By Rod Grabowski, University at Buffalo Vice President for Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement
“You’re a young school, right?” This is something we hear often about the University at Buffalo (UB). People have this mistaken impression that because UB is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, we’re new to the education market, or even small in size. And because we’re part of SUNY, some people assume we don’t have to raise money because we’re funded by the State of New York. All three impressions are incorrect, and a big reason why we created our new “Boldly Buffalo” comprehensive fundraising campaign as an assertive, creative and innovative way to correct misconceptions and change the status quo. It’s also why the University and Gravyty have developed a partnership to bring the power of AI into the fundraising operation and overcome longstanding barriers to success.
Getting the Facts Right
UB has a long history as a university, dating back to its founding as a private institution in 1846. This accounts for a large alumni base of 250,000 graduates, a constituent base that would be extremely encouraging to any fundraiser. However, when the University became part of the SUNY system in the 1960s, it was forbidden by state law from fundraising because taxes were supposed to take care of its needs. Because of that law, the school wasn’t able to engage its loyal alumni community for many years.
On top of that, it’s not Buffalo’s style to brag. The city and the university share the same zeitgeist - we are proud of our accomplishments, but humble in communicating them.
First and foremost, this is the attitude we need to change if we plan to reach the goals of our multimillion-dollar campaign and ensure the future of this wonderful institution. The Boldly Buffalo theme was chosen to send a message that we’re reinventing ourselves as fundraisers and champions and challenging our assumptions about who we are and what we can accomplish.
Going Boldly—With AI and First Draft
Although UB has a relatively large advancement staff, when we look at fundraising metrics we have not reached our potential. Our prospects are divided into tiers from one to three, with tier one comprised of some 700 prospects who are our highest priority. The development staff committed to engaging all of them over the past fiscal year, but less than a month ago, we realized we only touched 57 percent of those tier one people. That is one of the motivating factors behind the UB/Gravyty partnership.
Fundraising is about relationship building, measured in contacts and visits. If those metrics go up, revenue to support our students will inevitably increase. Gravyty’s First Draft product, which uses artificial intelligence, is helping the staff accelerate those rates, and not by asking each staff member to make superhuman efforts. Instead, it uses technology so that people can do more work with the same amount of effort—truly game-changing for an institution reinvigorated to share its remarkable accomplishments and aspirations.
Every day, a major gift fundraiser sits down at her computer and is informed of not only who her top prospects at that very moment are, but she is also provided a ready-to-send email, primed for prospects’ individual inboxes. The fundraiser no longer has to comb through the CRM, looking for a likely opportunity, then drafting the email or making a phone call.
The AI has done the research in a fraction of the time and has done the initial writing as well. And it is open to preferences and nuances provided by the fundraiser. If she doesn’t like the fact that the email is addressed as “Dear Mrs. Jones,” she can change it to “Dear Jane,” and First Draft learns from that edit, using the information to inform your style for the next time. This allows our fundraisers to focus more of their time on building relationships with our donors which is ultimately what matters.
While we can do a great deal to change the culture of philanthropy at UB through seminars, workshops, one-on-one meetings and setting an example at the top, nothing will alter our functionality quite as readily (or rapidly) as an AI system that is working 24/7 to help our team optimize our performance—and making suggestions about what to do each morning.
At UB, we are very pleased to be called early innovators, but we know not everyone is anxious to embrace change, which can often be difficult and uncomfortable. So we were amazed to see that 25 out of 45 fundraisers in the UB office volunteered to participate in this new partnership that will embed Gravyty’s First Draft product into the fundraising operation. This gives us an opportunity to do a precise evaluation of the impact of adopting the new system. We’ll track the results both for the group using the AI-enhanced capability and a control group that continues to work according to traditional patterns.
The Boldly Buffalo campaign marks a new era for the University, and for our advancement staff. Being bold has become a guiding principle for faculty, staff and students alike. With this bold new partnership ahead of us, we are confident we are moving forward in a direction where the results will speak for themselves.