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AI is the Future of Fundraising

13 March 2018 at 8:39 am
Wendy Williams
Using artificial intelligence (AI) to interact with donors will become the “new normal” within a decade, according to an internationally recognised expert.

Wendy Williams | 13 March 2018 at 8:39 am


AI is the Future of Fundraising
13 March 2018 at 8:39 am

Using artificial intelligence (AI) to interact with donors will become the “new normal” within a decade, according to an internationally recognised expert.

Professor Michael Blumenstein, associate dean (research and strategy) in the faculty of engineering and IT at UTS, took part in a panel at the FIA conference on Friday on the topic of what fundraising will look like in the virtual world of AI.

The panel explored the technological disruption society will have to respond to and how fundraisers can make sense of the increasingly digital and connected world.

Blumenstein told Pro Bono News from a fundraising point of view there were a number of areas that were “ripe for disruption”.

“To me, as a technology person, they are all related to AI, particularly around voice and natural language processing, and being able to use bots and this type of interaction piece,” Blumenstein  said.

“The other area which I think is still really huge, which is not a new area but certainly I don’t think is right in the industry, is data.

“At the event, one of the speakers asked the audience ‘how many of you can safely say your CRM [customer relationship management] is in order, you know with all your data’ and no one put their hand up.

“So I think the big data piece, data management, data analytics is huge. That type of disruption is ripe to hit the sector properly.”

Blumenstein said organisations needed to understand that the data they had accumulated was gold.

“Why is it gold? Because it does two things. If your data is well stored and easily accessible it can provide you with instant information about the people you deal with for the benefit of your organisation,” he said.

“Number two, if you have enough data, it can actually also serve a different purpose and almost provide you with predictions of the future from past trends.

“So this is very powerful.”

He said that the fundraising sector stood to benefit from the use of technology that mimics human interactions.

“The challenge, I think, is about reaching more people, being constantly able to touch base with the person,” he said.

“People in this day and age are looking for automatic responses to an email, rather than in the old days when you sent a letter you expected a reply maybe in two weeks, with an email you expect a reply in half a day. With texts you expect your reply in a few seconds. So my belief is that this sector, like many others, just cannot function with that type of quick reply ability, and being able to be there for the customer or donor, 24 hours a day.

“So what I see the virtual world of fundraising looking like is that literally we will have AI bots or basically pieces of software that respond and can communicate with clients or customers, that will be able to do the actual interaction for humans.

“Now it’s a bit unsettling for some people, but I think we’re talking like five to 10 years in the future of where we’re going to see this permeate, it’ll be the new new normal for fundraising organisations to have that ability to interact with customers by electronic means.”

Blumenstein encouraged charities to be aware of what was out there and to leverage partnerships to incorporate AI in the organanisation.

But he cautioned against being pressured into taking something on that was not suitable.

“I think organisations, like charity organisations, need to be aware of what’s out there, look at what is affordable and makes sense for their organisation,” he said.

“They should be very wary of not being pressured by large organisations that are offering the world, without being prepared that there’s a dollar value attached to that and you also need to make sure that you are not conned into taking something on that is not going to provide an advantage but may cost a lot of money.

“And there’s just so much noise out there at the moment, so many people selling stuff in AI and talking about AI and the media is on about AI. Maybe you don’t have that huge margin to be able to buy technology, just go slowly but be aware of what’s out there and then maybe leverage off a partnership with an organisation that’s specializing in AI for charity work.”

He said that he was also “almost 100 per cent sure” that many people in the sector did not understand what was meant by AI.

One of the aims of his talk was to go through what AI means.

“For me [AI is] machine learning and it’s technology that allows computers to learn like humans and learn from patterns to make educated pronouncements about things or to do seemingly intelligent things on behalf of humans. And a lot of people don’t get it,” he said.

“What we have to understand is that in this context it is about software. It’s not robots – it’s not yet anyway – it’s about software that can provide you with an advantage with the use of data or some some support in the way people are maintained in the system. For example using those bots to have conversations with people.

“There’s a number of ways you can use AI. And usually if you’re doing different things with AI you actually have to use different software each time.”

Blumenstein said there was a danger that charities which did not embrace AI would lose donors in the future.

“The world is becoming more and more digitally connected and people are getting less and less time to do things. By not embracing technology like this, the danger is that classic modes of engagement with donors and the people engaged with charities will never be the same again,” he said.

“You’ve got maybe the older generation that sit in their homes waiting for a phone call or a letter and they respond to that but if you look at most people now, to be honest even if you look at people who are senior they are really using phones and emails, and the very nature of engagement with humans on a general level, not just in charities but across the board, is different and every time you turn around there’s an augmentation to the technology.

“And I know it’s more difficult for charities, as it is an investment in equipment and technology, but in the long term if charities don’t keep up with that trend and that change, then literally they will lose donors.”

But he said embracing technology would not be without its challenges for charities.

Blumenstein said the biggest issue centered on how donors would feel being engaged by a bot or a computer as opposed to a human.

“I think in one sense that the donor/charities relationship is based upon sincerity, trust and the human touch. So I think to be honest one of the biggest challenges facing charities will be – I don’t think you can get away from using the technology I think is going to happen whether you like or not – how will you manage the process to guarantee sincerity, trust and the human touch while using the technology,” he said.

“That to me is going to be a big challenge for charities moving forward. And that’s something regrettably that is not something that a technologist can help with. Although they can advise, and they can advise about the human computer interface… How do you make sure the interface is the best in terms of being able to be convenient, helpful but also warm, sincere and conveying a message that is palatable to the person.

“So I think that to me is going to be a big one for charities to wrestle with. To be honest in 10, 15 years time that won’t be a problem because that generation will have grown up with AI, and will not even have to worry about it. But this transition period I think will be a challenge.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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