Expert Contributors: Rodger Devine, EdD, and John Gough.
In an era where the intersection of technology and philanthropy is charting new frontiers, the fundraising landscape has undergone a remarkable transformation. As organizations navigate this dynamic territory, two distinguished experts, Dr. Rodger Devine, Assistant Vice President for Advancement Operations at Pomona College, and John Gough, Assistant Vice President for Advancement Data Operations at The University of Texas at Austin and Editor of the Journal of Advancement Analytics, share their perspectives. Their insights offer a comprehensive view of the future of fundraising, underpinned by the profound impact of technology, data-driven strategies, and the ethical considerations that shape the industry's course.
The Transformative Power of Technology
The world of fundraising is constantly evolving, and technology plays a crucial role in this transformation. Dr. Devine highlights the rapid advancements in data analysis tools and reporting suites, such as Tableau, Power BI, Python, and R, which have made predictive analytics more accessible and versatile in the fundraising industry. These tools have ushered in a new era, allowing organizations to identify potential donors, engage with supporters, and refine marketing strategies with unprecedented precision. John Gough adds that large language models like ChatGPT are becoming more prevalent, heralding the era of AI. These models, accompanied by complex neural networks, are changing fundraising strategies by automating content generation and personalized engagement.
"AI solutions have not yet evolved beyond the need for manual review and intervention, but the time is soon coming where fundraising organizations will be able to shift their focus more fully from maintaining manual processes to engaging in more strategic and creative endeavors." - John Gough
Emerging Technologies: AI and Blockchain
The future of fundraising stands on the brink of profound transformation. Dr. Devine emphasizes AI and blockchain's significant potential in reshaping fundraising efforts, particularly in contexts involving vast datasets and intricate computational analyses. He singles out blockchain as an innovative tool that challenges conventional notions of the constituent record. John Gough paints a vivid picture of the fundraising landscape where emerging technologies, including AI, take center stage. He foresees a revolution led by advanced AI tools like large language models and the less glamorous yet pivotal advancements in cloud computing. "The key to this transformation lies in automation, personalization, and advanced machine learning, driving precise relationship-building through timely, tailored, and interest-driven engagement," says John Gough. This paradigm shift extends beyond the boundaries of institutional CRMs, enabling the identification and cultivation of previously undiscovered segments with institutional affinity. The success of these technologies is intricately tied to their ability to access data seamlessly across multiple platforms.
Immersive Donor Engagement: VR and AR
Within the field of immersive donor engagement through VR and AR, the perspectives of both Dr. Rodger Devine and John Gough converge on the promise of transformative experiences. Dr. Devine underscores the potential of VR and AR to revolutionize storytelling and donor engagement by capturing legacies and creating interactive testimonies for future generations. His perspective embodies a dynamic shift in how connections are forged, and narratives are shared.
John Gough complements this vision with a dynamic outlook, envisioning a world where VR and AR facilitate profound connections. He invites us to step back in time, strolling through campuses of the past, reuniting in long-lost student union buildings, and reliving cherished lectures. These imaginative scenarios, he insists, are well within reach. Beyond nostalgia, John sees practical applications—guiding donors through proposed projects and enabling immediate, meaningful connections among students, faculty, and prospects, transcending the confines of conventional video calls.
Together, both experts ignite excitement about the potential of VR and AR, which promises to reshape donor engagement as we know it, from crafting timeless legacies to fostering interactive connections that span the boundaries of time and place.
The Mobile Revolution
Dr. Devine highlights the ubiquity of mobile apps and mobile-responsive platforms, emphasizing their role as the primary entry points for constituents to engage with institutions. He underscores the necessity of investing in the mobile experience to align with evolving user expectations, particularly as newer generations of end-users and prospective donors become central to the fundraising arena.
John Gough emphasizes reducing friction and eliminating barriers within the mobile fundraising domain. He envisions mobile-friendly platforms as powerful tools to streamline the donation process, making it more accessible for donors and enabling fundraising staff to work effectively in the field. John underscores that the fundraising industry should harness the profoundly ingrained consumer behaviors of "buy now" shopping and digital wallets to enhance the donor experience, ultimately driving donor acquisition and retention. While broad-based fundraising presents a significant opportunity, John also highlights the potential benefits for major and principal gift fundraising, emphasizing the role of donor portals and the engagement possibilities unlocked by mobile applications.
Predictive Analytics and Ethical Data Usage
Dr. Rodger Devine emphasizes the significant role of predictive analytics in fundraising. He underlines how these analytics help identify high-value donors, enabling the sorting and prioritization of constituents based on factors like philanthropic inclination, giving capacity, and engagement signals.
From an ethical standpoint, Dr. Devine reminds us that it is essential to recognize that using past data to make future predictions does not consider or address the socioeconomic disparities or systemic biases reflected in existing data. Accordingly, it is essential to think carefully and holistically about who is not represented in these data, how or why this might be the case, and what pragmatic steps can be taken to create increased accuracy, equity, inclusion, representation, etc.
"We can use past data to make predictions about the future, but we can't solely rely on past data to inform and predict the future we wish to create and live in. Data practitioners need to be contextual, critical, inquisitive, rigorous and tenacious in the pursuit of translating data into actionable and meaningful insights." - Dr. Devine
John Gough's perspective focuses on using predictive analytics to identify high-value donors, an established practice for decades. He points out that recent machine learning techniques may not drastically improve target segment identification, with data quality being the primary differentiator.
