How Can We Make Good Use of AI In Advancement?

by Barbara Barron | Posted April 10th, 2024 | Subscribe to this newsletter

Are you using AI in your advancement work yet? This is a question I am asking my clients and asking myself. Even more on point: how can we make good use of this technology that is emerging with lightning speed?  What are the right and ethical uses of it? What might our donors think if they knew we were using it?

All good questions. I’ve been immersing myself in this subject to be able to offer good guidance. One of my sources has been the excellent webinar series offered by FreeWill ( I’ve referenced them as a resource in past articles. This is one of the places I’ve learned about the great wealth transfer, how generational cohorts look at and respond to philanthropy, and the importance of donor-advised funds and other non-cash gifts. Patrick, Jenny, and their impressive team offer these no-cost programs regularly. I urge you to check them out.

One of the ways FreeWill is making the tricky and complex topic of AI easier for us in the non-profit world to understand and use is by offering a free tool they created for non-profit fundraising called Willy.

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I’m impressed with this tool because it is a way to step into using AI for some very specific tasks we need to do in our advancement work in what feels like a safe and understandable way. And it is incredibly generous of FreeWill to make it available for us. 

Which are the tasks you might consider using a bit of AL for?

  1. Thank-you letters and emails
  2. Appeal templates
  3. Newsletter articles
  4. Direct mail pieces

Much more is coming soon from Willy. But even now, and especially for those of you in small shops, this tool can be a game changer in terms of reducing the time you spend on these tasks. So you can focus on other, bigger priorities.

Let’s face it, you may be running dry on new and cool ways to write some of these pieces. Or you have a long list of notes to write and limited time today. Important work, as I have long advocated. But still. Tick tock.

I admit that when I sit down to write my article for you, there are days when I am searching for a fresh topic.  So, I put AI to work for me in generating ideas for articles about topics in advancement. Are they all good or worthwhile? Nope. But it gives me a list to consider. Some spark, others don’t. And it takes 15 seconds.

But I would never publish an article, over my name, completely written using AI. If I ever use AI, even for bits of a future article, I’ll say so. I think that’s only right.

But for our purposes here, how about we do a little test?

Below are two email thank-you notes. One written by me (no help, I promise). The other was generated by Willy. In both cases, we assume the same set of facts: donor name, name of school and the program initiative the donor’s gift is supporting. Also, we are pretending it is just after spring break and there was a student presentation at assembly this morning. I am the author, writing as the fictitious DoD.

Which is which?

Version #1

Hi Jesse,

I hope this note finds you well and refreshed following the spring break.

I am reaching out with a heart full of gratitude for your generous contribution to ABC School’s Green Club. Your support is not just a gift; it’s a commitment to a more sustainable future for our students and the planet.

Just this morning, in our assembly, the student-led Green Club presented an inspiring vision – a vision that is now more attainable because of your kindness. Your donation breathes life into their projects, from the school recycling initiatives, and now to the garden.

Your investment in the leaders of tomorrow speaks volumes about the values that guide you. At ABC School, we are deeply appreciative of your support, and we can’t wait to share the blossoming results of your generosity with you.

With warm regards,

Version #2

Hi Jesse,

Your wonderful gift was waiting for us when we returned from spring break today. I was thinking of you before I even saw the mail because the students in the Green Club did a terrific presentation at assembly this morning. You’ll be pleased to know they are expanding their work and moving towards building a vegetable garden on campus. I could see other students leaning in to hear more. 

You’ve been such a strong supporter of the program since its inception. I’m attaching a silly photo to remind you that your commitment to us is felt every day. Can’t wait to show you their work next fall.

Thanks so much. See you soon!


What do you think?

Answer: Willy wrote #1 and I wrote #2.  And full transparency, I made a couple of small edits to Willy’s version to shorten it so they were more comparable. But cool, right?  All in 30 seconds, including the time it took me to enter the fields that Willy needs. I had a very decent first draft to play with. To edit to improve and make customized.

Moreover, Willy offered these subject lines. Which if you’re like me, can take a minute in themselves! And research shows they are vitally important to get someone to read the email.

  1. A Green Future Thanks to You!
  2. Your Impact is Growing at ABC School!
  3. Sprouting Success: Thanks to Your Generosity!
  4. A Heartfelt Thanks for Your Green Contribution!
  5. Cultivating Change, Together – Thank You!
  6. The Seeds You’ve Sown Are Thriving!
  7. Thank You for Being Part of ABC School’s Green Revolution!

For those concerned that donors might not like the idea of us using this technology to write notes and letters to them, think of it this way. Don’t our supporters want us to be excellent stewards of our limited resources? Don’t they want us to maximize our time and that of our small staff?  Aren’t they keen for us to recruit and steward new donors, raise more money, and help advance the mission of our fine schools? I say yes. A tool like AI helps us do some of that primarily if we use the time we’ve saved to be in direct contact with our supporters.

And again, if you use AI exclusively, or even partially, I believe you ought to say no. “AI-inspired” or similar is a fine phrase we need to get used to.  AI is here. Let’s use it responsibly and wisely to help us do our jobs better.

Got other ways you’re using AI to improve your work? Please share!

And thank you for everything you’re doing.

Barbara Barron
[email protected]

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BARBARA BARRON is one of the most respected and highly sought-after independent advancement professionals in the country, having worked with dozens of schools in every corner of the United States.

She has raised over $20 million for schools where she served as the Director of Development. Barbara is a New York Times bestselling author, speaker, and presenter who currently advises dozens of schools in various capacities. She is considered a thought leader in the world of advancement, with her writing widely shared by professionals in development offices worldwide.

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