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.
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?
Want 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!
Brava! Brava! Brava!
Claire, this is definitely one of my favorite blog posts of the summer. Well done!
Here are two additional tips for your readers:
1. When giving donors giving options, don’t include “unrestricted” in the list. Instead, use the phrase “Area of Greatest Need.” Donors will understand that this means an unrestricted gift, but will find the phrasing far more compelling.
2. When giving donors options for restricting their gifts, list projects or programs or items that would have received “unrestricted” support. This will allow you to allow donors to focus their giving while still falling under the unrestricted umbrella. This strategy will appeal to donors AND an organization’s bean-counters.
I have long shared your position on restricted v. unrestricted giving. Thank you for posting about this vital subject.
Thanks for the kind comments Michael. I agree with everything you’ve said as well. Nonprofits must learn to “package” their case for support so they break down their core needs (all under the “unrestricted” umbrella) into several specific key initiatives designed to capture the attention — and engage the passions — of different types of donors.