Should charities use AI and data analytics to target potential donors?

‘People still want to give, and leveraging new technologies responsibly is the way to get to new donors’

For almost two decades, on-street direct fundraisers for the NGO sector have endured a lifetime's worth of criticism from the public. It appears we aren't all that enamoured by the presence of friendly but unfamiliar people fundraising in our cities and towns for various causes. The name "chuggers" – which, according to the Urban Dictionary, was coined in 2002 by a columnist for the London Metro newspaper – was as insulting and distasteful then as it is now.

Still the “chuggers” gonna “chug”, “chug”, “chug”, “chug” while the haters gonna, well, they’re no longer as vocal as they once were.

Many charities continue to target potential new donors through direct, public fundraising despite the negative press. Why? Because it works.

Convince enough people to donate €20 a month through direct debit and suddenly you have the kind of reliable revenue stream every non-profit needs in order to spend less time worrying about budgetary constraints and more on the task at hand: improving human rights, animal welfare, protecting the environment and so on.


Complete stranger

It may bother some people to be asked some ludicrous question like “can you spare five minutes for dying children?” by a complete stranger on the street. But the end justifies the means, and, in the 21st century, even altruism needs a little Machiavellian swagger.

Innovations in AI and data analytics have already created powerful new marketing tools for the private sector. With less resources to throw at every new technology that comes along, it is difficult for NGOs to keep up, but many have.

"A lot of the work we do focuses on creating user experiences and designing supporter journeys that engage people across advocacy and fundraising campaigns," says Eugene Flynn, digital campaigning strategist and innovator and director of possibilities at NGO digital strategy consultancy 54 Degrees.

According to Flynn, research indicates those who have taken an online advocacy action for an organisation are seven times more likely to make a donation when asked than those who have never taken an action before.

“With the addition of AI and the data that large organisations have gathered on their supporters it is possible to learn and predict what actions and asks are going to be most relevant to supporters and elicit the best responses,” he says.


“It will allow NGOs to predict automatically which supporters are most likely to donate, at what point in the supporter journey. It may also even predict the amount of money to ask for based on the history of the relationship or automatically choose which communication channel to use as it gathers data from previous interactions.”

In the commercial sector, data-driven targeted marketing can feel like an invasion of privacy, being, at times, eerily accurate. But ultimately consumers have the choice to ignore advertising of this kind. We can do the same to ads coming at us from a charity but, given it is our charitable side, and not our materialistic side, that is targeted, should the rules be different? Not according to Flynn.

“For me the priority is that it complies with data-protection legislation and the organisation operates radical transparency with supporters. Many fail at the radical bit but being transparent about how supporters’ data is collected and used is essential.”

Flynn is quick to qualify this. “Like any enabling technology – from the kitchen knife to nuclear fusion - the tool itself isn’t good or bad. It’s the intent of the person using it,” he says.

“Coercion should never be used to persuade people to take action. It should always be in their own self-interest as well as the interest of the organisation they choose to support. If the intent is to improve human rights, animal welfare or protect the environment, and it’s done in a responsible way without coercion, then everyone should benefit.”

Personalised journey

Frequently named one of the world's most ethical companies, cloud computing for business specialists Salesforce is actively encouraging their not-for-profit clients to take advantage of Einstein, its own particular brand of AI.

"Einstein can enable and assist companies in building personalised donor management stories," says Charlotte Finn, VP at salesforce.Org EMEA.

“AI can help support any organisation trying to achieve a more efficient and targeted fundraising approach. People want a more personalised journey when they go to give a donation. A more personalised story shows the impact your dollar is having.

“AI empowers NGOs in understanding what areas their donors are most passionate about, so that they can tell them the stories that they’re interested in.”

In other words, AI can assist NGOs in telling their donors whatever they want to hear. But ultimately if what we’re being told is true, and NGOs are totally transparent about their data collection, it’s irrelevant how the information is packaged.

"We use Salesforce software programs for all of our fundraising activities but we've yet to try Einstein," says Bob Darby, director of information services at Barnardo's UK. "AI has a lot of potential, but we don't believe the technology is quite there yet."


According to Darby, the public is just as willing to donate as it has ever been but growing cynicism and suspicion as to how money is spent, not to mention the biggest global recession in living memory, have impacted the contributions being made.

“People still want to give, and leveraging new technologies responsibly is the way to get to new donors,” says Darby.

“If we can get better at selecting who we contact from the massive lists of names and contact details we have amassed – while simultaneously running more targeted campaigns – technologies like AI could really benefit the NGO sector. But only if they are used in a responsible and respectful way.

“We can only use your data if you give us permission, and just because we have gathered certain data about a person’s donating habits doesn’t mean we should exploit that.”