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A beginner’s guide to AI in annual giving

What you need to know and how to start using it in your advancement strategy

December 4, 2023 , By Jenny Jones, Principal, Advancement Marketing Services

With each passing day, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is becoming a more prominent topic of discussion for advancement leaders. You’ve no doubt heard about generative AI and tools like ChatGPT, but what exactly are they, and how can they help your advancement strategy? AI offers a multitude of opportunities, from analyzing donor data to enhancing marketing content and beyond. But embracing new technology can be overwhelming and there is a lot to keep in mind when it comes to using AI in your annual giving program.

In this blog, we will explore the potential opportunities and pitfalls of using AI in annual giving and offer insights into the future of advancement with this transformative technology.

What Every Cabinet Leader Needs to Know about AI

How will AI transform higher education? This isn’t just a question for the future—the changes have already begun. Watch the on-demand webinar to hear EAB experts have a lively discussion of how to navigate the hype around AI and figure out what it means for your staff, constituents, and institution.

What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

Most of us have already been utilizing forms of AI, even if we don’t realize it. From the targeted ads on your social media feeds to the use of digital personal assistants, such as Siri and Alexa, AI has been incorporated into technologies for years. But what brought AI into the headlines this year was a new wave of AI models, including the arrival of ChatGPT.

These new AI models excel at a wide range of tasks– everything from picking winning stocks to diagnosing rare illnesses and writing computer code. Users and researchers (including ChatGPT’s creators) are only just beginning to understand its full range of capabilities. But while the potential of these new capabilities is exciting, it shouldn’t be overlooked that this new AI still relies on being built from the right data and used by the right people in order to reach its full potential.

Hallmarks of the New AI

1. Sophistication of output

  • Output of the new AIs is indistinguishable from text, speech, images, etc. produced by intelligent, skilled, and highly knowledgeable humans.

2. Natural language processing

  • The new AIs can understand questions posed to them in casual, everyday language and can respond in kind. This lets people make productive use of them with little training.

3. Advanced build features

  • Ability to self-optimize
  • Incorporation of deep-learning neural networks
  • Use of automated statistical analysis
  • Training on hugely massive data sets

The Opportunities of AI

At EAB, we have been powering our Advancement Marketing Services (AMS) partners’ annual giving programs with AI for years. We have incorporated AI through solutions for campaign personalization, data and analytics reporting, deployment testing, and predictive modeling. But with the new wave of AI models and their growing capabilities, this is just the tip of the iceberg of how it can strengthen the work we do in annual giving.

Given that few advancement teams have capacity to spare, leaders might reasonably ask whether the effort they’d need to invest in adopting the new AI is worth the trouble. In most cases, the answer is a definite “yes.” While EAB’s AMS team works to embed new AI into our modernized annual giving approach, there are some “a la cart” ways you can start to incorporate it into your team’s work now.

How your team can begin using early tools of new AI

One of the most common early uses of AI is content creation. That includes general writing assistance—using tools like ChatGPT to help with the clarity, tone, grammatical correctness, conciseness etc. of various kinds of writing—as well as the creation of deliverable types that depend on some level of specialized knowledge—budgets or strategic plans, for example. In the latter case, AI not only helps with the mechanics of writing but also supplements users’ subject matter expertise. This technology can provide immense value to advancement teams, especially those with limited bandwidth, to be more efficient with their time and efforts.

Say you want to develop a new email series for your Calendar Year-End campaign. You can use a tool like ChatGPT and provide it with your campaign plan (donor segments, fundraising goals, institution information, etc.) along with prompts for the email series (topics you want to cover, parameters you want it to follow, length and content to include, etc.) and it will draft the emails series within seconds. Remember, AI generates this written content based off the data you feed it. So, the higher quantity and quality of historical annual giving campaign content you can feed it, the better. Be careful— common challenges with generative AI are that it writes in general platitudes, can have inaccuracies, and is often missing a human spark. This is where it’s critical to bring in industry professionals to edit and supplement AI’s content creation.

Other early uses of AI:

  • General writing support (i.e., tailoring marketing copy to different audiences, checking copy for grammar, drafting marketing copy)
  • Writing and content creation for specific deliverable types (i.e., creating budgets, drafting job descriptions)
  • Data analytics (i.e., identifying triggers most likely to convert prospective donors)
  • Brainstorming
  • Communications automation

Getting started with ChatGPT

As you and your team begin to explore how you can use AI in your annual giving work, you will likely first go to ChatGPT or another similar free model. Here are some things to keep in mind when starting out.

