.

This type of success hasn’t always been the case for this program. It has a fairly high four-figure ticket price and an aggressive registration goal. The way they’ve gotten so much closer to their goals, however, is by optimizing their strategy for how they promote the program.

Put another way, they’re doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t. In fact they’ve gotten so good at it that they can now:

  • Accurately set and reach targets for this and other campaigns (including fundraising)
  • Easily isolate and correct possible reasons why a given promotion isn’t going well
  • Apply what they learn from successful campaigns to others

As I drifted back into the conversation, I heard Louise ask, “Now that we’ve reached our goal, what remaining tactics can we consider cutting from this promotion to create more time for something else?”

This was a bit of an “aha” moment for the team. By optimizing their strategy for this recurring promotion, they have become more effective at reaching their goals. As a result, they can now spend less time promoting this program and shift their focus to other projects, like their annual fundraising event.

Optimization like this is possible for all organizations. All that’s needed is a little patience and discipline.

Doing More of What Works and Less of What Doesn’t

Doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t is relatively simple. The tricky part is knowing what works and what doesn’t.

In order to realize benefits like Hedgebrook has seen, begin by documenting your strategy for each new project, campaign, program, etc. Be sure to record the purpose and specific goals you wish to achieve, and specifically how the various tactics within your strategy will ensure success.

Next, commit to monitoring how well each tactic works relative to what you forecasted. The more specific you can be in setting targets for tactics, the easier it will be to measure and know whether they are working.

This is where the discipline and patience come in. That’s because it takes time and multiple cycles of planning, measuring, and evaluating before you will have collected enough data to make confident decisions. It’s tempting to try to start making decisions after only one or two instances, and you certainly can–but the more time you give it, the more confident you’ll be that you’re acting on good information, not gut feelings.

Over time it will become more obvious which tactics are working better or worse than others. All that’s left then is to change your approach going forward, and continue to monitor and adjust your tactics.

Great Job Everyone! Now, Back to Work!

As the meeting came to a close, the team agreed to cut the promotion short and record the results for reference in future campaigns. I gathered my things and was preparing to leave, when Louise made a sound that’s become all too familiar to me: a sigh of relief because she knew everything was under control.

For more tips and suggestions on adopting a more thoughtful and systematic approach to your work, subscribe today!

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Amazon Smile. Is it a good fit for your nonprofit?

A few weeks ago, a former client asked me to help make a few updates to their website. It had been over three years since I’d helped them create the site, and one of the first things I noticed when they brought me back was a prominent promotion for Amazon Smile on their homepage.

I’ve participated in Amazon’s Smile program as a customer more or less since its debut in 2013, and have had a handful of clients either mention that they were considering it, or ask if I thought they should. As always, my advice has been to estimate whether a positive return appears possible and then to test, test, test. Seeing it featured so prominently on this site, however, led me to want to take a closer look.

In case you’re not familiar with the program, it’s a way for Amazon customers to direct .5% (yes, one half of one percent) of their qualified purchases toward the charitable organization of their choice.

Obviously .5% isn’t much. It takes $1,000 in qualified purchases to accrue $5 in donations. And Amazon has come in for criticism: some observers point out that it reaps the tax breaks for the donations, while others worry that the program could actually lower donations to the nonprofits in question, since people will feel like they already gave while shopping. And then there’s the decision of whether to promote a behemoth retailer that many feel unfairly drives smaller local businesses to close.

On the other hand, Amazon has something like a kajillion customers, and odds are that more than a few of your community members are among them. Sometimes my own front door looks like an Amazon fulfilment center, so if any of your supporters are like us, those $5 checks could add up–without a heavy lift on your part.

So Does It Work?

Curious how the program is working for this particular client, I asked about their experience and any receipts. I received mixed reviews. Among them, they reported $14 from the previous quarter and disappointment that Amazon doesn’t share information about who made the purchases that led to the donations.

While I get the concern with not knowing who made the gift (and also get why shoppers might not want this information disclosed), the amount of money seemed like a good start. I’ve worked on several smaller annual fund campaigns where we’ve been perfectly happy with a recurring $15 quarterly donation, assuming it didn’t require much effort to earn and maintain. So I started to wonder how much effort it takes to register for the program and begin collecting checks.

It turns out, not much. I’ve confirmed with a few other folks who’ve done it, and the registration process is reportedly simple. Amazon provides a few tools to help you promote the program on your website, emails, and social media (offline marketing channels are not allowed, and some state restrictions apply).

So then I got to thinking about the effort required to continue promoting it, and started poking around a little. I made a somewhat random selection of 35 US-based current and former clients as well as organizations represented by subscribers to our blog, and viewed their websites for evidence of the program. Here’s what I found.

Of the 35 organizations I looked at:

  • 29 were available via Amazon’s program page
  • 3 of those promote the program on their homepage
  • 1 promotes it on another page on their website

Approximately 83% of surveyed organizations were eligible via the Smile program, but of those only about 1% promote the opportunity on their website.

Thinking that a few organizations likely opt to promote the opportunity via social media, newsletters, or blog posts instead of on their site, I asked a few of the eligible organizations whether they promote Smile other than on their website. Of those queried, none promote it elsewhere, but each said, “We probably should”, or something similar.

Should You Participate?

If the most you can hope to raise through the program is $5 to $15 a quarter, then there are likely better things to do with your time. If you think your community can support something more and you won’t have to put much effort into it, or if your fundraising motto is “we’ll take every penny we can get”, then it may be worth considering.

This program should not take priority over developing relationships with known donors and prospective donors, but it wouldn’t hurt to at least notify your donors, board, staff, and others in your community of the chance to support your work with purchases they’re already making.

That said, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • If for some reason promoting Amazon over smaller local businesses conflicts with your mission or philosophy, then obviously think twice about promoting the opportunity.
  • Like any promotion, if managing it takes more time than it’s worth, don’t do it.
  • If you’re concerned that Amazon’s graphics will look ugly or be a distraction on your site (I would be too!), it can be done tastefully as a text link or limited to other online channels.
  • Finally, if you’re concerned about the effects of social exchange theory on other forms of giving, or in other words, that people may not make regular donations because they’ve already “given” via Amazon, then don’t do it or consider limiting promotions to internal community members only.

At the end of the day, the Amazon Smile program and other programs that share a sliver of retail profits with nonprofit organizations aren’t going to become your biggest source of funding. But given how simple it is to set up and given the undeniable reality that Amazon has millions of existing customers, it couldn’t hurt to explore whether this is a fit for your organization.

For more tips and suggestions on adopting a more thoughtful and systematic approach to your work, subscribe today!

Image Credit: Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion