A Communicator’s Guide to Unrestricted Giving

In recent months, billionaire MacKenzie Scott’s name has been a conversational mainstay in philanthropic circles—and not only because of her vast wealth. Just between September and December 2020, Scott gave nearly $4.2 billion to nonprofits and other organizations. More remarkable still? The majority of those donations were unrestricted funds.

Most nonprofit fundraisers can’t count on a multibillionaire to appear with a no-strings-attached windfall. But there are lessons all fundraisers can learn from Scott’s lean toward unrestricted giving—both the opportunities it offers, and what it demands of communicators.

What is unrestricted giving?

Philanthropic giving can be sorted into two broad categories. There’s restricted giving, when the donor designates a specific program or use for their gift. The nonprofit is then required by law to use the donation for its specified purpose. Scholarship endowments or building projects are common examples of restricted gifts.

Unrestricted giving, on the other hand, is just what it sounds like: a philanthropic donation with no use-specific requirements. Organizations are free to use the funds in whatever part of their operations they see fit.

Understandably, unrestricted donations are an attractive thought for many nonprofits. However, keep in mind that such gifts come with their own challenges.

How to emphasize impact.

Whether a donor is giving midsize gifts or MacKenzie Scott–sized ones, they all want to know their investments are making a tangible difference. Conveying donor impact for restricted giving is relatively straightforward: X dollars were given for scholarships, so Y number of students received one.

But when funds can be used for anything across the organization, impact can start to feel diffuse or unquantifiable. So how can nonprofit organizations tell the kind of impact stories that move donors of unrestricted gifts?

One of the primary factors that draws donors to an organization is whether they can see their values reflected in your work. If your organization is clear and passionate about what it stands for, like-minded donors will see you as a natural fit for their own goals. Emphasize your mission and institutional personality in your communication materials—because donors’ gifts will support those aspects no matter where their gift is used.

Next, think about all the different ways your organization can measure impact. There are the kind of metrics you probably include in your annual reports, and those can be compelling to donors when integrated into a strong narrative.

But think outside the box, too. Qualitative impact can be just as moving as quantitative, when shared effectively. What changes or discoveries are possible now because of your organization? What kind of endemic problems might soon be solved? 

If a donor is already emotionally invested enough in your mission to give unrestrictedly, they’re excited by the same goals you are. Revealing that a moonshot goal just moved closer can be incredibly energizing.

Find your sweet spot.

Whatever tactic you take to communicate impact, be sure it speaks to both sides of your donors’ brains: the rational and the emotional. Numbers and figures are powerful ways to convey tangible change, but without storytelling, they’re just cells in a spreadsheet. And even the most inspirational rhetoric is just hot air without actual change to back it up.

There are many factors to balance when crafting philanthropic communications, but when you get it right, the results are undeniable. Passionate donors feel more connected to your organization. They’re enthusiastic about returning for future gifts. And the story of your organization—what you do and why it matters—reaches a new level of strength.

Our philanthropy team has been crafting communications that inspire and motivate donors for decades. Think you could use a hand? Drop us a note at info@lipmanhearne.com, and we’d be happy to discuss your needs.