Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels
June 19, 2019

Can chatbots improve donor experiences?

Alice Hendricks

Alice Hendricks is the CEO of Jackson River, a firm that helps nonprofits harness the power of technologies to achieve their goals. In this mind-blowing conversation, she shares how the consumer marketing space is using technology (chatbots, artificial intelligence, and more) and outlines how nonprofits can apply those tools to create more personalized and relevant experiences for supporters.


Sarah Durham: Welcome back to the Smart Communications podcast. I’m Sarah Durham and I’m here today with my friend Alice Hendricks. Hi Alice.

Alice Hendricks: Hey.

Sarah Durham: Alice’s expertise lies in the application of emerging digital technology for nonprofits. She’s the CEO of Jackson River and there, she oversees client engagements, new business development, and occasionally takes on consulting projects that help nonprofits get smarter with technology. In her 15 years working with mission-driven organizations, she’s provided executive coaching, organizational development, process design, staffing strategy to nonprofit leaders across the sector. I think I met you somewhere on that journey, maybe a dozen years ago.

Alice Hendricks: Maybe probably that long ago.

Sarah Durham: And actually before Jackson River, she was the vice president of client service, at Get Active and a managing partner at Kintera. So she’s seen nonprofit technology from a whole bunch of different angles. Jackson River was founded in 2008 and you might know it for one of its most successful and notable products, Springboard, which we’ll talk about in a minute. Welcome Alice.

Alice Hendricks: Thank you.

Sarah Durham: So tell us a little bit about Jackson River and Springboard before we get into this bigger conversation of technology.

Alice Hendricks: Yeah, so Jackson River is a technology consulting company, our product Springboard is designed to leverage other products in the consumer marketing space that you might find brands using, different from what nonprofits use. So it’s a unique, interesting fundraising and marketing product that integrates with a lot of sophisticated CRM products that are out there.

Sarah Durham: How does a nonprofit use Springboard?

Alice Hendricks: They use it for their online fundraising and advocacy marketing technology.

Sarah Durham: And in your role at Jackson River, you’re always keeping your finger on the pulse, not only of how the for-profit sector is using technology, but how it applies to nonprofits and what’s coming down the horizon. So that’s why I wanted to invite you here today. I wanted to get into a little bit of this sort of future visioning of what’s going to happen for nonprofits. So very big picture, are you seeing any shifts on the technology landscape that nonprofits need to be thinking about?

Alice Hendricks: Oh, absolutely. I think nonprofits have a strong risk now of getting far behind unless they’re using technology that keeps up with what a donor experience needs to be in this day and age. So there’s a lot of thinking now on how we can make sure we’re looking at what’s happening in the consumer marketing space and apply those strategies, tactics, ideas to how nonprofits should be fundraising.

Sarah Durham: So what is happening in the consumer marketing space? How is it different as a consumer today than it used to be?

Alice Hendricks: I think the biggest thing that’s happening is that brands are starting to realize that the customer has to be the center of all of their advertising, and their marketing and their outreach, and what that means in terms of how they staff their call centers, what they’re using on their apps, their smartphone apps, their websites, their brand and store experience. All of that is very consciously putting the customer as the center and tracking all the information they possibly can on every interaction that customer has with their brand across all channels. Not just digital channels, but all channels. And that is becoming the expectation that customers have about how they want to interact with the brand.

When I call American Airlines to change my flight, they know what phone number I’m calling from, and the recorder voice says, “Hi Alice, we know you’re flying from Miami to DC.” I have that expectation of service now from almost every brand I interact with, and I get annoyed when it doesn’t happen. The same thing is true for nonprofits. It’s not as I change to a different person when I become a donor, it’s that I want that nonprofit to know who I am, that I’ve shared things on Facebook, that I’ve taken certain actions, that I might be a mid-level donor. So if all of that is tracked in a database and then whenever I’m communicated with, it’s relevant and timely and personalized to what my interests are and what relationship I’ve had with that organization, I become a much more effective donor and supporter.

