How to (really) get started using ChatGPT & AI for fundraising

“We want to start using AI, but we don’t know where to begin.”

Lately, more than a few of my conversations with fundraisers and nonprofit leaders have started this way. It’s a sign that ChatGPT is more than buzzword, and that getting started using AI for fundraising is now a real priority.

There are plenty of good reasons why nonprofits haven’t yet started working with ChatGPT & AI. The technology is still new and unfamiliar and the rapid pace of change can seem overwhelming. And there are legitimate concerns about bias in AI algorithms, copyright issues surrounding AI-generated content, and the potential for AI to produce inaccurate or misleading information (“hallucinations”).

Nonprofits are often stretched thin, with limited resources and competing priorities. Adding AI exploration to an already overloaded plate can seem daunting. The lack of in-house AI expertise and the complexity of implementing new tools can also be significant barriers.

AI adoption is picking up pace

Industry trends show that AI use is rapidly expanding. Microsoft’s recently released 2024 World Trend Index reports a 50% increase in knowledge workers using AI in the last six months.

In my own informal survey of fundraisers, I’ve found about 20% are already experimenting openly with AI to some degree in their workplaces. 25% admit they’ve used AI but haven’t disclosed it. Another 25% say they’ve used AI just for personal use, and about 30% say they haven’t used it at all.

That’s almost 50% already using AI in their jobs, which is an incredibly fast adoption rate.

And there’s another new trend: ‘Bring Your Own AI’ (BYOAI), where workers are using to their personal AI tools for work, often without official oversight, because these tools aren’t provided or permitted. In fact, this seems to be a common practice with up to 80% of AI-at-work users admitting to some BYOAI use.

Using AI with purpose and confidence

Since AI-at-work is already happening, let’s revise that opening question to: “How can we get started using AI purposefully and confidently to further our organization’s mission?”

Using AI purposefully means aligning it with your organization’s core values and strategic goals. It means focusing on specific challenges or opportunities where AI can make a tangible difference in your work, such as automating time-consuming tasks, uncovering hidden insights in your data, or enhancing your communication and outreach efforts.

Using AI confidently means building a solid base of knowledge and understanding. It means being aware of the potential risks and limitations of AI, such as bias, accuracy, and ethical considerations. It means investing in training and education so your teams can use AI tools effectively and responsibly in a culture of learning and adaptation.

These are important long-term goals to guide your organization’s AI learning journey.

But first, you need to get started.

Here are three important ‘first steps’.

1. Wave the Green Flag

An essential first step is for senior leadership to signal that AI adoption is a priority and give the go-ahead to start exploring its potential. Without clear direction, staff will remain unsure if AI use is safe or even allowed. This can lead to a fragmented approach, with individuals experimenting in isolation and not sharing their learnings.

Waving the green flag means creating a unified, transparent environment where AI use is openly discussed and solutions are explored collectively.

This could take the form of a policy statement from leadership, guidelines issued to managers, or even a placeholder “AI Mandate”, like this one shared recently by social sector leader Rich Leimsider:

AI use and experimentation is encouraged.
Never enter private client data.
You are responsible for the quality of your work, even if AI helps.
All of our other policies about data privacy and presenting accurate work apply here, too.
If you share any AI-supported work internally, you must disclose it — but if it is good, you will be praised, not criticized.
Don’t share anything AI-created externally if it would be embarrassing if you had to disclose that AI helped you.

Adapting this simple ‘placeholder’ mandate to your organization’s context can give staff the clarity they need to begin exploring AI with confidence. It doesn’t replace the need for a robust AI Policy at some future time, but it may be enough to get your learning journey started.

Why This Matters

Establishing a clear and supportive stance from leadership on AI isn’t just a suggestion, it’s a necessity. Waving the green flag mitigates risks and addresses concerns about data security, privacy, and ethical use head-on, fostering trust.

Openly embracing AI sends a powerful message that your organization is forward-thinking and adaptable to new technologies. A coordinated approach to AI leads to streamlined workflows, data-driven decision-making, and a greater impact on your organization’s mission.

2. Rally Your Champions

Identifying and empowering your AI champions is another critical step in your organization’s AI journey. These “secret cyborgs,” as Ethan Mollick aptly calls them, are the individuals who have already embraced AI in their personal or professional lives. They possess a wealth of knowledge and experience that can propel your organization forward.

