Dr. Reed Sheard is Vice President for College Advancement and Chief Information Officer at Westmont College.
This article is the second in a series about Westmont College's use of AI. Read the first here.
When an institution adopts a disruptive technology, sharing the process with key stakeholders is an urgent priority, because it ensures adoption of the change and success of the project. Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts institution located in Santa Barbara, California, is no exception.
When we decided to bring Gravyty and its First Draft AI product into our fundraising process at Westmont, we knew support from all relevant parties would be critical to our success. As vice president for advancement and CIO, I started that journey with my own teams and the school at large.
Where We Are Now
We are in the third year of a $250 million campaign, building on two smaller campaigns of $155 million and $83 million, respectively. Our alumni base includes a total of 21,000 active members, many of whom were involved in the previous campaigns. Since 2009, using traditional research, we have culled our data many times and have identified nearly all viable prospects. Through hard work and good fundraising, many of these prospects have become faithful donors who support the forward trajectory of the college. However, for our current campaign, it became evident to me that if the school is to reach its fundraising goals, we needed to identify more people who could contribute as financial partners with Westmont.
Effective fundraising combines the art of building strong relationships with donors and the science of data and systems. Building this combination requires continuous improvements and constant change. To overcome our challenge, Westmont is fostering innovation on both fronts.
We are working with a consultant who tells us that a defining characteristic of a successful fundraising operation includes a strong and active volunteer base. So, we rolled out a plan for volunteers. We also saw that we needed better targeting so we could personalize messages to our key audiences. As a result, we adopted a Netflix methodology called hyper-segmentation. For example, three years ago, we separated mail and email solicitations into six segments. This year, we are moving into the thousands. We also invested heavily in predictive modeling within the planned giving department, so the institution has a solid financial base from which to operate in the future.
Leading change is a necessary skill in an era of disruption. All organizations and every leader within has the choice: embrace disruptive technologies or be overwhelmed by them. One of Westmont's most innovative initiatives to date is our work with Gravyty. Together, we launched an A/B test between traditional fundraising and the AI-based approach from Gravyty. I previously wrote about why AI is an essential technology that I needed to understand and how the Gravyty project was my opportunity. I now feel we have a tool that will find new prospective donors within Westmont's existing database. This is an entirely new pool of potential donors that traditional research has been unable to identify: precisely the challenge we're looking to overcome.
Talking with Advancement
I met with the major gift fundraising team about our ideas for improvement and asked for input. Key stakeholders have a lot of questions early in any project, especially those that involve significant change. During the course of this meeting, we reached an understanding of our situation — we needed more qualified donor prospect leads. If AI and Gravyty could help, the team was willing to support the project. The genius of Gravyty and First Draft is that major gift officers do not have to learn a new technology or even a new task. With First Draft, all they do is open their email inbox to see what the system has prepared for them that day. Since successful fundraising teams need to spend a majority of their time fundraising, learning another tool and workflow would have been a deal killer.
With this technology, the AI works 24/7, scouring the database, prioritizing prospects, then drafting emails the gift officers can edit, send "as is," or reject. The design of Gravyty supports the daily fundraising activity that I have spent a decade helping my team adopt.
Talking With IT
My IT group is "small but mighty" and when I arrived at our meeting to discuss yet another project, I got a room full of interesting, and somewhat skeptical, looks. The team queried me closely, mostly around security, which was an appropriate concern. I told them that Gravyty could boast of a good track record in that regard – its CTO and VP of Engineering previously built predictive analytics solutions for the financial industry and sensitive transaction systems for healthcare. Security is at the heart of the product and bank-grade stewardship of data extends across Gravyty's nonprofit, higher education, and hospital customers.
Of course, there's a general fear around AI that it could "go rogue." We asked ourselves whether the AI could accidentally send an email to a potential donor on its own or target them with the wrong message. Gravyty's brilliant design met those concerns. All First Draft communications are delivered directly to the frontline fundraisers as email drafts to edit and personalize. There's zero possibility that the technology would omit our people from the process — there's always a human in the loop.
I was candid – I had a lot of experience as a CIO, but none with AI. I told the group that none of us knows exactly what we're doing with artificial intelligence. But, if AI is truly "the next big thing," we didn't want to miss out. The team, familiar with the transformative impact of cloud technologies, saw AI as an opportunity to learn. We decided that it was time for us to give AI a role in building a high-performing organization.
Talking with Research and Prospect Management
My prospect researcher, who is highly trained and skilled in conducting traditional research, is very excited about the A/B test. He recognizes that in the world of data, things are changing rapidly. While this initiative includes modifying his job, we both recognized it would be for the better. Accessible, accurate, and actionable data means more time for high-level analysis. We are both curious about the potential impact of AI to handle necessary – but tedious – tasks, and to deliver insights that had not been available because of lack of time and financial resources.
Talking with the President and the Board of Trustees
During a strategy session, the president of Westmont College and its Board of Trustees embraced the idea to use AI for fundraising enthusiastically. Technology aside, they saw that if the experiment worked, it would be an opportunity for a small, nimble college with big dreams to gain a major advantage in fundraising.
During this conversation, I appreciated how, unlike many other institutions in higher education, I have the opportunity as the CIO to report directly to the president. This affords me the responsibility to bring advice and provide strategic direction on ways technology can be leveraged to support the college. I love the work because I'm able to look at what's happening in the industry and ask what we can adopt to help Westmont.
I operate with this basic principle — it is easier to innovate when you have a good idea than when you don't. I often see organizations struggling to move the needle because their innovative goals miss the target. At Westmont, I divide our innovative targets into four areas:
- Innovation to limit a disadvantage;
- Innovation to catch up;
- Innovation to lead; and
- Innovation to strategically explore
It is important to know what type of innovation you are pursuing. This guides the resources (time and money) you invest and can inform when the project has reached its innovative target. Institutions waste significant resources by both failing to reach targets or by "over-innovating," exceeding what the target requires.
For example, when working with our data, the innovative target was to catch up to the data quality of other high-performing fundraising teams. We have reached that target and now only have to make further investments around maintenance and accuracy. This allows resources to be deployed toward other innovative goals.
But data is only information that's waiting to be used – nothing more, nothing less. Through our campaign process, we understood the limits of the manual (human) usage of great data. Our next innovative goal was to lead. When we saw First Draft and spoke with Gravyty, we realized how it could give us actionable insight inside our larger prospect and donor pool. The technology could mean the success of our fundraising and growth initiatives.
My years in business and higher education have taught me that strong leaders honestly communicate the risks and benefits of any course of action. I also know that the success of any project is built on a strong foundational partnership among all stakeholders. Nobody truly knows who will offer the next good idea or where it will come from. So, if you want to stay ahead and benefit from the inevitable disruption your organization will face, it comes down to people.
Education plays a critical role in society and has paved a path for millions to pursue their dreams. Fundraising provides the financial resources that allow more people an opportunity to pursue a degree. Given all the change around the world, the stakes have never been higher. By embracing change early, we are using disruption to support the momentum of the college, which all of us have worked so hard to establish.
Stay tuned. Throughout the year, I'll update you on what Westmont is learning, and the impact Gravyty and First Draft are having on our fundraising.
This article is the second in a series about Westmont College's use of AI. Read the first here.