Use chatbots to strengthen relationships with your nonprofit

Allison Fine

Allison Fine

We invited Allison Fine, co-author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age to speak at the 2019 Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum Conference. This post is compiled from her presentation.

This is the moment in time that folks in science fiction have been writing about for years: the bots aren’t coming, they’re here. Chatbots are huge already.

What chatbots do is they allow us to engage conversationally through code. You’ve likely seen a chatbot if you’ve gone to an online store and typed a question in the chat window. Chances are, the chat that looks like you're talking to a person is actually with a chatbot. It’s hugely helpful from an organizational context because it makes engagement easier. A chatbot certainly reduces staff time in having to answer questions. A well-programmed chatbot can answer most of the questions that your supporters have. They’re going to be a huge part of how supporters interface with nonprofits in the future.

Technology can be engaging

We have our smart devices at home that are listening to us and organizing our lives. My kids are now making sure that my grocery list is up to date by just mentioning what they want to Alexa. Our home lives are becoming organized around smart devices and conversational interfaces, like Siri. For a dozen years, Beth Kanter and I have been encouraging organizations to move from a broadcast model of engagement with people to a conversational one. One that’s more natural, in the way that we engage as human beings. These conversational interfaces in technology are building on that.

First, nonprofits have to be more engaging

Being conversational is a different way of working. Organizations created last century are likely what we call in The Network Nonprofit: a fortress. That’s not a conversational organization. Those are nonprofits accustomed to saying things and presuming that people out there are just listening and doing. People out there don't want to listen and do, they want to be in conversation with you. Make sure that your nonprofit is being conversational with everyone: your ambassadors, your activists, your donors, and your volunteers.

Let your chatbot teach you how to build relationships

Smartly using interfaces, like chatbots, is going to help your efforts enormously in building relationships with people. It’s very important that this kind of relationship-based interface is absorbed through the whole organization. You don’t want to throw people off by having a friendly, conversational interaction online that turns into an unfriendly interaction with a human.

This is where we really need to get strategic, in threading these kinds of automated technologies through everything. It’s a theme, a principle that we’re really invested in for building relationships with our community. It might begin online through a chatbot, but it has to be threaded through all that you do. We don’t want to give people, who are our most important allies and ambassadors, two different experiences. It has to feel the same, and it begins with a set of core principles around relationship building.

Machine learning for good

We understand the concept of machine learning: “if you like that, then you’re going to like this.” The upside of this is being able to provide really good options for our participants: “If you did this event last year, these are upcoming events or activities that you may really like.” It’s a way to begin to capture deeply what our supporters are interested in. One of the reasons why our participants tended to drop off in the past is that the post-event engagement can feel impersonal.

Chatbots are the kind of technology that enable us to feel more personal and better know our supporters. It does take more intention on your part to actually get to know people more deeply: “What did you like about the last activity? What really resonated with you? What made you feel good and powerful?” Those are really important questions that need to be built into chatbots. That’s on us as organizers, strategists, and people who are driving these efforts forward to figure out what the smart questions are, what we ought to be asking our participants in order to make our system smarter and better.

The big benefits of chatbots

When we can create more-personal, conversational interfaces for engaging with people, it both reduces staff time in having to do that work and increases the likelihood that people will continue to sign up. And again, if a chat with a chatbot is going to be the first engagement that we have with people, you want to make sure that it reflects your values, your principles, your intentions.

A few cautions

You have an opportunity to engage your communities in ways you never have before. We can bring relational engagement to scale—large scale—using these kinds of tools, but we have to be smart about it. You have to know the downsides, you have to be clear-eyed, and you have to make sure your organization is ready to learn and to improve.

The fact that supporters may not know they’re talking to a chatbot could be an issue. We need to be aware of that. Another thing we want to be careful about is not having metrics from our technology driving relationships. In my mind, your fundamental job is to build strong lasting relationships with supporters that last over time. When we let KPIs become the drivers, we become, I think, too transactional.

Since 2016 there have been a lot of bumps in the road regarding tech platforms and what they’ve been doing to pull people apart as opposed to bring them together. Because bots and automation can do something doesn’t necessarily mean they should, and they certainly shouldn’t do it in the absence of our best selves. We have the opportunity to shape this journey—while holding onto our humanity.

The future

So what’s going to happen moving forward? We know it’s going to be social. We need to connect peer-to-peer. After all, we are peer-to-peer fundraising. We don’t want to just create a hub and spoke model where the organization is speaking one-on-one to people. We want to create these networks of activists who encourage each other, who learn from each other, and who feel a sense of kinship and community among that whole group.

Err on the side of effectiveness, not efficiency.

So here’s your responsibility, right now, for your efforts moving forward: You need to really be thinking about where and how automation belongs in your efforts. Where are the places where we need to start to use these kinds of tools, not just because they’re faster, but because they’re better? How are these tools enhancing the engagement between us and our communities? How are they increasing awareness, knowledge, empathy, activity among our populations? Please, err on the side of effectiveness, not efficiency.

Getting started with chatbots

I’d suggest you figure out an experiment, say one or two in the next year. Keep it limited to an area where you want to try out a chatbot. Do a three-month trial and see what you learn. At the end of that, it’s not an up or down choice. It’s what we’ve learned, what we’ve achieved, and what you do moving forward.

I would like to challenge you and your organizations to think differently about what you’re trying to achieve. We need to invest more in relationship building. And I think the greatest asset of this tool set, is the opportunity to build relationships at scale, not just to broadcast, not just to churn through people. Then we have the opportunity to achieve so much more on all of the metrics; revenue, activity, participation.

We can’t walk away from automation, like bots. It's not just coming. It’s here. You need to build on it. But you need to make sure that internally you’re thinking about what are we learn and how do we improve our efforts.

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