Harness your champions’ potential:

  • Find Them: Look for signs of AI enthusiasm. It could be the person who always knows about the latest tech trends, the one who’s experimenting with ChatGPT in their spare time, or the colleague who has found clever ways to automate mundane tasks.
  • Create a Safe Space: Encourage open dialogue about AI. Host informal lunch-and-learns, create a dedicated Slack channel, or establish an “AI Explorers Club.” Make it a place where people feel comfortable sharing their discoveries, successes, and even failures.
  • Learn while doing: Give your champions the freedom to explore AI tools and applications relevant to their roles. Encourage them to test new ideas, pilot projects, and report back on their findings.
  • Celebrate Successes (and Failures): When AI experiments yield positive results, be sure to share those stories. Celebrate the individuals involved and showcase how AI is making a difference. Equally important, create a culture where it’s okay to fail. Learning from mistakes is a crucial part of innovation.
  • Foster Collaboration: Encourage your champions to share their knowledge and expertise with others. Pair them with colleagues who are eager to learn, create mentorship opportunities, or host workshops to demystify AI.
Why This Matters

The rise of AI mirrors the adoption of social media and mobile technology. It’s not a technology shift directed from the top down; it’s also growing from the grassroots up.

Your champions are the ones who will identify the most relevant use cases, experiment with different tools, and ultimately drive the adoption of AI within your organization. By embracing their enthusiasm and expertise, you’re not just implementing a new technology; you’re fostering a culture of innovation and continuous learning.

3. Launch your AI Explorers

Get your AI journey started by providing access to the AI tools your innovators need for testing and piloting. User accounts with ChatGPT (or other chatbots like Copilot, Gemini, or Claude) aren’t just a suggestion, they’re a strategic imperative.

Encourage your early adopters to dive in and interact with these tools as active participants, not passive observers. Explore the potential of chatbots with open-ended prompts like “How can you help me do my job?” Fostering a sense of curiosity and exploration, you invite innovation and discovery.

Beyond chatbots, consider testing AI-powered tools and apps built for nonprofit fundraisers, such as FundraiseUp, Dataro, CauseWriter and others — find an updated list at: FundraisingwithAI.com/apps. As well, encourage your explorers to try new AI-powered assistants in familiar programs like Microsoft Office 365 or Google Workspace.

Focus your explorations on these areas:

  • Content Creation (appeals, thank you notes & social media): AI excels at generating text, from drafting compelling appeals and personalized thank-you notes to crafting engaging social media posts and website content.
  • Strategy: AI can be a valuable partner in strategic planning, helping brainstorm ideas, analyze potential scenarios, and even provide a structured framework for decision-making.

    “Help me write a strategy for our year-end fundraising campaign. Ask me questions to gather the information you need, then give me an overview of the whole plan. Our goals are…”
  • Document and Data Analysis: AI can quickly sift through large documents and datasets, identifying patterns, trends, and correlations that might be missed by human analysts. This can lead to valuable insights about donor behavior, fundraising effectiveness, and program impact.
Why This Matters

Hands-on experience with AI tools is essential for understanding their capabilities and uncovering their practical applications. Providing access to a wide range of AI applications allows your innovators to explore different ways to integrate AI into their workflows.

Empowering your staff to become proficient users and advocates for AI fosters a culture of innovation, as individuals and teams discover creative solutions to challenges and identify new ways to enhance their work.

Beyond your first AI steps

Congratulations on taking your first steps — now get ready for what comes next.

AI is poised to reshape the fundraising landscape, from the way we work to the tools we use. Processes and tasks that we commonly outsource may become feasible to bring in-house, and the demand for new AI-enabled skill sets will rise.

And AI technology itself will continue its rapid evolution, as I saw at the 2024 AFP ICON conference in Toronto with new AI-enhanced features being announced by nearly every CRM and engagement platform. It’s an exciting time for nonprofit technology!

While challenges and uncertainties lie ahead, the potential for AI to empower nonprofits and amplify their impact is undeniable. By charting a thoughtful course, rallying our champions, and embracing experimentation, we can start navigating the AI frontier with confidence and purpose.


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