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Podcast | The Bold New Frontier of Artificial Intelligence

What if the key to transforming your fundraising efforts lies in a technology many fear? In this Go Beyond Fundraising Podcast episode, we explore the bold new frontier of artificial intelligence (AI).  

Allegiance Group + Pursuant's Chief Strategy Officer, Trent Ricker, considers the nuanced role of artificial intelligence in enhancing human connections. Rather than replacing personal interactions, AI can be a powerful tool to augment our ability to build and maintain deeper, more sincere relationships.  

Trent highlights the importance of leveraging technology to organize our lives better, prioritize effectively, and ultimately become more empathetic and attentive individuals. Join us for a thought-provoking conversation that explores how AI can help us achieve the very human goal of closer, more meaningful relationships between donors and nonprofit organizations. 

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Host: Welcome to another episode of the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast. Today, I am joined once again by Trent Ricker. Trent, we are talking all about AI today and how fundraisers can think about it. Perhaps there are some ethical considerations with artificial intelligence because there's a lot in the news about it. It seems to be changing faster and faster each day.  


Trent Ricker: Hi, Leah. It's great to be back with you. Thanks for having me. What a fascinating topic. So, you and I were chatting like we typically do about what we see and hear in the nonprofit space. And I've had a couple of interactions with some people related to AI that got me thinking more broadly. And so, we had a really rich discussion last week, and you and I did offline about AI. So, I'm really eager to chat with you more about it.  


But you know, the one thing that triggered it for me was lunch with my 16-year-old daughter. So, she's finished her sophomore year in school, and I was asking her how school was going. She was talking about a variety of things, one of which is how she leverages ChatGPT to help her with her homework and studying. And it's so amazing to me how learning and the application of artificial intelligence and chatbots and all of them are helping people, whether learning as students or doing their jobs better.  


Expanding upon that, I began to think about where and how I can use AI to help me with my job. And then, of course, that naturally extends to how I can help the folks I work with do their jobs better using and leveraging AI. Specifically, those that are fundraisers, whether frontline fundraisers working with major gift prospects or long-time donors or those working in direct response. And it unpacks so much about how we do our job. 


So, you know what? You shared something with me. I want to throw it back to you to start with. How are you using AI to make your job easier as a marketer? You're trying to stay on top of some things as well. I'd love to hear from you a bit, and then we can expand this to our audience. 


Host: One of the types of AI that has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years is large language models. So that's AI chatbots like ChatGPT or Google's Gemini. And then there are software programs incorporating behind-the-scenes AI tools to recognize patterns, take notes, and help you make edits quicker. 


For example, on this podcast, I use a tool that automatically transcribes the audio from our recording. Then, it gives me the transcript right next to the timeline of the audio recording. I can use an AI assistant in that tool to help me remove things like filler words. It can also help me identify great sound bites in the podcast to pull out for social content.  


In that process, I am still engaging as someone who wants to craft a really interesting conversation for our listeners, but I'm using AI to expedite that work and make it go quicker. And really, it lets me enjoy the fun part of editing. So, I imagine that many fundraisers and marketers out there are using AI tools to get more to the fun parts of their job. 


But as you and I were speaking before we hit record, there are definitely some ethical considerations in that process that we should be thinking about.  


Trent Ricker: Sure. Yeah. I love the example that you gave. What it boils down to, and even when I reflect on the conversation with my daughter or even in some conversations within our team, is that efficiency is a real key to leveraging AI with how we do our jobs. 


Everything you said there allowed you to be more efficient and create a higher-level product more quickly in ways that were much more cumbersome in the past. And even if we think about using Google as a search engine instead of ChatGPT to inform the prompt — and I'll get to that in a minute because that's important too, as it relates to using ChatGPT in ways that will leverage it more impactfully — efficiencies are what it's all about.  