  1. ChatGPT generates output based on prompts you give it; the usefulness of its answers depends on the quality of the instructions you provide.
  2. You will never get what you need from ChatGPT on the first try; you’ll need to iterate, tweaking your prompts based on its responses.
  3. There’s really no way to get good at prompting ChatGPT except through practice (though trainings are definitely helpful). While ChatGPT’s output is typically very good, it invariably includes inaccuracies or other problems; always check its output before using it.
  4. It is no substitute for subject matter expertise. Because ChatGPT output needs to be checked for accuracy, it is of limited use for tasks or subjects about which a user is not knowledgeable.

A general vision for how AI can help your team

As AI progresses in its accessibility and capabilities, it’s important to have a general understanding of how it can benefit your team in the long-term. First, as long as AI’s work needs to be checked for errors before being used, you’ll need someone with the requisite level of subject matter expertise to use it.

Secondly, AI promises to greatly improve the productivity of your team, a benefit that is especially appealing given that advancement offices around the country continue to be understaffed.

Even though AI cannot substitute for subject-matter expertise, it can make your existing experts more productive and help staff develop new areas of expertise. Remember:

  • You’ll still need knowledgeable humans to check and troubleshoot output from AIs (marketing copy, computer code, etc.)
  • ChatGPT and other AIs can drastically reduce the amount of time that it takes even highly expert staff to perform core tasks.
  • ChatGPT is an infinitely patient and informed coach and tutor, ideally suited to helping staff acquire new skills and knowledge.

The Potential Pitfalls of AI

While you explore uses of AI in your office, it’s critical to understand the risks and limitations it poses.

7 Missteps University Leaders Must Avoid in Their AI Approach

Lack of good data

Navigating data quality and governance poses a significant challenge for many advancement offices, with partners frequently expressing the complexities of data collection, utilization, and storage. The struggle to manage data effectively in-house becomes a critical consideration, particularly when contemplating the integration of AI.

Take steps to start cleaning your data

You can take steps to start cleaning the data at your institution. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Do you have one centralized location where all your data conglomerates?
  2. Where do you collect data for your system? Consider both internal departments (ie. Student Affairs, Finance, Institutional Research, Schools and Colleges, etc.) and external parties (ie. third-party software, community information, etc.).
  3. Are your gift officers consistently inputting visit notes, likes and dislikes of donors, conversations about campus with prospects, the feelings of alumni and donors about situations on campus? If your answer is no, start there.

Privacy concerns

AI’s potential is undeniable, but privacy concerns are legitimate. When you upload data to a software or platform not owned or licensed by your institution, you run the risk of sharing personal data which could be stolen or used inappropriately. As ChatGPT and other generative AI platforms develop and mature, surely there will be a larger focus on data privacy and protection. But for now, it’s crucial you are aware of the privacy risks, especially when using sensitive donor data. And be sure to only use AI-driven technology with partners and software you trust. A good rule of thumb for now is to assume that anything you put into ChatGPT may eventually be accessed by the general public. Don’t enter anything that you would not be comfortable posting on your institution’s website.

Lack of staff expertise

As mentioned, AI needs human expertise to help optimize and manage its output. It’s important to remember that AI cannot replace humans, but rather should complement and support the work we do in annual giving. You will get the highest performing results out of your AI experience by having advancement professionals who review donor lists, edit content, and ensure it is being fed with smart prompts. However, many advancement teams are already struggling with staff bandwidth and struggling to hire and retain experts in the advancement industry.

A Look to the Future

AI can be a powerful tool in strengthening the efficiency of your annual giving program. As you explore how to integrate AI in your annual giving work, remember these two things: you need quality data to feed it and expert professionals to manage it.

AI and its capabilities will undoubtedly continue to evolve in the months and years ahead. As things progress, we will continue to explore AI and how it can support a more modern approach to annual giving. Subscribe to our Advancement blog to stay up to date with insights and best practices from our team of experts.

6 Innovative Ways Higher Ed Can Embrace AI

Years of Proven Success

At EAB, our dedicated team of advancement experts leverage over 12 years of aggregate donor data and campaign content from 80+ partners to develop solutions that provide smarter insights, enhance data dashboards, and deliver customized recommendations—amplified by AI—to elevate annual giving strategies. See our success in action.

Jenny Jones

Jenny Jones

Jenny offers over 20 years of experience in program planning and implementation, with a knack for fostering relationships with alumni, donors, and university teams. She excels in streamlining operations, possesses comprehensive knowledge of philanthropic programs, and is skilled at building high-functioning teams. Jenny has a proven track record supporting fundraising efforts at prestigious institutions like the University of Kentucky, Duke Medicine Development and Alumni Affairs, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her diverse portfolio includes work with a wide range of institutions and active involvement in industry conferences and boards, making her a seasoned leader in the field of institutional advancement.

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