Sarah Durham: One of the related aspects of this that I’ve been reading about and thinking about a lot is that in the for-profit world, the traditional way of marketing and advertising used to be you created a product or maybe a service and then you advertised it, you marketed it, but you didn’t necessarily use that marketing or advertising to go back and refine the product. And I think what you’re talking about in customer experience is using all that data on the individuals and how they interact with our products to make the customer experience better. That in many ways means moving the money that was spent on marketing into metrics and data analytics. And a lot of companies I think are actually reducing their advertising or marketing budgets in the for-profit world as they start to get into this much more personalized space.

One example, I was just reading about is Starbucks where if you use your Starbucks app and every day you show up, and you order your half-caf skim foam latte at eight o’clock, the data shows you’re going to show up tomorrow and order that too, and they’re going to have your drink ready, and they’re going to greet you by your name as you walk in the door. That kind of highly personalized experience you’re talking about hinges so heavily on the metrics and insights engine in the business informing the product engine of the business, but where are nonprofits with this. Is anybody thinking this way yet?

Alice Hendricks: Nonprofits don’t really think of themselves as having a product center. In fact that is a trend in how nonprofits are organizing their staffing, is to have a product management department where they’re looking at all of their software that they work with and how they’re aggregating all of that data into some data engine so that they can run those analytics. It’s true. Businesses are diverting a lot of marketing and ad spend into data analytics as well. And then there’s entirely new roles in the corporate space. There’s the CXO, the customer experience officer and nonprofits are not there yet, because their departments are still rather divided. You have the communications department not really talking to the development department, not talking to program, when all the information in one place is really how those strategies need to get built out.

Sarah Durham: I agree. I actually wrote a blog about the chief experience officer in the nonprofit sector and I’ll link to that in the show notes with this podcast, but that is the opportunity I think for a communications person, is to recast themselves as the chief experience officer and merge those technology and data analytics insights into the customer experience. So there’s an opportunity in the nonprofit sector for people to start thinking more about the donor experience or journey, the client experience, maybe the policymakers experience and to start shaping communications in a more experience-centric way. What kinds of tools or technologies do you think help a nonprofit to do that?

Alice Hendricks: I mean the obvious answer is to look toward what is being sold and bought in the corporate space. What is SoulCycle using for their email marketing? What is Home Depot using? What is L.L.Bean and Land’s End using? These brands are tracking all of that information and sending you targeted, timely, relevant, personalized messages across whatever channels you consume in a really refined way. It’s not really about the technology though. Though I like to think of technology as the car that you’re driving. It’s where you’re driving to that matters. So that strategic approach in the beginning of looking at how are you going to be marketing and fundraising? What does that mean? Thinking in terms of your supporters and not just putting them in groups, but as individuals and what do those individuals need?

Sarah Durham: It reminds me a bit of what’s happening in the health world where we no longer think of people as broadly being affected by a particular disease or disorder. And now we’re getting into personalized medicine where you have a very customized care plan based on your unique, maybe genetic data or something like that. But I think what you’re saying is it starts with vision. It starts with somebody who really understands the opportunity to create an incredible experience that aligns with how you advance the mission. Is that right?

Alice Hendricks: That’s exactly right and knowing what questions to ask. I mean the data is only good as whatever questions you’re asking to get the analysis out of it. It’s not to say that you let the donor or supporter guide all of their own communications, you still need to make sure that they get the thing that you need them to get at the time you need them to get it. However, understanding where they’re coming from will help refine that message. And the idea is you can do less communications, send less email, do fewer things that are more effective when you are targeting them correctly.

Sarah Durham: So if you work at a midsize or a smaller organization and you’re excited by this idea, but you have very limited capacity, maybe you’re a one person comms team or you’re a development person who’s in charge of communications too, are there obvious questions you should be asking or maybe low hanging fruit where you can start, to start to think about this a little differently?

