First CEO Address to the Affinaquest User Group

First CEO Address to the Affinaquest User Group

First CEO Address to the Affinaquest User Group
March 21, 2018 James Werner

In 1997, for the first time in history, a computer beat a grand master at the game of chess. IBM’s Deep Blue faced off against Gary Kasparov, one of the greatest chess players of all time – and won.  Following the match, a reporter (perhaps facetiously) asked the project lead for IBM if Deep Blue was pleased that it had won. He responded to the reporter by saying (and I paraphrase), “Deep Blue is not happy that it won a game of chess against a grand master, because Deep Blue did not know that it was playing a game of chess.”

We have come a long way since then. We’ve largely moved from brute force Expert Systems which simply cram every known variable in a particular subject into the massive processing power of a silicon chip, to today’s machine learning. Machine learning can actually draw inferences. It can theorize and hypothesize…like a person. In fact, some describe machine learning as a process that starts with a decision, and then works its way back to a question. For those of us in advancement, the decision-point might be that we plan to send an annual fund appeal, that we have decided to ask for a million-dollar gift, or that we’ve been tasked with launching a capital campaign. The questions, then are, “From whom?”, “How many?”, “When?”, “In what order,” and “How much?”  These are the sorts of questions that AI will help us to both formulate and answer. In short, it is a technology that is going to entirely revolutionize our world.

I recently read a book called, Our Final Invention, by James Barrat. Completely terrifying – don’t read it if you have trouble sleeping. He says that AI is going to eat the entire universe. Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t…but we’re going to do a lot of good fund raising with Machine Learning before that ever happens!

So why am I going on about AI? Because it’s just one component of the forward-looking vision of this company.

I was having breakfast with Jeff Shy a year or so ago, and he was excitedly telling me about the Affinaquest project and the things that his team was working on…and hoped to work on in the future. His excitement was contagious. As a guy who’s been in EdTech for 25 years, I saw an incredible opportunity – the opportunity to marry cutting edge technology with some of the best brains in the business. I saw the potential of working with the people who had developed the leading advancement systems in the industry (and there are only a small handful of them historically) and who were not ever satisfied with what they had built. They always believed that new and better tools lay on the horizon. And now those tools are here.

And so, as I take on the role of Acting CEO at Affinaquest, I want to lay out the four objectives that form our vision. In keeping with our future-oriented processes, I expect these to evolve and grow over time!

  1. Affinquest will be recognized as the best advancement software suite in the world. We will do this by leveraging real-time data, employing a strategy of continuous improvement, and allowing our customers to not just serve, but to delight both their internal customers and external constituents.
  2. We will partner with the most thoughtful and innovate colleges and universities, and we will form a community of like-mined professionals. In short, we expect our customers to be equally excited as we are about coming along for the ride.
  3. We will be the leading aggregator and facilitator of the best technologies – providing our customers with a continuous feedback loop of success
  4. We will create economies of scale to cost-effectively offer our customers the support, experience and expertise necessary to achieve their missions.


My first foray into EdTech and fund-raising arrived over 25 years ago.

I was sitting in the “tally room” at the UCLA Telephone Outreach program of which I was a manager in the late 1980’s. I was just a skinny graduate student in Spanish and Latin American literature…but I wasn’t completely clueless about things like efficiencies and economies of scale.  It was 11:00 pm, and as I was methodically tallying the evening’s pledges from our 45 student callers, I started thinking to myself, “Hey, isn’t this what computers were made for??

From those humble beginnings (and through the work of an exceptionally talented team) eventually arose the product, “SmartCall”, the first automated call center software for College and University fund-raising programs. Now today, that technology seems a bit musty and dated. But at the time, it was incredibly exciting. We were able to dispense with thousands of hours of tedious work in favor of fund-raising fundamentals. Equally important to me was the fact that we were doing something incredibly exciting in our profession. We were ultimately helping to raise tens of millions of educational dollars while dramatically improving the lives of our college and university customers (and student callers!)

I feel that same excitement today. And that is why I accepted Jeff and the Board’s offer to join the team and become part of this adventure.

Now to be sure, I am going to be as much of an evangelist for Affinaquest as anyone, and I will be making calls, sending emails, and happily participating in demonstrations. So don’t be surprised to see that I’m still “carrying a bag.”

But ultimately my job is to capitalize on the enormous opportunities that lie before us – and to help you all look like heroes to your internal customers and to your administration. I mentioned earlier James Barrat and his dystopian vision of technology. I like his chief critic, futurist Ray Kurzweil better.  Kurzweil says: “Launching a breakthrough idea is like shooting skeet. People’s needs change, so you have to aim well of the target to hit it.” I look forward to staying well ahead of the target with you all in the months and years ahead.

Thank you!

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