John underscores the paramount importance of ethics in data analysis. John provides a hypothetical scenario where a potential vendor presents a geofencing/tracking technology capable of obtaining consent through the fine print in an app that could be downloaded at athletic events. In this scenario, the technology has the potential to identify individuals' frequent restaurants and track prospects at exclusive country clubs and luxury hotels. John raises privacy concerns from this scenario and questions the ethical implications of engaging people based on behavioral patterns derived from their private lives.
Additionally, he emphasizes the necessity of considering bias and representation in data collection processes and stresses the importance of data inclusivity and obtaining a comprehensive view of the donor landscape.
"Questions of bias and representation must also be constantly at the forefront. Are our mechanisms for collecting data representative and inclusive? To what extent are legacy processes and behaviors skewing our datasets to one segment or another? Do we really have the full picture. Your data may tell you that one segment is not viable for certain levels of giving – but how has that segment been engaged and how are they represented in your data? These are all questions any mature analytics organization will be thinking about and trying to solve for." - John Gough
John's perspective underscores the ethical and comprehensive approach to data analysis, reflecting a commitment to responsible and unbiased fundraising practices.
Addressing Algorithmic Bias and Fairness
Dr. Devine emphasizes the need for continuous awareness and scrutiny of data sources and their integrity levels in fundraising. To prevent the unintentional reinforcement of social biases and inequities, fundraising leaders and data practitioners must consistently question the representation within their data and actively work to bridge any gaps. Dr. Devine's perspective underscores the importance of a vigilant approach to data, ensuring it doesn't perpetuate biases.
John Gough reinforces the significance of ethical considerations and critical thinking regarding data and systems when developing strategies. He places the responsibility for addressing algorithmic bias on the analysts, with fundraisers playing a crucial role by asking pertinent questions. Gough advises a comprehensive understanding of the data generation processes to assess for bias and encourages inquiries into data origins, collection mechanisms, and potential exclusions. He acknowledges the diversity in philanthropic engagement and underscores that using data from frameworks favoring specific groups can inadvertently exclude others, making it essential to avoid such biases.
A/B Testing Insights
A/B testing is a powerful tool in fundraising that our experts view from two distinct perspectives. Dr. Devine emphasizes the empirical evaluation that A/B testing enables, providing a framework to compare the success of various elements and features within CRM, solicitation campaigns, and marketing analytics. He highlights its role in driving change, fostering experimentation, and promoting innovation. On the other hand, John Gough views A/B test results as point-in-time metrics demonstrating specific approaches' effectiveness at specific moments. While he acknowledges the utility of aggregating results to identify trends, he also raises caution against treating individual results as absolute truths to prevent the potential formation of bias. Both perspectives underline the significance of A/B testing in fundraising, with Dr. Devine advocating for its role as an empirical tool for evaluation and innovation and John Gough emphasizing the importance of contextualizing results within a broader strategy to prevent unwarranted bias.
Generative AI: A New Frontier
Dr. Devine and John Gough share a common vision of generative AI's far-reaching potential. Dr. Devine highlights its role in expediting organizational communications and coding applications, underscoring the importance of establishing relevant policies and protocols. John Gough envisions generative AI as a future "storyteller-in-chief" for organizations, capable of creating personalized content and meaningful engagements. However, he acknowledges the pressing issues of regulation, compliance, and ethics, exemplified by the restriction on feeding confidential data to generative AI at his current organization. Both experts agree that integrating generative AI responsibly is a paramount challenge for fundraising organizations.
Transparency and Impact Reporting
Dr. Devine affirms that data-driven reporting and communication can play a pivotal role in helping organizations convey the impact of their fundraising efforts in a concrete and quantifiable manner. When coupled with storytelling, data-driven reporting can inspire trust and, in some instances, motivate additional philanthropic investment. By utilizing data to showcase the tangible results of their fundraising initiatives transparently, organizations can engage donors more effectively and build stronger relationships based on trust.
John Gough believes impact reporting is an integral aspect of donor stewardship, and it involves making organizations accountable for the appropriate and timely allocation of funds, a commitment inherent in the donor contract. Recent advancements in donor portal technology and personalization have simplified the process of providing donors at all giving levels with a high degree of transparency. Moreover, integrating financial, accounting, and fundraising systems has made it easier to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. Despite these advancements, there's room for improvement in making impact reporting more comprehensive and meaningful. From a higher education perspective, there is a need to move beyond simplistic surface metrics (e.g., faculty hires or scholarships awarded) and embrace a future where enterprise systems communicate to quantify the profound impact of a gift. Imagine presenting donors with information about research papers published, citations received, or companies founded with their funding. Such comprehensive transparency fosters trust and bolsters donor relationships, encouraging continued giving.
The intersection of technology, AI, and fundraising presents a promising landscape of innovation and opportunity. The insights shared by Dr. Rodger Devine and John Gough shed light on the transformative power of technology, emerging technologies like AI and blockchain, immersive donor engagement through VR and AR, the mobile revolution, harnessing big data and analytics, predictive analytics, and addressing algorithmic bias. While addressing concerns and establishing governance frameworks is essential, the journey from rote processes to creative and strategic innovation is a cause for celebration. With thoughtful and ethical integration of technology and data, the future of fundraising promises deeper engagement, broader impact, and the continued fostering of trust and philanthropy in an increasingly interconnected world.
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Shaff Fundraising Group is a consulting firm specializing in fundraising, marketing, and analytics. We take pride in our independent approach, free from technology affiliations with SaaS and other companies. This allows us to provide objective, solutions-oriented support to our client partners and the broader fundraising and engagement community.