I think about in our agency, for instance, there's a lot of creatives. Writers are a good example. And there's all this chatter out there about whether AI is going to replace people in some of their work; it's highly unlikely. I have no idea that I can speak from a place of expertise about where it may or may not be able to replace somebody fully. But first of all, I want to state for our audience that fundraising is a very relational vocation. It's one-to-one, whether that's the letters that we write or the conversations that we have. 


So, it's hard for me ever to believe that artificial intelligence will replace the importance of relationship fundraising. That's why even though we use the term AI, which now largely stands for artificial intelligence, I still think it needs to be pronounced that augmented intelligence is something that we in the fundraising space need to be very aware of. And that augmented intelligence means that we as humans will augment the intelligence that we glean from the machines we work with. That human element will be the conduit, if you will, between the relationships we're trying to create.  


You gave some great examples. Our writers, for instance, when they're interviewing, let's say, some folks from our nonprofit clients who might be delivering on the mission of the president of an organization talking about their vision, they're taking notes. They're going to try to take some of that information and put it into a compelling appeal. 


The old tool way might be through pen and paper — or a flashing cursor, if you will — to create those drafts and to go back and forth. And today, they can be much more prepared to come into those discussions by leveraging AI. They can take those transcripts and have AI help them draft some early work so they can begin to sculpt that clay. So, rather than starting from scratch, they can write more efficiently. So, as an example of how we might leverage that to use our jobs. 


Obviously, many of our nonprofit listeners today have writers on their staff as they're putting together letters for stewardship or appeals, and that's one way you can continue to do that. So, it's such an interesting tool. But you did bring up something about those who might be leveraging AI to a point where it isn't augmented, or they have it do a lot of work upfront to screen or triage. It can be quite dangerous there, too.  


I received a particular email that hit me. It was one of those cold emails from a sales representative. Ironically, it was for AI. It first introduced that they're an AI company and congratulated me and Pursuant on our journey over the many years that we've been in business. 


So, it's scraping information about me. It also said congratulations on the addition of Jennifer Bielat to your team as an executive vice president. The letter suggested that we should get together and learn further how AI can help Pursuant speak more relevantly and timely to our prospects, etcetera. The problem with that is that Jennifer Bielat, first of all, came to join Pursuant about six years ago. She wasn't a new hire for us. Tragically and unfortunately, she passed away a year ago. 


And that certainly had some press releases out there as well because she was an impactful leader in our market. AI missed something there. And when you talk about the personal element, you can imagine the taste in my mouth related to that brand, that note I got from that salesperson. Nevertheless, I'm sure it wasn't intentional, but it was lazy by way of machine learning to do such communication. And we, as fundraisers, would recoil in horror if we thought we were to communicate with a donor. 


Certainly, as a way of example, many of our donors, clearly major donors and plan givers, etc., have a high level of sensitivity regarding their spouse and whether they're deceased. Those are always areas that, even in direct response, there's sensitivity to whether a mister or missus is still on a direct response piece in case there was a deceased spouse or such. I use that as a cautionary tale on the extreme. We can't expect AI to “do our job for us.” I wouldn't expect that those sorts of errors are in the majority. 


But if we go back to what Seth Godin preached about permission marketing, we should leverage AI to help our communication be more personalized, timely, and relevant. Those three things are still very important today, even in how we leverage AI to help us do our jobs better. The antithesis of that is when people feel like you're communicating with them in a disingenuous way, that it isn't relevant, then they'll tune us out. And I do think that the personalized nature of the relationship fundraising space that is nonprofits can do a lot of damage if you're not careful about that.  


Host: You said something earlier that I would love to unpack further, and that is the difference between augmented intelligence and artificial intelligence. 


Augmented intelligence is a phrase that we have adopted here at Allegiance Group and Pursuant. But for those listening who may find that term unfamiliar, could you explain it a little bit further?  