Alice Hendricks: The best thing that I think I would recommend for anyone who can’t immediately start a very robust program, very few, even large organizations can just turn on the dime like that, is to make sure they’re collecting as much information as they can. So even if you’re not using all the information you’re collecting, it’s very important to know what source people are coming from and what advertising channels are working well and all of that data, whether you’re acting on it or not, just to have it so that at some point you can run those reports and do that analysis and then start changing strategies.

Sarah Durham: So tracking every interaction and obviously data like email addresses and mobile numbers, things like that, and just capturing it in some robust CRM system.

Alice Hendricks: That’s a good place to start. Yeah.

Sarah Durham: Are there people out there that nonprofits should be looking to in the sector? You cited some examples earlier in the for-profit world, but in the nonprofit world, is there anybody who’s doing this well that we might learn from?

Alice Hendricks: That’s a really tough question. I mean, sometimes I see certain campaigns different organizations run are just superior. It’s like, “Wow, that’s an amazing campaign.” A lot of times I’m getting the same message that I got last year or the year before because I know it’s just the renewal message that’s not that particularly exciting, but sometimes you just have to make sure that your basis are covered.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, and my answer to that question is probably that there are times where we all wear our nonprofit sector hat, where we’re thinking about what people are doing well and we’re looking outside for inspiration or ideas. But a lot of the times we’re also wearing our consumer or customer hats, and we’re donors too or we’re clients or members too. And I’m always very careful to pay attention to how I’m treated by the organizations that I support financially or that I join or things like that. And oftentimes I see organizations who don’t necessarily manage my experience with them holistically.

They treat me really well in certain ways, like right after I’ve made a gift. But other times you see organizations who get big chunks of things right, if not everything right. So those are, I think, helpful to learn from. And it can be interesting to just do some formal or informal insight gathering from the people who are your donors, are your clients, talk to them, intercept them at events or survey them or go whole hog and hire somebody to really thoroughly audit their experiences with you.

Alice Hendricks: Absolutely. I mean the more outside information you can get on what those donors are actually thinking, how they’re responding, what they’re feeling at any time is useful.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. So let’s get a little bit granular because one of the things you blew my mind with a while ago, maybe this is about a year and a half ago, was you started talking about things like chatbots and Alexa and these newer technologies that people have in their homes or on their desktop more and more in the consumer world that are coming to the nonprofit world. Tell us a little bit about that. What’s happening in that space?

Alice Hendricks: I mean that space is where everything is happening. So even nonprofits are seeing a lot of engagement on their chatbots, usually the Facebook messenger chatbot. So you have Sierra club and PushBlack and a bunch of them have chatbots where you can write back to them and there’s AI underneath it sending you related actions or potentially asking for money. The problem with technology change is where do you put your investment and what do you try? And obviously if you have a lot of money you can try different things. You can experiment, you can see what’s working, what’s not working. But it’s so important to keep that expectation set that people are using.

I mean my parents use Alexa all the time and the fact that you can actually donate to, I think there’s maybe 50 or so at Amazon right now, have set it up so that you can do an actual donation to a nonprofit. It’s a clunky experience, but it is the future in the sense that we’re going to need to be able to keep up with that. Once you start literally buying your paper towels through that device and it becomes the norm, then that’s the way you’ll want to do all of your payment transactions through that way.

Sarah Durham: You’re going to want to say, “Alexa, make a donation to blank.”

Alice Hendricks: And you can now, but again, who knows if that’s something that’s going to take off or not. You just don’t know. I mean we were all skeptical of Twitter when Twitter started as well. We were like, “Should we even bother with this Twitter thing?” And now look how prevalent that is. So it’s important to sort of future-proof your underlying technology, so you’re gathering information and that you have an exploratory, innovative approach and philosophy around it because it’s all changing so quickly.

There’s no right tool, there’s no right answer, there’s no right strategy. The best success that I’ve seen groups have is when they have an open-minded approach to, “Hey, let’s test this, let’s try this, let’s see if this works.” And there are ways to do that without damaging the list, it’s another way of learning. And to keep learning and watching what’s happening in both your own sector and your space and also the corporate space is so, so, so important.

