How to make your fundraising unrestricted

A lot of fundraisers feel caught in a trap:

We are required to raise unrestricted (or undesignated) funds most or all of the time. The money that keeps everything going, including the stuff donors just aren’t into, like staff salaries, the electricity bill, and the cost of fundraising itself.

But fundraising that works is almost always focused, specific, and about the cause, not the organization.

Donors aren’t sitting around thinking about how they can help great organizations like yours continue to exist. They’re thinking about how to take action to make the world better in ways they care about.

That’s why you raise more money when you focus on specific actions the donor can make possible.

But specificity looks like restricted funds!

Good news: It’s possible to do both!

I asked a prominent accountant who specializes in US nonprofit accounting. I learned that three simple steps can “unrestrict” a specific fundraising offer.

For examples, I’m going to mostly use a piece of direct mail I got from the ACLU, because it does a good job of raising unrestricted funds while being very specific in its focus.

Step 1. In your message, “enlarge” what the donor’s gift will do

The ACLU pack does this. It is mainly about court action against various Trump Administration actions, and it’s calling on donors to make these things possible. It’s urgent and timely. It’s classic “rage” fundraising. But there are several passages that enlarge the definition beyond merely suing Trump. Here are some of them:

  • That’s why I am urging to send a generous donation of $25, $35, $50 or more to help the most skilled and dedicated team of lawyers the ACLU has ever assembled keep defending people’s rights.
  • Here are just some of the ways you can help the ACLU keep using litigation to protect our fundamental freedoms. With your help, we can: [5 bullet points describing a range of activities]
  • As you can imagine, the ACLU is facing enormous demands our time, energy and resources. With the contribution of $25, $35, $50 or more, you can help advance some of the most critical work we have ever undertaken.

So while the piece is about suing the Trump Administration, it makes it clear that the donors gift does other things as well — and puts those other things in a clear context — they are clearly related to the main topic.

Step 2. The action line on the reply coupon includes a phrase like “… and other activities…”

Here’s the ACLU reply device:

ACLU RD

The key is the second sentence: To support ACLU lawsuits and other vital activities…

Unrestricted.

Step 3. Have a policy and share it

The ACLU pack doesn’t do this. It may be that the thoroughness of the first two steps make it unnecessary. (I’ll assume that an organization made up mainly of lawyers didn’t just accidently miss this step!)

You put a line of copy on the back of the reply device (or somewhere similar. That openly describes your policy. There are two main (and very different) policies about this:

  1. We are raising unrestricted funds. The policy says something like “Your donation supports the entire mission of this organization.”
  2. We are raising restricted funds, but if we raise more than needed for this area, here’s what we’ll do with your donation. The policy says something like: “In the case funds raised exceed the projects described here, we will use the money where it is most needed.” (There are many variation of this.)

There are many other ways of dealing with this challenge, but if you follow these three steps, you are using standard accounting practices for raising unrestricted funds while talking about specific activities.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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