Trent Ricker: The word augmented would mean “to add to.” And, again, I think there's something really cold about the word artificial intelligence by definition. Even when we think about some of the news stories, and we think about AI, and we think about how it could go wrong for me about some of the sci-fi movies from years past and this machine, man versus machine, if you will. It strikes me as so wholly impersonal, and I don't think there's enough written about the augmentation of the human touch and the human element.  


We talked about how you're using artificial intelligence, but you're obviously from a human element doing your editing. And this is a conversation that you're editing. It isn't something that you're talking to a machine about related to its experiences.  


And I would say to pause there for a minute. A machine is much smarter than I am as it relates to its experiences because it can scrape many websites and public domain material to come up with answers that are probably more thorough than you and I could in conversation.  


But the human element of this conversation, my own experiences, my anecdotes, my collective experience, my education, my instincts — those things you can't replace — are important. That human touch is particularly important in fundraising. People give money altruistically to help others, and there isn't an exchange of goods and services, so to speak. 


Sometimes, you can get some premiums, or you might be able to get access to medical or better seats or whatever it might be, but that's not the real reason why people give. So, there's this element of the relationship aspect. So, augmented intelligence has gotten lost a bit in all this, and our nonprofit audience should always keep that in mind. If you're a fundraiser talking to your board or as an executive leader in your organization, emphasize, don't use AI irresponsibly for artificial intelligence, but talk about that augmented component.  


Host: Exactly. It's a helpful way to look at things. As fundraisers and nonprofit leaders, we must sit down and come up with the guardrails we need to have in place to ensure that those experiences you brought up don't happen. And then what are the ways that we need to innovate to make sure that information that we have, for example, on our websites, is still relevant to people, that people can still do their work in a way that honors the inherent intelligence and creativity of humans.  


There are many different ways we can approach the conversation. There are so many considerations that nonprofit leaders need to make in the realm of AI that not having the conversation and burying our heads in the sand is the wrong approach.  


Trent Ricker: The cautionary tale is that we can hurt our brands if we are lazy in leveraging AI. And for the most part, the leaders that I've talked to in the nonprofit space, if anything, are cynical about AI at this point. Part of why this is a timely podcast for you and me to have this discussion, and I'd love to revisit it every six months to a year, is that there's an emerging trend of how to leverage.  


Many of us who have been conditioned to learn or seek information in different ways are still learning how to leverage AI in our day-to-day jobs, as we discussed at the top of this podcast, but then how to leverage it throughout our organization or fundraising organization. We are at Allegiance Group and Pursuant, an agency equipped to help our partner organizations be more efficient and raise more money. And in doing so, then, how do you leverage AI for acquisition, retention, loyalty, stewardship, and upgrade?  


And I want to talk a little bit about that. To your point, as it relates to leveraging the tools and how we do it and how we apply it so that we can still remain very personalized, relevant, and timely relationship fundraising as opposed to transactional fundraising, then we can do some better things. 


When we were preparing for this, one of the things that I thought was pretty interesting was that we went to ChatGPT for fun. So, think about this. For the audience, you can recondition how you're thinking. If Leah and I are thinking about putting together a podcast on how AI can help nonprofit fundraisers, if you enter that prompt into ChatGPT, you get some pretty interesting things.  


Now, really quick, before I dive into that, Leah, one of the things that I've also learned is that for any of you using ChatGPT, the prompt is the king. Refining the prompt and what questions you're asking ChatGPT will give you much richer and more relevant answers. So, a generic question, such as how AI can help nonprofit fundraisers, is great. But if you are a particular fundraiser, let's say, for arts and culture, and you're in a particular geographical region that's struggling with next-generation donors, you might refine that. How can a museum find more younger donors in the Boston area in fundraising? I haven't asked ChatGPT that, but you'll get a more relevant answer. So, again, back to relevancy, ChatGPT, and the like, the prompts will inform the answers.  


