Professional Development
Philanthropy / Technology

How I Got Here: Jon Thompson on how tech can improve political and philanthropic work

The associate VP of philanthropic strategy and technology's said the combination of a tech and humanities background allows him to optimize how CHOP can connect meaningfully with more with people.

Jon Thompson. (Courtesy photo)

This is How I Got Here, a series where we chart the career journeys of technologists. Want to tell your story? Get in touch.

When you think of a political campaign or a philanthropic foundation, you probably don’t consider the person who makes all the technology for that organization.

Jon Thompson is the man behind the curtain in this context, as the associate VP of philanthropic strategy and technology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Thompson works to find new ways for tech and philanthropy to interact. Traditionally, he said technology has been used in specific ways, like for email lists, and there hasn’t been a lot of room to find new uses.

“So a lot of the things that I spend my time on, such as AI, big data, marketing automation, getting into virtual reality, distributed rendering, whatnot, it all falls outside of those existing structural dynamics,” Thompson said. “And so, what I was brought into was to help CHOP rethink how technology can lift up all of our fundraising practices.”

How education shaped his career

Thompson’s background in the tech field goes all the way back to his high school days, when he learned about router programming and network design in a program run by Cisco. Having that background helped him land a high school internship with a team that was building one of the first customer relationship manager platforms for the nonprofit world. One of the people working on that project introduced Thompson to the different ways technology could advance society.

“He wasn’t interested in the dot com rush, he wasn’t interested in trying to make more money or have the latest startup, he actually wanted to use technology for the betterment of humankind,” Thompson said. “And so that was the defining moment for me.”

Thompson went to college for computer engineering and political science in the early 2000s, but was told by a professor that he could thrive if he focused on political science. During summer breaks, Thompson worked on tech for political campaigns — developing CRMs and working on a system that would help canvassers gather information from constituents on palm pilots, then download that information to inform what mail people were receiving about the campaign. Before graduating, he worked on technical infrastructure for a campaign for the governor of Montana.

Thompson views technology as a means to an end, with the mission to make society better, he said. It connects to why people get into politics, he said. In all the technical roles he’s had, he said he views his experience in the humanities as a strength that complements his technical skills because it allows him to connect better with people and understand how they interact with technology.

“Oftentimes where technology fails, particularly in a nonprofit, is that we get these these brilliant, well-meaning people who can build anything, but they don’t understand the business that they’re in, how it’s going to connect, how it’s going to be used,” Thompson said.

Tech in nonprofit work

Thompson’s entry into nonprofit work was with the humanitarian organization Care in 2008, where he worked on developing the digital infrastructure for its political communications. He said this job was also his first experience in the world of fundraising.

After a few years and a few more jobs, Thompson started working for the Children’s Hospital in DC where he was the associate director, and then the director, of philanthropic digital strategy. And at the end of 2019, Thompson moved to Philadelphia to work as the executive director of technology and information at CHOP before starting his current job at the end of 2021.

Some of his current work includes his team using predictive analytics and marketing automation to determine who is more likely to donate money to CHOP. He said traditionally, the philanthropy industry will look at how much someone’s worth in deciding to reach out, but that method isn’t very accurate to predict which people will actually donate.

Thompson said his office uses AI to figure out how attached a person is to CHOP as a cause. They use big data, looking at 4,000 data points per person, to see if psychologically someone is the type of person to get involved. They also use AI to look at how people interact with the foundation. Using all of these strategies has helped increase CHOP’s direct response rate by 85% with a 25% average gift increase, he said.

“We can really see how our efforts are making the system much more actionable,” he said. “We are really changing up the data architectures of our systems to be very unique and specialized to our business, which is major gift driven fundraising.”

Thompson said augmented reality technology can also be used to better explain complicated medical conditions. This tech makes it easier to communicate with people and creates a more meaningful connection with them, he said.

“We can bring back and really reinvigorate this industry if we just can pioneer new approaches, find new ways to connect people, [and] connect them in more meaningful ways,” he said. “My career is going to be about ‘how do we make philanthropy a significant part of the the US conversation?’ How can we get people connected to the causes that they care about? So that everybody feels invested in building a better world of tomorrow together.”

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: CHOP / Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Series: How I Got Here

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