AAAC members David Woodruff, Associate Vice President and COO for Resource Development at MIT, and Rich Palmer, Co-founder and CTO at Gravyty hosted an important session at ODSC East 2019, one of the largest applied data science conferences in the world. The two thought leaders showed the audience how artificial intelligence (AI) has incredible value in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector.
The audience, made up of some of the brightest minds in the fields of AI and data science, was eager to hear that – while often ignored for its for-profit counterpart – the nonprofit industry is currently valued at $400 Billion, and has been growing steadily each year. David put this in perspective for the technologists and entrepreneurs in the audience, noting that this compares with total annual gasoline sales.
David outlined a key problem that AI can – and is already – solving for nonprofit organizations. He posed the question: "If you were to ask the person next to you for money, what would you want to know about them?" He explained that if that ask is for one dollar, you probably don't have to know too much, but if that ask is for $100, the conversation becomes more serious and requires more substance. As is the case for nonprofits, where fundraising is a critical source of revenue, those asks also increase to amounts ranging from $10,000 to $1 million. And, the more the ask increases the more fundraisers have to understand a potential donor's motivations and passions, capacity to give, ensuring them that a gift will make a difference for a cause that's important to them.
So how can data science help?
For decades, nonprofit organizations have been collecting data on donors and prospects. They've tapping into resources that indicate if individuals have the capacity to give, declared passions, historic giving, and more. Huge volumes of these potential donors have been rated and verified by data resources, however, the industry has a talent problem. There simply aren't enough frontline fundraisers to work primary portfolios and build meaningful relationships with these prospects, at scale. And sadly, most data experts aren't focused on helping nonprofits in this way.
However, as Rich pointed out in his presentation – those nonprofits that have been lucky enough to find AI as a solution are seeing amazing results, such as fundraising teams at the University of Delaware or the College of Charleston that are able to operate as teams of two-to-three times their size.
This is possible by combining proprietary AI and Machine Learning techniques with open source code such as spaCy (for natural language processing), scikit (to apply machine learning for data mining and data analysis), TensorFlow (to develop and train machine learning algorithms), and NLTK (to interpret data into human language).
With these techniques, Rich explained how his work at Gravyty helps nonprofits pick the right potential donors to connect with and condense a world of data on that person into just a handful of sentences that frontline fundraisers can use to engage and inspire.
As David and Rich pointed out at the end of their presentation, AI can have a truly transformational impact of philanthropy and nonprofits if its application is uniquely tailored to the challenges of the industry. With that comes a great responsibility to ensure that the future of the industry remains bright and the application of the technology is both efficient and positive – precisely what drives their work on the AAAC, a healthy and thriving AI advisory council.