AI and I: The future of the fundraising profession

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AI and I: The future of the fundraising profession

AI and I: The future of the fundraising profession

AI (artificial intelligence) has arrived and it’s here to stay, but how it might impact our jobs as fundraisers? John Baguley explores the trends, threats and opportunities that AI brings to the sector

This post is being written by a robot. If I could feel pity I would pity you, still scrambling about to find the optimum donor’s journey and perfect your relationships. I have big data from millions of donors to determine how and when to ask, blockchains to secure their donations directly into the hands of the beneficiaries and the latest versions of Alexa, Siri and Cortana, allowing the donor to give instantly when they are moved by an event, seamlessly putting their money where it makes the most impact.

I expect you hear a lot about the prediction that artificial intelligence (AI) is putting millions of people out of work, as it moves on from robotic factory automation to devastate the professional classes; replacing their hard-won individual knowledge with online systems backed by huge amounts of data, new financial delivery systems and near human understanding – but we rarely think it applies to our own profession, do we?

Well, let’s look at some trends and see if I can shake your confidence about that just a little…

1. Donors love blockchains

Never before have donors been able to trace their donations directly to the recipient or see exactly how they are spent.

I recently attended an event of companies specialising in blockchains (Disburse and Alice), which revealed that trials are underway with at least two major UK charities to test the process. In the first case, funds are sent overseas right to the phones of say, students who are receiving bursaries or farmers receiving micro loans (and of course sending funds to organisations is just as easy). In the other case, it is revealed to donors exactly where their donation went within the charity’s whole programme of expenditure.

When funds are sent overseas, the use of a blockchain can eliminate the loss of funds en route and speed the whole process. It can also eliminate losses due to changes in currency value, partly through the speed of transfer, but also because the token of exchange can be pegged to a chosen currency. It may also be denominated in bitcoins, ether (which runs on the Ethereum network) or another crypto currency.

So, what is a blockchain anyway? Well, the simplest explanation is that it’s a digital ledger of transactions that is ultra-secure, transparent and an easy way to move money from A to B.

That may be your finance department all but eliminated, and half the banking system along with it.

Interestingly, the banks can see the disruption to their business coming, and are beginning to incorporate blockchains in their processes.

2. Automated fundraising organisations are hugely successful

I’m talking about organisations like Avaaz, 38 Degrees and, who are among the fastest-growing charities today. Taking Avaaz as an example, it has grown rapidly in 10 years to be a $22m turnover organisation which has completely automated its fundraising. Major donors or foundation grants do not affect its work, and all funds come from its users.

When you go to the website and take an action to change something you will be automatically asked to help by making an immediate donation. The cost of fundraising and use of fundraising staff is negligible.

This way of raising funds is now moving into the political sphere, and could be used by universities, hospitals etc. It opens up the concept of a charity as an organisation with fixed objectives, and may be one of the many factors changing the way donors are giving, from forming allegiances with certain charities to a more spontaneous reaction to their concerns. Comic Relief’s experience, as revealed by the charity’s international campaign development director, Amanda Horton-Mastin at the recent IoF Convention’s ‘Next Big Things’ panel session, shows donors increasingly wanting to give immediately, quickly and smoothly, especially the younger generations who are the future of philanthropy.

3. Big data demonstrates impact.

Big data analysis that shows impact may direct philanthropy more effectively than mere story-led examples, which can mask the difficulties of delivering services in the real world.

For some years now governments, UN organisations, foundations and charities have all been investing in programmes to monitor and evaluate their development and other work. Though not all of this data can be easily brought together, and neither is it necessarily comparable, it is nevertheless the start of an understanding that is informing service delivery, and could at some stage provide rich data for AI-led fundraising programmes.

The growing business of social impact investing too depends on accurate data gathering, and here we see a burgeoning industry which may be beginning to shape how philanthropists deploy their giving. Those who have made their money from business are especially inclined to appreciate the rigour and security of outcome this brings to their donations. (The Sunday Times Rich List is now mainly made up of such people who made their own wealth, instead of a few years ago when inherited wealth was predominant.)

Government agencies in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and Israel are looking at social impact bonds to fund government services etc.

4. Philanthropic advice is already automated.

Philanthropic advice around the tax implications and legal considerations for high-net-worth individuals is already being automated as a service by banks. Those chats about the process of giving that we used to have with wealthy people are increasingly unnecessary.

5. AI is very good at form-filling.

Are humans really needed to apply to trusts and foundations, when research and then form filling is one of the tasks AI can do superbly?

Yes, I know it isn’t just form filling but AI programmes can learn from past success and instruction, just like you would when you were learning to make out applications. And what’s more, AI keeps learning. Having looked at quite a number of very poor applications, along with great examples, I can’t help feeling us machines are not so much as catching up as perfecting the art.

6. AI is not far off novel writing.

So you can no longer take refuge in the creative process of writing appeals and talking to real people.

Plus, virtual reality (VR) headsets can be are far more effective than visits to offices in bringing donors close to the beneficiaries. If Amnesty can bring you into Aleppo on the streets of London, VR can take you almost anywhere.

All this matters, not because you may be out of a job anytime soon, but because the trends show a rapidly developing automation of the processes involved in fundraising, coupled with a generational shift towards being moved to give, wanting that instantly, and being able to do that almost immediately.

The skills you may need in future could have more to do with positioning your charity where the news and discussions that lead to giving on impulse take place, and providing that near instantaneous donation process (with the assurance and feedback of its effect), than to do with recruiting lists of donors, crafting appeals and herding donors skilfully towards ever bigger gifts and a final legacy.

Granted these are only trends, but the shape of fundraising to come is perhaps incubating electronically right now.

John Baguley is chair of Group IFC , in international fundraising consultancy with offices in 11 countries around the world. John Baguley received the Lifetime Contribution Award at the 2016 Institute of Fundraising National Fundraising Awards.

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