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April 19, 2023

High Touch, High Tech: How AI Is Impacting Philanthropy

Post By:
Abigail Axelrod-Wunderman
In-House Contributor
Philanthropic Director
Fiduciary Trust International
Guest Contributor:

Technology has played a significant role in advancing philanthropy for the past several decades. It makes it easier for people to donate, connect with causes they care about, learn about an organization, engage with other donors, and track impact. Likewise, it has been helping public charities connect with donors, scale outreach, and generate new revenue streams. Technology enables philanthropy to be more efficient, effective, and transparent. However, there are some challenges to be aware of.

Technology at its best helps us perform faster and more proficiently. At its worst, it creates broken lines of communication and a lack of accountability. Knowing these pros and cons, we can position the use of ever-evolving technology to enhance our philanthropic efforts instead of hinder them.

The release of ChatGPT has recently brought all of this to light. If you’re not familiar with the latest AI technology, check out this link: Create a free login, and test the tech for yourself. In short, I asked ChatGPT to explain what it is. Here is its response:

"I am ChatGPT, a large language model developed by OpenAI. I am designed to understand and generate natural language responses to a wide range of topics and questions. My training data consists of a vast corpus of text from the internet, including books, articles, and other sources. I can provide information, answer questions, have conversations, and even generate text in a variety of styles and formats, such as poetry or news articles."

Sounds cool, right? And… questionable. If you work in a field where human interaction is critical, then like me, the part about having conversations may have given you pause. "Why would a machine be having a conversation? Is that possible? Isn't this the role of a human?" In philanthropy, like many other sectors, the simple answer to this last question is "yes." This is where the merger of technology into a field heavily centered on human relationships becomes a challenge.

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Ways Technology is Used in Philanthropy

I asked ChatGPT "how technology is already moving philanthropy forward?" It listed the following:

  1. Online Giving Platforms: Technology has made it easier for people to donate to their favorite charities and causes online. With just a few clicks, donors can make one-time or recurring donations through online giving platforms such as GoFundMe, DonorsChoose, and GiveDirectly.
  1. Social Media: Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have become powerful tools for raising awareness about social issues and mobilizing people to take action. Nonprofits and charities can use social media to reach a wider audience, share their stories, and engage with supporters.
  1. Blockchain: Blockchain technology is being used to increase transparency and accountability in philanthropy by enabling donors to track their donations and see how they are being used. Blockchain can also help prevent fraud and ensure that donations reach their intended recipients.
  1. Crowdfunding: Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are being used to raise funds for social causes and nonprofit projects. These platforms allow organizations to reach a large number of potential donors and raise funds quickly and efficiently.
  1. Big Data: Big data is being used to identify social problems, analyze their root causes, and develop targeted solutions. Nonprofits and charities can use data analytics to measure the impact of their programs and improve their effectiveness.
  1. Artificial Intelligence: Artificial intelligence is being used to identify patterns and trends in data that can help nonprofits and charities to better understand the needs of their target populations. AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants are also being used to provide information and support to people in need.

The final point is especially insightful as to the future of technology and the current Chat machine. And while ChatGPT is not wrong, it did miss a few things. Much of the responses are focused on fundraising, but technology supports philanthropy in several other ways, too.

Grantmakers for one, are large consumers of technology. Grantmakers use technology to:

  1. Find, Research, and Vet Grantees: Starting with online platforms like GuideStar (aka Candid), Charity Navigator, Watch Dog, and many others, grantmakers can investigate a nonprofit's financial history, read more about their program work, and verify they are in good standing with the IRS.
  1. Application Processes: Many private foundations offer online grant applications, allowing applicants or current grantees to apply for funding directly to a housing portal. This helps remove the worry that comes along with sending paper applications by mail or digital responses through email. This process can eventually save time and money for the grantmaker and applicant while streamlining the application process.
  1. Awarding, Reporting, and Evaluation: Nowadays, electronic grant management software makes it possible to not only gather applications but also award funding, gather required reporting from grantees, and set up metrics to help evaluate a grantee's progress. A shared understanding of the system can create better transparency between the grantee and grantor, help automate reminders, reduce reporting errors, and overall improve communication and learning for all involved.
  1. Impact Measurements: There are plenty of data to collect across grantees. With the help of data and analytics tools, grantmakers gather and analyze data on grantees and their programs. This information can help identify areas of continued or new need, measure current outcomes/impact, and help grantors make more informed funding decisions.

To add to the list of ways technology is helping fundraising practices, it also supports:

  1. Planned Giving Programs: Thanks to inventions like FreeWill, donors can set up a will and name a charitable bequest for free, and nonprofits can use the technology to encourage donors to become "legacy donors" through a commitment in their will or trust. There are also many online planned giving software systems that help nonprofits generate marketing materials for planned giving- everything from website add-ons to e-newsletters to webinar content.
  1. Donor Relations: CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems have been around since the 1980s and have quickly evolved to offer many industries data on their constituents. Nonprofits use CRMs to manage donor and prospect activities and engagements to help cultivate and grow relationships.