So, real quick, this will be fun because I want to get your take on it. When I asked that question, there were just some answers that popped up in two different buckets: one, donor identification and segmentation. I'm going to come back to that. Personalized communication — you hit on this a moment ago, Leah, as it relates to natural language processing. I'm going to come back to that. Fundraising campaign optimization, data analysis and insights, donor retention, grant writing and management, and fraud detection. Those were the eight things that ChatGPT came up with. 


Let's attack this a little bit. First, if we go back in our history at Allegiance Group and Pursuant, leveraging business intelligence and predictive analytics to power our insights, particularly with GivingDNA, has always been at the forefront. But it felt a little bit like a black box. We use our technology to help identify high-potential donors, segment donors effectively, and help nonprofit leaders visualize some of the results they're having so that they can better identify trends in different areas. 


Leveraging these algorithms is really critical. Much of that's baked into emerging tools, so technology is critical. I think the donor insights and predictive analytics component is key to being more efficient in the nonprofit space. And, again, it's augmented intelligence because we're not going to say set it and forget it. It's going to help us understand donor preferences and behaviors so that we can tailor our communications. 


This one is pretty interesting. When we think about this — using NLP or natural language processing — you talked a bit about this, and I want your insights. But this is also one of those areas that's a cautionary tale. AI-powered tools today can craft personalized messages for donors. And, again, the information is only as rich as the information that we can glean from those donors. 


The thesis would be that we could improve engagement and response rates if we had better-personalized messages for our donors, whether through email campaigns, social media, direct mail, or the like. However, I would be very hesitant to leverage AI in its natural state for your higher-level donors because, again, the stakes are higher.  


But, Leah, what's your experience relating to some of these NLP's and other tools for personalized messages or chatbots? Because that's a hot thing in marketing as well, right?  


Host: Oh, absolutely. Overall, as a marketer, one of the things that I've been tuned into is the overall tone and some of the general patterns of AI writing. There are a few key phrases. There are a few key styles that I'm noticing more and more that I can sometimes even pin down to the exact large language model that the person may have used to generate that piece of content.  


And so, tying that into, especially, major donor fundraising, much more relationship fundraising one-to-one, we as writers have to be very attuned if we're using some of these AI tools to help us in our work to make sure that we are double- and triple-checking the actual content. For example, in the sales email you brought up, making sure that all the information is correct.  


Then, we have to think about how we develop our unique writing style and tone because AI is going to smooth out a lot of people's distinctiveness. That's a little concerning to me because I can tell by reading a few sentences if it sounds completely artificial to how that person would write or speak. Our donors are going to be attuned to that as well.  


Trent Ricker: Yeah, that's a great observation. Even the phrase “chatbot,” I see some websites use chatbots. Does anybody really feel like they want to talk to a bot? And even if that's masked and it's not calling itself a chatbot, it is a bot that you're at least starting communication with. It feels terribly impersonal. It feels like when you're on one of those phone calls and desperately want to talk to a human being to solve your problem.  


Now, will AI improve over the years? Well, of course, it will. But to your point, if somebody has a sense that they're talking to a machine as opposed to an individual or that the letter that was written to them or the email that was written to them was written by a machine as opposed to a person, and it lacks that relevancy. Again, we'll go back to relevancy. How can you tweak some of that relevancy? I'm eager to see how AI might be able to continue to evolve in that way. We talk about personalized, relevant, and timely. A mass email for a particular segment differs from a relevant email that can be quite refined based on the interests we know about that individual. 


If you were in higher ed, you would know quite a bit about potentially one of your constituents, what they studied, what year they graduated, and what interests they might have otherwise had. And, if we're augmenting our data files with interests, we could, in fact, and this has gone back for a while, have more relevant emails that speak to that individual's interest. Artificial intelligence can enhance that if used correctly, but it has to feel authentic and be augmented again by real data that we can add to our databases.  


