Home » Future of Higher Education » How Artificial Intelligence Is Transforming Fundraising
Future of Higher Education

How Artificial Intelligence Is Transforming Fundraising

Higher Education has witnessed countless changes throughout the years. Many seemed monumental and sure to change the way the world worked. However, not until 2020 did we see disruption at scale from within our own walls. 

Within advancement, we’ve seen the need for gifts grow, colleagues furloughed and laid off, and a business model that’s stood the test of time face stark uncertainties. Amid all of this, forward-thinking advancement leaders have looked to technology to fundamentally change the way the practice works in higher education, and an astonishing 82 percent believe artificial intelligence (AI) will help solve the challenges created by COVID-19. So why AI? Why now?

Fundraising today must reassess its true north. Jerold Panas set the bar and plotted the course that defined the gold standard in fundraising for the past few decades. Even if we followed these tried-and-true methods to a tee, the results of our philanthropic efforts would meet a sharp decline because we are now living in a new economy.

It is apparent that we may have the resiliency (and enough duct tape) to power on through our current fiscal years. But that’s not true for the next fiscal year, and all sequential fiscal years are severely impacted by 2020. Many of our recent successes come on the shoulders of relationship development that began before the chaos of 2020. Advancement needs a successful fundraising model sooner, rather than later, and those who find it will emerge as the next crop of top leaders in our profession.

Advancing AI

In our work for the AI in Advancement Advisory Council’s (AAAC) 2020 State of AI in Advancement report, we found that 73 percent of nonprofit advancement shops faced budget restrictions and hiring freezes, forcing leadership to uncover new solutions to reach giving targets. As a result, we found that two-thirds of advancement professionals are looking to technology for a solution. But we cannot stop short and assume incorporating video conferencing as a tool to continue “face-to-face” donor meetings, albeit virtual, is the innovation we need. 

2020 showed us that advancement needs to rethink how we develop funds that drive our institutions’ missions, because addressing symptoms is equivalent to putting a bandaid on a larger problem. What we need is innovation.

This innovation can be found in the way many leading institutions are applying AI to fundraising. From transitioning staff to digital-first fundraisers, developing major giving pipelines, and transforming our historic assumptions of efficiency, AI is actively empowering advancement professionals and leaders to step up to the challenges that have been accelerated over the past year.

Workforce efficiency

Workforce efficiency is a term that has more weight today than it has in the past as advancement leadership considers how to “do more with less.” AI tools like Gravyty are empowering frontline fundraisers to do four times more personal outreach and inspire first-time donors at a scale previously unthinkable. 

As AI technologies become the standard toolset that frontline fundraisers use to maximize their personal outreach with donors, we’re encouraged that they will help set new benchmarks for success within higher education fundraising.

Pipeline development

In terms of developing the gift pipeline, 2020 created a lot of uncertainty for the future. Many major donors stepped up to close the giving gap and send money to emergency funds. Those gifts, while timely, also have leaders concerned about donor fatigue — will they be able to go to the same well in the current fiscal year? 

There are two solutions to this problem: increase both the opportunities we open in the pipeline and the quality contacts our organizations have with prospects. The strategies we activate to address these two metrics will define the rate at which we can grow pipelines in these uncertain times. 

Eighty-two percent of advancement leaders believe AI can effectively prioritize and reach more prospects, which is why they believe the technology is a part of the solution, and one that goes hand-in-hand with workforce efficiency.

The digital gift officer

Still, there remains the question of how. Philanthropy and fundraising are based on relationships. Before COVID, the assumption was that meaningful relationships required face-to-face visits. However, during COVID, fundraisers found traction with a digital-first approach, giving rise to a newer role in our field: the digital gift officer. 

Before decentralized workforces became the standard, digital gift officers were likely among the few using apps like Zoom as standard staples of their donor outreach. Now organizations are working to define the metrics that effectively track the results of a digital gift officer’s engagement because the role allows large-scale personalized outreach without the hefty costs of in-person events and prospect visits. For example, a digital gift officer is expected to leverage technologies like AI so they can manage larger donor portfolios, qualify more prospects, make more phone calls, and send more personalized emails.

Just as technology should be extended based on purpose and need, so should the roles within advancement. Forward-thinking organizations and those willing to adapt to today’s world will find that marrying technology and relationship-building at scale will build broader pipelines and inspire more giving. AI that empowers advancement professionals to focus more time, energy, and resources on building relationships is powerful because it addresses critical drivers of fundraising ROI.

Successful fundraising in today’s landscape is possible. AI is made up of amazing technologies that will certainly help us get there, but they are only effective when they are specifically created to solve the challenges we have in advancement. This is precisely the time to seek out AI partners who focus solely on advancement. Now is our time to reinvent fundraising with a digital-first approach that moves significant relationships forward at scale.

Next article