By Drew Fox Jordan • December 18, 2019

    AI Ideas: Chris Biehn of Washburn & McGoldrick

    For more than 20 years, Chris Biehn held advancement leadership roles in education at amazing institutions including Ithaca College, where he was VP of College Relations and Advancement for almost a decade. Today, Chris advises advancement leaders as senior consultant at Washburn & McGoldrick. In his career, he’s found success by tapping into “next-generation” technology and believes that artificial intelligence (AI) is now redefining what’s possible for advancement organizations around the country.

    In this AI Ideas column, we take a look specifically at higher education and ask, can AI push institutions to achieve more?

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    Gravyty: Chris, thanks for sitting down with us today. We’re here because we know you have thoughts on artificial intelligence in advancement. Can you start by framing some of the challenges and how AI can make us better fundraisers?

    Chris: As a former VP, I see problems with pace and freneticism in the workplace. Institutions seek greater philanthropic results and the pressure is on the advancement team to make that happen. Gift officers are not always able to find their way to a greater sense of productivity and leaders don’t always invest in productivity tools that help fundraisers work more effectively. The evolution of AI, along with the application of more sophisticated analytics, can benefit higher and secondary educational institutions and help to increase productivity and desired results.

    Gravyty: So, what you’re ultimately talking about is increased efficiency. Is that right? What opportunities do you see there?

    Chris: Increased efficiency with effective strategies. In the advancement world, there are four specific areas that I see AI having the greatest impact:

    1. Frontline fundraising. Organizations with a large prospect pool need to focus attention where it’s most needed. Frontline fundraisers can’t afford to spend time analyzing their assigned pools and thinking about what's next. They want to spend their time personalizing outreach. AI can give fundraisers the capacity to focus their attention on getting in front of donors instead of sifting through data and spreadsheets to determine who to reach out to, and then what to say.
    2. Donor relationships and stewardship. Both of these areas could be enhanced by AI. Once upon a time, we were all fascinated by the targeted ads that we see on Gmail or Amazon. We now know that those ads are often shown to us because, in one way or another, we have signaled interest in something and an algorithm is driving what we see. AI can help fundraisers understand if there is a new or heightened level of interest from a donor or put a stewardship plan into action when a new gift is received. In this model, outreach and stewardship can be done on a more personal level, at scale. If done carefully and thoughtfully, AI could evolve and become a much more effective tool for donor relations programs.
    3. Strategic research. When you have alumni graduating every year, you have new large groups to engage, how do you know who has the capacity and affinity to give? AI can learn about your prospect pool to identify the markers that tell fundraisers where to target more efficiently. The ability of an AI application to develop and evolve research models could have a tremendous impact on building smaller and more robust prospect pools for fundraisers. This won’t eliminate the need for prospect research. There will always be a partnership with humans where technology makes recommendations and humans choose the action to take from it.
    4. Human resources and hiring. How can we partner with AI systems to see who will be the most successful frontline fundraiser? Who will be better at sitting in the background, operating systems and developing strategy? There’s a partnership opportunity with AI to think differently about making hiring decisions -- not having an AI application make decisions for you but helping the hiring manager to think more deeply about the candidate pool and their needs at that time in that position.

    Gravyty: Even with all these opportunities for applying AI within the fundraising sphere, what challenges are still in the way?

    Chris: Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun has nailed what institutional leaders and all of us in higher education should be thinking about around AI advances in his book “Robot-Proof” – the development of new knowledge and a new mindset to embrace these powerful solutions. One of the biggest challenges in advancement offices, or anywhere AI is brought into the workplace, is people thinking they will be replaced by an algorithm and out of a job. To create a more powerful AI system, the workforce must partner with the software and the software enhances the work of the people who are already there. Early adopters of this technology have already shown results, which is important to driving adoption within our profession. Organizations that apply AI technologies aren’t cutting staff, they are effectively adding working capacity and redeploying staff, strategically.

    We also need to be thoughtful about the role AI can play in alumni engagement. The technology can help VPs set engagement strategies that are deliberate and drive philanthropic outcomes. The software can be a powerful partner in a 21st century model of engagement and philanthropy. All of this will require investment and patience. Many of the higher ed institutions that could use the technology are budget-challenged. Boards and Presidents need to realize that investing in advancement is a long term but wise allocation of precious resources. Some CFOs want to see immediate returns and that’s not always the way it works.


    We’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of where the technology can take us. Thinking about AI’s role in advancement can provide the edge that propels us forward.

    Gravyty: Chris, thanks so much for speaking to us. It’s been wonderful learning about your vision for AI in the nonprofit sector.

    To see what AI-enabled nonprofit organizations look like, check out this video from Cure Alzheimer's Fund.

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