I want to pause there, think back to the evolution, and think about what's in people's databases, for instance. So, we have giving history, individuals, when they give, how much they give, RFM data, etc. We've got publicly available third-party information that you can purchase. GivingDNA, our tool, brings in third-party data to enhance key components, but that's stuff you can buy. How can you augment your database for relevant interests? 


That example that I used about someone at a university. Were they involved in Greek life? Did they participate in athletics intramurals or other extracurricular activities? For some of that, the only way you're going to get it is by asking those questions or bringing together multiple data sources, and I would say that's an uphill climb for many of our nonprofit clients. But if you have that, it can make that data much richer, allowing us to write more relevant emails and letters. And if we're leveraging technology to do that more quickly for us, then it would be much more impactful and relevant. 


Host: Absolutely. The key is that nonprofits must focus on collecting zero- and first-party data. So that could be anything from making sure that your gift officers record detailed notes every time they have a call with a prospect. If you have a nonprofit heavily invested in content on your website, can you track user behavior and see what folks are clicking on and consuming? Even if you are running something like a museum or an arts and culture organization, can you track which types of events that particular prospect likes to attend or which ones they bring guests to? 


There are so many different events in someone's relationship with your organization that if you are not capturing that information in your database, you'll be setting yourself up for less success in leveraging third-party tools because you'll not be able to vet what those third-party tools can augment your database with against things that you are already collecting.  


Trent Ricker: It's so true. It reminds me, I'd say, years back, and it was louder the further back you go in time. When I worked at Convio, an early eCRM platform, we encouraged our nonprofit organizations to collect as much data as possible to make the emails they sent more relevant. One of our case studies is a simple example of working with the ASPCA; knowing whether the constituent was a dog or cat person could significantly lift the impact and the response rate of an email by inserting images of dogs or cats or both, depending upon what we knew about them. This a very simple example, but everybody listening could understand the importance and the likelihood of improving the response rate.  


Over the years, I've received pushback from people who say that if we ask for this information but don't know how to apply it or are not applying it, then number one, it feels intrusive. When you ask for this information but don’t apply it, people feel the brand is wasting their time. For example, you took a survey and asked these questions, but we're not using it. Maybe I gave you that back in the day. 


The point today is that information and technology likely can be leveraged because AI tools will be able to leverage better communication, so they have better data. It goes back to the prompt in ChatGPT that we talked about. The more I know about a particular constituent, the more relevant that communication can otherwise be. That takes me to another point more broadly when we consider how AI can help us. Technology today and software tools, GivingDNA being one of those, can help us to leverage who to talk to from a segmentation standpoint. 


Great advancements in predictive modeling, business intelligence, and artificial intelligence indicate who might be more likely to continue to give to us or who might be more likely to lapse soon. So, when we know who they are, we can communicate with them more quickly. Then comes the “what do we say,” and that's the part where augmented intelligence is so important. Because if we're leveraging AI to help us craft communication, back to your earlier point, we don't want to fall into the trap of using NLPs or chatbots or something that feels very impersonal. But the better data we have, the better information we might get from those early, we'll say, draft letters or emails that AI can help us write. 


So, we have the “who” — technology and software can help us define those segments. The “what are we saying” is critical, and that's where augmented intelligence and relationship fundraising need to stay intact.  


Host: What are some final insights on the future of AI and fundraising? If you were to give maybe one piece of advice for fundraisers and nonprofit leaders on ways to responsibly integrate some of these tools we've discussed, like augmented intelligence with data analytics, business intelligence, and tools that speed up efficiency in an organization.  


Trent Ricker: I always boil it down to the simplicity of having conversations internally. If there's anything our listeners can take away from our podcast, are we creating some sense of curiosity so you can start conversations with your colleagues?  


I would encourage teams, particularly the development and fundraising teams, to sit down — hopefully led by their leader or somebody who can drive the AI conversation — and start talking. First of all, how do we, as individuals, leverage AI in our day-to-day jobs? As you and I started this conversation today, you will find, based on my experience, a wide variety of usages. 


