Why You Should Stop Scolding Donors to Make Unrestricted Gifts

give where most needed Why You Should Stop Scolding Donors to Make Unrestricted Gifts
What if we said “Give Where Most Moved” instead?

No one likes to be scolded.

Yet most nonprofits make a practice of regularly admonishing supporters to give “where most needed.”

You probably think this is a good thing. After all, it gives you the greatest flexibility. Right?

Wrong.  Think again.

You’ll have a lot more flexibility if you raise more money.

And you’ll raise a lot more money if you stop thinking about you and your needs and think more about your donors and their needs.

The practice of worshiping at the altar of unrestricted giving is about as non-donor-centered as it gets!

A prime example appeared a few years ago in an article I found on NPR (which has since been taken down from their site), in which the then CEO of National Philanthropic Trust chided potential donors to be loyal in their giving because it helps build planning. She said:

 “It’s really expensive for charities to find new donors and to raise money, so by doing fewer larger gifts, and then staying with them for three to five years, you’re actually helping the charity plan better and it’s easier for them to meet their mission.”

She continued to warn donors not to make the “common mistake” of giving to a very specific project or narrow program within a charity. These “restricted gifts” she said, don’t help a charity out with its other needs such as computers, training and maintaining facilities.

What nonsense!

It goes counter to intuition and common sense to force folks into your mold.

Why not encourage supporters to give to those programs about which they’re most passionate? Wouldn’t you think that would bond them to your organization over the longer term in a more natural way than telling them the “healthy way” to give is akin to eating their vegetables?

I’ve never really understood the penchant in so many nonprofits to eschew restricted gifts.

Some do this to the extent that major gift officers are penalized for bringing in too few unrestricted gifts. Essentially, this means these fundraisers are not allowed to talk to donors about what the donor really cares about. Their task is to steer the donor away from their passions and towards a middle-of-the-road strategy that simply doesn’t excite them. This is absurd! If you want to know why, take a look at this blog post by donor-centered fundraising guru Penelope Burk.

When you give people choices they’ll respond in greater numbers.

You see, if you package your overall case for support into different program ‘cases’ that resonate with people’s individual values, you’ll end up capturing more attention. People will actually read what you send to them. They’ll consider their options carefully. They’ll think about their giving. And they’ll make a thoughtful gift. Guess what else? About 50 – 90% of folks will decide to give an unrestricted gift!

Yes, you’ll also end up generating earmarked funds for your most popular programs. That’s great! Now you know what floats people’s boats.

And for those programs that are less popular,  you can direct your unrestricted funding there. You’re missing the boat if you simply talk in generalities and use unrestricted funds for ‘sexy’ programs that could potentially bring in greater donors and dollars. Yes, you need to keep the lights on. Yes, you appreciate donors who “get” this. Truly, I love the donors who give happily “where most needed.” But I also love those who give passionate, transformational gifts to a program near and dear to their heart. One is not better than the other. And there’s definitely room for both.

Wait, you say? What if we raise too much money for one program?

If that happens it’s not a bad problem. It should cause you to think. Whoa! People really like this program! Should we be doing more of it? Could we? Of course you don’t want unintentional mission drift, but thoughtful, strategic mission growth is a different thing.

Of course if you really end up with such an outpouring of support that you’ve more money than you can or want to use then, by all means, notify the donor and offer to return the money. This is not only the right thing to do; it’s also a good trust-building strategy. The fact that you were able to generate so much community goodwill only reflects positively on you. And often the donor may tell you to keep the funds to use where most needed. Whatever happens, you’ve had an opportunity to deepen your relationship with this supporter.

Donors increasingly want to take an active role in how their money is spent.

They’re less inclined to let your organization decide how their philanthropy will be allocated. You’re competing in a landscape where other organizations are giving your potential donors the opportunity to be actively engaged in their giving. If you don’t you will cease to be competitive in the donor marketplace.

Stop being afraid of restricted giving.

Offer your supporters enticing giving opportunities that key into what they’re most passionate about. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll end up deciding to make a restricted gift. It does mean they’ll probably end up paying more attention to you and making a considered gift of some form.

In fact, a study of the world’s wealthiest donors found that even among the most affluent donors nearly 70% of those with $1 to $5 million in assets prefer to give unrestricted gifts to charity, while among those with assets of $50 million or more, 45% say they prefer to make unrestricted gifts. When you offer choices the upside is greater than the downside. For me, it’s a no-brainer.