And, of course, technology has improved how donors and fundraising organizations market to one another and the broader community.

Still, in the above examples, human intervention and interaction are necessary to make the technology valuable and successful.  

Where Technology Could Propel Philanthropy

I asked ChatGPT, "how could technology continue to improve fundraising and grantmaking?" It listed the following:

  1. Artificial Intelligence: AI has the potential to revolutionize the way grantmakers and fundraisers work. It could help to identify potential grantees or donors, analyze data to determine impact, and automate administrative tasks, freeing up time for more strategic work.
  1. Blockchain: Blockchain technology has the potential to improve transparency and accountability in grantmaking and fundraising. It could be used to securely track donations and grants, ensure that funds are used as intended, and provide real-time reporting on the impact of grants.
  1. Virtual Reality: Virtual reality could be used to help fundraisers and grantmakers tell compelling stories about the impact of their work. Donors could experience firsthand the work that is being done, helping to build empathy and understanding.
  1. Mobile Technology: Mobile technology has the potential to make giving and receiving grants easier and more accessible. For example, mobile apps could allow individuals to make donations with just a few clicks or enable grantees to submit reports and track progress from their mobile devices.
  1. Open Data: Open data initiatives could improve transparency in grantmaking by making information about grants and funding more accessible to the public. This could enable researchers, journalists, and others to analyze the impact of grants and identify areas of need.

These certainly sound compelling. Plus, if as the technology evolves it is accessible to many, the way ChatGPT is free to all today, this could advance smaller nonprofits in ways they have yet to benefit from fundraising, as some of the mega organizations already do. Likewise, this access to technology could help smaller grantmakers working to generate the most significant impact with their limited resources. The critical thing to remember is that as technology (and recently, AI) shapes how we engage with and learn about people, we must maintain expectations about where limitations may lie.

Let's take the example of ChatGPT and break down a few ways it can help grantmakers or fundraisers today, along with its shortcomings.

Ways ChatGPT Could Help Your Nonprofit (...and Its Limitations!)

  1. Grantee declination letter template: If you are looking for how to write a declination letter to an applicant, or if you would like a sample template to use, you can ask ChatGPT for the definition and elements involved in this letter. Usually, these letters have standard language from the grantmaking organization informing the applicant their request for funding has been denied. However, the letter also typically explains why the applicant was not awarded funding and sometimes even offers application-specific feedback. This sort of information can’t be generated by ChatGPT alone; it needs a human's understanding of the subject matter.
  1. Donor recognition or thank you letter: Like the above, a particular structure is generally involved in writing a tribute or thank you note. Again, you can ask ChatGPT for instruction in this area. Likewise, you could ask it to write you a letter, providing specific details about the donor. However, use caution with this final delegation. ChatGPT is incredibly skilled at writing an initial letter, but the details are only as good as what the user provides. The content will remain vague or generalized other than specific details given. Ask yourself: is this the message you want to be sharing with donors?
  1. Fundraising campaign story: ChatGPT can provide helpful information on how to write a campaign story. It could even write one for you… but there is a catch. While it has been taught to write a basic campaign story, it will generate an outline at best without significant detail. Proficient fundraisers know you need real people, data, and emotion to keep a campaign alive and in the hearts of donors. ChatGPT could get very close to writing this type of story, but again-- it needs this information from the human user. It requires the right inputs to generate meaningful outcomes and keep those strong ties to an organization's mission.

Things I Learned When Working with ChatGPT

  1. How you ask a question or give a command matters. As mentioned above, ChatGPT needs human guidance and specific instructions to generate the most helpful response. Depending on the scope of your request, you will likely need to (and should!) edit and manipulate the outputs to better serve your audience.
  1. It has current limitations. ChatGPT is not connected to the Internet, and it can occasionally produce incorrect answers. It has limited knowledge of the world and events after 202, and it may occasionally produce harmful instructions or biased content. One example proving this limitation: I asked ChatGPT to "give me a list of nonprofits in New York City with total assets between five and ten million dollars that invest in low-income adolescent mental health." It did generate five nonprofits, all within NYC, focused on adolescent mental health. However, the data was way off when I checked their actual asset sizes; all were far larger than ten million dollars.

ChatGPT is fun and impressive, but there is still so much to learn about it, along with the world of AI. As fascinating as it is that this one Chat can be so helpful, what will be even more impressive is how technology-- especially AI-- could be used to continue to help the nonprofit sector flourish. Human storytelling and experiences will remain a necessary component regardless of where technology grows. This unison is the only way to build a more efficient, effective, and transparent philanthropic sector. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing where we grow together.

This communication is intended solely to provide general information. The information and opinions stated may change without notice. The information and opinions do not represent a complete analysis of every material fact. Statements of fact have been obtained from sources deemed reliable, but no representation is made as to their completeness or accuracy. The opinions expressed are not intended as individual investment, tax or estate planning advice or as a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Please consult your personal advisor to determine whether this information may be appropriate for you.