Some people use it regularly and for many different purposes, and some people don't even think about it and periodically use it. I don't know if it's a conditioning or age thing; it doesn't matter. The fact is that you can learn from one another about how leveraging AI in your day-to-day job efficiencies can help you be better at what you do.  


So, start with the conversation. How are we using it internally and expanding that conversation like you and I did? “Hey, team. How can we leverage AI in areas to acquire more donors?” Preferably, we need better donors and to retain donors, upgrade donors, steward those donors, and create deeper engagement from our constituent set, whether through volunteerism, advocacy, ambassadorship, or social media.  


And, again, if you start those conversations, you can ask yourself what tools we have at our disposal, either through the existing software tools that we have that can help us to understand the who and what tools and how we can use those tools to inform what we're saying and when we're saying it. So, having those conversations, if anything else, creates visibility and awareness in a safe way because today, there's so much information. It's like taking a drink of water out of a fire hose. 


If we rely upon the media to educate us, so to speak, we're going to get all sorts of clicks related to the cautionary tales and dangers of AI. You might get a sales lead from somebody with their own bias — “When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Use AI for everything.” I would strongly encourage the conversations to take place and then start talking to some of your vendors. 


If you're working with an agency like AGP, how can we assist you in those areas? Get better informed about how we're leveraging it to get you better results. If you're working with software vendors, then have a better understanding of how they're continuing to leverage AI to create a better product for you related to the technology, the analytics, the insights, and the segmentation. It's a great time in fundraising right now. We can do so much more. 


To wrap it up, you and I usually have a theme in some of our discussions about the challenge of donor loyalty in the current landscape: There are fewer donors, so to speak, giving. So, the acquisition of donors and leveraging loyalty to get those specific supporters who can go deeper and longer with us in their loyalty is critical to the long-term lifetime value. Leveraging technology like AI is a really important element in doing that well.  


Host: I love that. And while you were speaking, Trent, a personal anecdote came to mind, which was maybe a few months ago. I felt a little bit convicted about how I was performing as a friend to people in my life. I wished there was an app or something out there where I could manage all my personal relationships and get automated reminders to follow up with certain people based on things they've told me.  


For example, if a friend told me their mother was going to have surgery in three weeks, I'd love to get a reminder to follow up with that friend and see how that surgery went. Or if there's someone I haven't seen in a few months, I'd love to follow up in a certain amount of time to check how they've been.  


I've found an app that can pull information from my text messages, contacts, and Facebook interactions. It aggregates all these different data sources and identifies a key group of people who are your inner circle. We're going to prioritize sending you reminders for these people. It also allows me to add notes or customize the frequency of reminders to follow up with those people.  


So, the main question nonprofits need to consider is how to use AI to augment our efforts, keep more donors loyal, and make that overall experience more personal.  


Trent Ricker: What a great story. It's a very easy bridge to think about how a major gift officer, who is, in essence, a salesperson, can manage those relationships with their donors and their donor files in their portfolio, if you will. The more that they can stay personalized, relevant, and timely with the donors in their portfolio.  


And what you gave was very one-to-one. It was Leah's circle of friends and leveraging technology to prioritize, remind you, and prompt you to do certain things. On a surface, you'd think about that and say, is that disingenuous? No. Not at all. That's the same way we go back to my daughter leveraging AI to help her do her homework or to create better writing for herself related to ideation and learning. 


You're leveraging technology to build deeper human connection and augmenting it. You're not asking that technology to do it on your behalf. And that also speaks to the pitfalls that we talked about before. That's true augmented intelligence. By helping you be a closer friend who shows deeper sincere interest, you're only asking to leverage technology to be better organized in your life and to prioritize and give you prompts so that you can be what you set out to be. 


And that is to build deeper relationships with those you care the most about. What a great story to end on. And really, for everybody out there, don't be intimidated by AI. Embrace it, learn, be curious, and have conversations.