Foundations of Consequence: AI and the Art of Fundraising

By Jeffery E. Kinard    //    Volume 27,  Number 3   //    May/June 2019

When Chris Tobin, the College of Charleston’s executive vice president for institutional advancement and the executive director of its foundation, approached the foundation board about a year ago to introduce an artificial intelligence (AI) component to the college’s fundraising strategies, I admit I was both curious and skeptical. As the chair of the foundation board since 2016, I’ve enjoyed learning about and supporting the art and science of fundraising. I believe it is a fundamentally human enterprise, so the idea of an unfamiliar but intriguing technology such as AI struck me and other members of our board as some-thing to be approached cautiously.

Tobin and his staff made a strong pitch, explaining that this AI platform would gather information from our own database as well as publicly available information, identify patterns through a tailored and dynamic algorithm, and help identify prospects who might be inclined to engage with and support our mission. It would even produce sample emails in the voice of each individual major gift officer (with uncanny accuracy), and that could have a multiplicative effect on the staff’s productivity and efficiency.

Another important consideration for our board was assurance that this technology would be governed by professionals in our research office. For us, the role of human judgment must remain an essential part of the practice of advancement, making us more innovative, creative, and effective. In the final reckoning, we discovered that AI is a tool rather than a solution.

Eight months later we are encouraged by this use of AI, although we think it’s still a little early to draw conclusions regarding its impact. However, we are on target to meet increased fundraising goals for this year, and the staff is energized by this new approach to their work. For the board’s part we understand the challenges in state funding and tuition that public universities face in South Carolina. We believe advancement support is critical to continuing the college’s growth and success.

So over the last several years the board has made changes to reposition itself as a more inclusive and strategic partner for advancement at the College of Charleston. Our board operates under an “interdependent model” with the college; we are an independent entity without any staff, but we work with the institutional advancement professionals who report to Tobin to support the joint goals of both the college and the foundation.

We have about $130 mil-lion in assets under management, $90 million of which is in the endowment. More “traditional” roles of the board such as investment management, governance, and financial stewardship are now supplemented by greater involvement in sup-porting fundraising, as well as strategic constituent engagement (with admissions, career services, marketing, and alumni affairs, for example). These changes have been further reinforced by the energy and feedback from members of the board who want to roll up their sleeves and become more advancement-centric in their work.

This more robust relationship between the foundation board and the institutional advancement team establishes a strong framework for future advancement planning with the arrival of the College of Charleston’s new president, a major celebration of the college’s 250th anniversary next year, and an anticipated campaign that will result from a new strategic plan. No doubt the next 250 years will bring changes we cannot begin to imagine, but it’s a source of pride that we are taking steps today to secure that future.

Jeffery E. Kinard is the chair of the College of Charleston Foundation Board of Directors.

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