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How Nonprofits Can Use AI To Create Emotional Intimacy At Scale




By: Jeremy Berman is the Co-founder and President of GoodUnited,

Nonprofits have historically relied on a wide variety of methods for fundraising. From making calls to hosting in-person events, one of the most effective ways of engaging donors is by creating a personal connection. In the high net worth individual game, a development director typically forges a relationship and gives an amazing experience to 10-50 individuals at a time. Though effective on a smaller scale, many nonprofits fail to maintain high quality relationships when they target a larger donor base.

The proliferation of social media has given donors and nonprofits the ability to connect with one another like never before. Donors often use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to share stories about how they decided to donate, or how a charitable organization has positively affected their life. These stories provide valuable data to nonprofits, which can help them measure and focus their efforts. However, it’s not possible for a nonprofit employee to read every story, process information to know what’s relevant, and then follow up and create a personalized experience. That’s why nonprofits are increasingly reaching out to external organizations that specialize in AI. These companies can take these stories, or “unstructured data”, and create structure so employees can create a connection with a larger pool of donors or fundraisers effectively.

Despite their best efforts, many organizations are limited by their staffing and budget. As a result of COVID and the desire to return as many dollars as possible to their mission, nonprofits are forced to operate very efficiently. They don’t have the ability to hire highly specialized employees, and operating with a reduced staff can limit their capabilities. The best way for most companies to create emotional intimacy at scale is by partnering with an external organization that can deploy AI-driven conversations through social media channels.

“The nonprofit world was profoundly changed by COVID – but there was a silver lining,” says Maria Clark, new EVP of Partnerships at GoodUnited, and a longtime nonprofit leader personally impacted by the pandemic. “Innovation became a necessity, not a luxury, which stimulated the adoption of new strategies and partnerships in order to continue fueling the important work nonprofits are expected to deliver.”

Meet Donors in the Channels They Use Now

We are in the midst of a massive transformation in the nonprofit sector. These shifts typically happen every couple of decades. The first transformation was mailing checks through direct mail, and thus the direct mail industry was born. A few decades later, the internet and email emerged, and donors were inundated with requests to give digitally. Now, we are in the midst of the next transformation.

Over $5 billion has been given to nonprofits through social channels, and $2 billion of that was in the past year. “This next wave of giving will open opportunities that were unimaginable even 10 years ago, but will become a necessity if we hope to continue to engage with a broad sweep of supporters who care about making an impact,” said Clark. “Nonprofits must meet their supporters where they are and speak to them in a way that resonates.”

As a result of this transformation to social giving, it’s essential that companies start to test these new communication channels. Conversational messaging, AI, and data science coupled with human judgement, are the keys to mastering the future of nonprofit engagement. Organizations don’t need to spend a million dollars on data science and AI tomorrow, but they do need to start small, test channels and invest in strategy to see where the market is going so they aren’t left behind.

The best place to communicate with customers is where they are already spending time. Increasingly, this means Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and other social media platforms. The difference between where we are today, versus 20-30 years ago with email, is that social messaging platforms are truly conversational.

A nonprofit can ask a fundraiser a question in Facebook Messenger, the fundraiser can give a reply, and then the AI can process and create a compelling experience in real time. For example, someone might tell the American Cancer Society that they give because their grandma had lung cancer, and they want to prevent this disease in the future. This arms the American Cancer Society, and similar nonprofits, with the information they need to respond and follow up with the donor in a way that’s tailored to make them feel positively about the cause. When nonprofits start to leverage the power of data science and human judgements, they can create meaningful relationships with a much larger donor base.

Alter Your Voice Accordingly

Robots shouldn’t sound robotic. In addition to meeting donors where they spend time, advances in AI allow nonprofits to tailor their voice to sound more conversational. Some nonprofits miss the mark by revealing to users that they are speaking to a bot, which can leave donors feeling that the interaction was artificial and inauthentic. Instead, nonprofits should communicate in the voice of the organization. For example, the American Cancer Society might send the message, “On behalf of American Cancer Society, we thank you,” rather than introduce users to an imaginary “Cindy, the American Cancer Society Robot.”

Speaking in the voice of the nonprofit requires taking the time to understand what messaging has historically resonated with their donors in the past. Creating emotional intimacy at-scale means programming AI to speak in the informal language that a human would use, rather than the formal and stultified tone that often characterizes a robot. For example, a human might introduce themselves by saying, “Hi there,” rather than “Greetings, it is a pleasure to meet you today, August 6th.”

Organizations should also take the time to learn the perspective of the individual they plan to communicate with. For example, a charity raising money for cancer research might talk to cancer survivors, the families of cancer survivors, or social organizations. The voice that an AI-driven conversation adopts should change depending on who they are talking to. This type of tailoring creates the opportunity for much more meaningful communication. “I’m happy that we could help you support your daughter’s fight against cancer,” has a greater personal impact than a stock phrase like, “thanks for giving.” In order to be authentic it’s important that the organization takes the time to learn the perspective of each potential donor group and conduct the conversations in the way that the individual expects to be communicated with.

Clark, who spent 30 years in leadership at the American Cancer Society, understands why authentic connection is so critical. “Experiencing cancer is very personal for the individual and their family, so it is imperative to create a genuine connection with our supporters that reflects our compassion and support for their journey,” she said. “And we learned we can replicate that same emotion through AI driven conversations and connections.”

In the nonprofit world, there are a growing number of companies pursuing AI and data science around the analysis of data. Companies will analyze millions of donor records and inform nonprofits about what type of people will give to that specific nonprofit in the future. Despite the abundance of valuable information, there aren’t many businesses focused on using data to improve messaging. Fortunately, the industry is at the beginning of a major shift. Many organizations are discovering new ways to leverage data to improve the user experience and communicate more effectively.


When AI is not part of the equation there is a limit to the capacity in which an individual can create a great experience for their constituents. By asking customers to share their story, companies can foster emotional intimacy. We now have the power to not let the story fall on deaf ears. If a donor shares a personal experience about her grandmother passing away from cancer, using her grandmother’s name in future conversations is an amazing opportunity to build emotional intimacy.

Asking the right questions, knowing how to use the data, and sending the right message, are all essential for nonprofits to build emotional intimacy at scale. Effective usage of AI is what will unlock this next transformation of giving. The only way to democratize the nonprofit donor experience is to touch every single person and give them a great experience. The reality is that today, that can be accomplished by more than just direct human-to-human conversation.

Jeremy Berman is the Co-founder and President of GoodUnited, the world’s leading conversational messaging solution building relationships between nonprofits and their donors. Nonprofits that use GoodUnited have raised $600M+ through Facebook fundraising to connect with hundreds of thousands of supporters.