What’s best for your donors is what’s best for you.

Being donor-centered means understanding what donors really want and need. The more you continue to approach donors from the perspective of what you need, the poorer results you’ll see. It’s pretty much common sense, isn’t it?

mjr gift donors 150x150 Why You Should Stop Scolding Donors to Make Unrestricted GiftsWant More on This Topic?

Grab my “Major Gifts Matters” FAQs about offering donors choices. How much more money could you raise if leadership began to think from your donor’s perspective rather than their own? A lot. That’s what I’m guessing.  Get your E-Guide here for just ten bucks. If you don’t find it useful, I’ll happily refund your money — no questions asked!

7 Storytelling Tips to Inspire Nonprofit Donors to Act

Storyteller thumbs up 198x300 7 Storytelling Tips to Inspire Nonprofit Donors to Act
Listen up: Have I got a story for you!

As a fundraising professional, relationship building with donors is an ongoing process and communication is an important part of that process. Stories are a great communications tool that you can use to tell donors about their impact in a tangible and easy to understand manner.

Storytelling seems to be everywhere these days. Non-profits are actively trying to use stories to engage their current and new donors. Is your non-profit trying to tap into the power of stories? Perhaps it’s been a positive experience for your organization. But maybe you have faced some challenges.

One of the biggest challenges with storytelling is being able to tell a great story. A story that really stands out from the pack and resonates with your donor audience. A story that, ultimately, compels action.

Today I want to share with you 7 rules for telling a better non-profit story.

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1 Big Donor Retention Secret: Giving is Not Always its Own Reward

maslow s hierarchy of needs 300x196 1 Big Donor Retention Secret: Giving is Not Always its Own Reward
What are you doing to give your donors the meaning they seek?

Donor needs vary and evolve, depending on where they are in their own life cycle and their life cycle with your nonprofit. Do you ever wonder how you might help them meet their needs? How you might reward them for giving?  You should — if you want to keep them as donors.

You may be familiar with Maslow’s “Theory of Human Motivation” where he breaks needs for human development and contentment down into steps that form a pyramid. Maslow suggests the basic human needs such as food, shelter, and sleep are required before you can pursue higher needs such as security, love and belonging, esteem and the need for self-actualization.

Sadly, just giving to charity doesn’t necessarily meet these higher-level needs. Donors may give out of guilt, fear, peer pressure (which doesn’t feel so good). Some give to be praised (meets esteem need, but only if you praise them). Some give to be accepted by peers (meets love & belonging need, but only if you offer opportunities to connect and feel loved)… and so forth. You see, giving is not always it’s own reward.

To create life-long donors imposes on your charity the obligation to do something proactive to fulfill your donor’s highest level needs.

Donors, like all human beings, are on a continual quest for meaning. It’s the existential search to be all that one can be. To feel self-actualized.

In non-psychological or theoretical terms, at the self-actualization pinnacle donors just feel darn good. They carry around a warm glow, representing the realization of their potential and inner peace.

This feeling is very powerful – and we human beings naturally seek it out. It’s one of reasons why even very poor give outsized proportions of their income to charity.

Another way to describe this is the search for meaning in life. For most people, meaning is deeply intertwined with community connections. Victor Frankl in his famous chronicle on the search for meaning wrote: love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Humans want to feel a sense of connection and a sense of purpose to life. Giving (time, money, and energy) is a central way that we strive to find meaning.

If your nonprofit doesn’t complete the exchange circuit for donors, their search for meaning gets cut short.

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4 Things Clothing Upcycling Can Teach Nonprofits about Donor Retention

Closet clothing 300x177 4 Things Clothing Upcycling Can Teach Nonprofits about Donor Retention
Stop discarding clothes (letting donors lapse); Treasure them (renew and upgrade).

I know this may sound silly, but I sometimes like to think of my donors as clothing.


Well, shopping is one of my favorite activities so I think about clothing a lot. I think about the many ways I can use it, repurpose it, mix and match it, show it off and even share it with friends and family. I treasure my clothing, and have a great deal of difficulty letting go of any of it (yes, my closet is stuffed to the gills)!

So, how are donors like clothing?