Sarah Durham: I hear that. So let’s go back to chatbots for a second, because, I bet a lot of people haven’t ever consciously noticed chatbots. Those are those little applications that might pop up if you’re on a website that asks you if you need help or wants to talk to you about something, but the nonprofits that are using them in case our listeners haven’t interacted with them, what kinds of things are happening in those chatbots? Why do you think they’re using them and what kinds of questions are people asking? What’s the application for that?

Alice Hendricks: I mean I see a lot of nonprofits that have a physical location delivering information. A planetarium may say, “Here are the hours that I’m open.” A zoo, museums. You see advocacy organizations sending advocacy messages that way, and you also see some occasional fundraising. I know that human rights campaign has a very robust chatbot program, and they’ve raised a lot of money through their chatbots. But think about it whether you want to ask a question by calling a customer service number or chatting.

Sarah Durham: Great. So that’s mind bending. I think people are going to be really excited to think about this a bit more. Is there anything else that’s on the horizon you think nonprofits should at least start to pay attention to as they think about the future of communications?

Alice Hendricks: Yeah, I think the biggest thing, maybe not communications but certainly around fundraising is payments. I think that payment technology is changing really fast. I was recently talking to a client, and they were saying that their telemarketing firm reported that someone who they called, so the telefundraising firm called a donor for a renewal and their donor said, “Just send me a Venmo request and I’ll answer it.” Which means we do not want to get out our wallets and get our credit cards out of our wallets and enter our credit card number in any device.

We’re very accustomed to payment methods like Venmo or PayPal or … On your iPhone you have the PayPal one touch sort of thing. It’s a thumb print. Apple Pay, Google Pay, Amazon Pay. All of these different payment methods are making it so the authentication is via a touch ID thumbprint or a username and password and not a credit card. It’s very important to realize that when commerce changes how we pay for things, that the way we donate needs to correspond as well.

So if I can go follow someone on Instagram and they have a wonderful handbag that I really like and I can click the button just with a tap and say, “I liked that bag.” Just with a tap, I can pay for it. I’ve actually made a purchase with three teeny taps of my finger. If I have to donate through a terrible looking mobile form and go get my reading glasses out of my purse and then-

Sarah Durham: Find your credit card.

Alice Hendricks: Find my credit card and type in that tiny 16 digit number, I’m going to abandon that form. And so when we realize how we’re actually making … are physically making our financial transactions in the consumer world, we have to be able to do that in the nonprofit space. Most people are watching TV and holding their iPhones as they’re doing it. So DRTV directing us to a form that can’t have a mobile payment method on it is a huge gap there.

We have to actually think about all of these things as we’re emerging our technology, all of the ways that we’re interacting with our technology in our pockets, in our hands, in our handbags, the way we think about that, we need to not forget what’s happening in the consumer space as we apply those same technologies to how nonprofits should engage.

Sarah Durham: And it’s another really good argument for that chief experience officer. It’s another really good argument to have somebody in-house who has some real perspective and dimension on who the donor is and where are they making that donation. Are they making it at work on their computer? Are they making it at home on their phone? So if you have a chief experience officer who can look at all the data and make an informed recommendation about where that transaction is going to get processed, where that payment is going to get made, or where that donor or client is likely to be interacting with your organization, you can get much smarter about that.

Alice Hendricks: Absolutely. Yep.

Sarah Durham: It seems also like what you’re talking about relates to another trend that I’ve been reading about in the for-profit consumer world, which is the shift from thinking of marketing as multichannel, meaning we use lots of channels to being omnichannel, meaning wherever I go it follows me, it knows where I am and I can conduct my transaction on any channel because it’s everywhere basically. That strikes me as something that the nonprofit sector is going to struggle to catch up with because it’s going to require a level of probably technical integration and sophistication of insight that will be hard to get ramped up, but certainly where we’re going to want as consumers for things to be.

Alice Hendricks: Yep, that’s exactly right.

Sarah Durham: All right, Alice Hendricks. Thank you for joining me.

Alice Hendricks: You’re so welcome. Thanks for having me.