  • They cover a lot of basic needs.
  • They keep you (aka your nonprofit) warm and cozy.
  • They enable you to get through different seasons.
  • They help you look good.
  • They help you show off your brand and strut your stuff.
  • They attract others to you.
  • They are a big part of the story of your life.
  • And you should have a lot of trouble letting go of them.

Unfortunately, most nonprofits are much too cavalier about letting go. It’s expensive. It’s a waste of time. It’s completely irresponsible if you care about your nonprofit’s future – so I want you to STOP IT!

4 Ways to Cherish and Hold on to Donors

  1. Stop Discarding Donors; Treasure Them
  2. Meaningfully Thank Donors; Do it a Lot
  3. Show Impact with Stories and Compelling Images
  4. Build the Relationship

In Part 1 of this article I’ll discuss the first two ways. The second two ways will be covered in Part 2.Continue Reading

Clairity Click-it All about Donors: Retention, Communications, Stewardship, Donor Centricity

Mouse mouse2 300x202 Clairity Click it All about Donors: Retention, Communications, Stewardship, Donor Centricity
Click it!

This week is all about your donors: keeping them; communicating with them, taking care of them and meeting them where they are. I’ve got several really useful articles for you. Not too many. It’s summer, after all! Plus, as always, some terrific upcoming learning opportunities for you.

Donor Retention
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Heed Maya Angelou to Retain More Donors

Thank you boy with card 246x300 Heed Maya Angelou to Retain More Donors
You made me feel special. Thank you for buying me shoes.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

Respected American author, poet, dancer, actress, singer and civil rights spokesperson, Maya Angelou, knows a thing or two about what makes people tick. And when you’re endeavoring to keep more of your supporters, this is exactly what you must know too.

The Big Secret

Make people feel good. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Simple, yes? Common sense, yes? And yet, how many of you actively practice this in your daily life at work?Continue Reading

The Heart of Effective Major Donor Development: It’s Not Money

man holding heart 300x199 The Heart of Effective Major Donor Development: It’s Not Money
The heart of major donor development is demonstrating impact and showing gratitude. Continually.

Everyone wants to develop a major gifts program. Or to strengthen their existing major gifts program. Why? Because they want to raise more money.

If you approach major gifts development solely from this perspective you’ll ultimately fail.

You might raise more money for a little while. But over the long-term you’ll lose more support than you gain. Because it’s not just about money.

Successful, lifelong major donor relationships are about two things: Continue Reading

Borrow from Jimmy Fallon to Keep More Donors

Time for love 300x249 Borrow from Jimmy Fallon to Keep More Donors
Set aside some time to show gratitude – you’ll be doubly rewarded!


If you’re a fan of late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon, you know he sets aside time every Friday night to write thank you letters. I think of it as “TYIF” (“Thank You It’s Friday). Jimmy’s notes are usually creative and thought-provoking, like “Thank you, emails that say “You have successfully unsubscribed from these emails,” for completely missing the point. One of his band members plays some soothing music that’s conducive to thank you writing – after a while, the music alone is enough to get you in a grateful, thank-you-writing mood!

What if your nonprofit did the same thing?!Continue Reading

Clairity Click-it: Online Fundraising, Donor Engagement, Social Media, Writing + Free Stuff

Click it check mark 300x225 Clairity Click it: Online Fundraising, Donor Engagement, Social Media, Writing + Free Stuff


The Click-it is jam-packed with meaty articles this week – lots of stuff you can really use from some of my favorite writers/fundraising and marketing communications experts. Plus, of course, some fun stuff. And at the end you’ll find some great opportunities to get amazingly high-quality training, and it won’t cost you a dime! Continue Reading

How to Deal with Disgruntled Donors: Don’t Waste Valuable Complaints

Complaints button 300x249 How to Deal with Disgruntled Donors: Don’t Waste Valuable Complaints

Don’t waste valuable donor communications — whatever form they take!

I’m going to tell you to do exactly what I do.

Don’t ignore a single disgruntled supporter. Express compassion and contrition.

If someone takes the time to tell you they’re unhappy, that means they care. They’re connected to you. They want something from you, and you’re disappointing them.

This is your golden opportunity to get inside your donor’s head and find out what your supporter really cares about!

Don’t blow this person off. Instead, Continue Reading