top of page
  • Writer's pictureDanielle M. Locke

7 Simple Steps to Start Raising Unrestricted Gifts

What could your nonprofit accomplish if there was a money tree in the back yard?

Every nonprofit leader I know would be happy to spend time watering that tree, giving it all the love and attention that it needs to grow — especially if it could give you unlimited unrestricted funds, right?

You’d be googling “money tree care tips” and watching endless YouTube videos, making sure it was protected in the winter and properly pruned in the fall and spring. You’d study the health of your soil, maybe even send it out to a lab, making sure it had just the right pH balance. (Whatever that means, right?)

What if I said that you already have everything you need to grow a lush donor base? The seedlings — individual donors — have already sprouted and they are just waiting to be cared for... in your email box, donor software, and countless random excel spreadsheets that you’ve accumulated over the years.

You want, no NEED, to raise more money to support your mission.

Of course, unrestricted funds would be ideal, so you can pay your staff and keep the lights on, right?! But where do you start?

How do you turn a dozen generous donors into hundreds?

The 7 simple steps outlined below — all based on strengthening your connection to individual donors — are the secret to untapped, consistent revenue streams that will help you reach all your nonprofit fundraising goals.

Almost like discovering a money tree hidden in your back yard.

Why all the fuss about individual donors?

Let’s do some math:

  • Individual gifts accounted for 69% of charitable donations in the U.S. in 2020.

  • Bequests (gifts made through a person’s will) accounted for 9% of charitable donations in the U.S. in 2020.

  • Gifts from foundations accounted for 19% of charitable donations in the U.S. in 2020.

Why does that number matter? According to the Council on Foundations (LINK?), 50% of all foundations are private or family foundations. That means that 9.5% of charitable donations from foundations in 2020 came from, you guessed it, individuals!

When you add it all up, this data tells us that 87.5% of all charitable gifts in the U.S. in 2020 came from, drum roll please, individual donors. And here is the best news, these individuals are just waiting, waiting, to be asked. Many of them are already in your list. In the next section I will describe how you tap into this tremendous resource so you can maximize your unrestricted funds.

7 simple steps to start raising unrestricted funds from your donors

Appeals do more than just drive dollars. They also strengthen your donor relationships and can help you to retain current donors and upgrade donors to higher levels of giving - that’s the dream, right?!

If you are looking for more easy ways to raise money, download my brand-new,

This is the part where I could chronicle the architecture of a successful donation letter (I do that in my training programs), but I know you are busy so let’s get to it!

  1. Take a look at your past gifts from individuals.

    1. How many donors do you have?

    2. How much are they donating annually?

    3. When was the last time you asked your donors for support?

    4. How much did that appeal raise?

    5. What inspired them to give?

    6. Do you send more than one appeal a year? (Hint: you should!)

  2. Set a realistic annual appeal goal. I suggest starting with 10% more than you raised last year, but feel free to be ambitious with a goal of 20/25%.

  3. Sketch out a simple fundraising calendar (like on the back of a napkin.)

    1. When are your big events?

    2. When is your time consumed with programs or grants?

    3. Plan your appeal(s) in between so you are not bombarding your donors with conflicting messages or lack the time and energy to launch an appeal.

    4. Most common appeals are mid-year (June/July) and the Season of Giving (November-December). I’m a fan of sending an appeal in February/March. There is not much competition at this time.

  4. Pick a focus for each appeal: a specific program, a need you are trying to address, a compelling story, etc.

  5. Consider creating a campaign around each appeal A campaign delivers a cohesive message over multiple communication channels and focuses on one unified fundraising goal. Don’t worry, expanding your one letter to a campaign is easier than you think!

    1. This may include direct mail, e-mail, phone calls, website banners, and social media.

    2. Select a 4-to-6-week window of time for your campaign.

    3. Develop a theme for the campaign based on the appeal focus you previously chose: a specific program, a need you are trying to address, a compelling story, etc.

    4. Create a corresponding hashtag to be used on social media – this seems unnecessary but trust me, it’s helpful with social media appeals.

  6. Draft your appeal letter*

    1. Abbreviate (seriously cut) the appeal letter for an email solicitation.

    2. Use the appeal letter to draft text for social media campaign posts. Attach the hashtag to all social media posts.

    3. Have as many of the hard copy letters as possible hand signed by a Board member, program staff or yourself. (I am not a fan of letters signed by the Director of Development - donors want to feel connected to the mission or leadership.)

  7. Mail, Send, Post

    1. Mail the hard copy letters

    2. Send email solicitation within the next 3 days. Send email reminders two more times for the duration of your campaign.

    3. Post on social media 2-3x a week for the length of your campaign

* You could skip the hard copy mailing in favor of just an email/social media campaign if that’s where your donors are found. A word of caution though, don’t miss your most generous donors for the sake of efficiency. I suggest at least a hard copy mailing to your older donors. They are the fastest growing demographic as well as the donors group with the most disposable income. These donors might be online but generally they are more responsive to offline requests.

If I can do it, you can do it.

I’m telling you, if you run two to three campaigns a year, you will easily grow your unrestricted funds by 10, 20, even 30%! I know this because this is the super simple process I have followed in my 20 years as a successful fundraiser. Well, actually for the first 10 years or so we didn’t have social media! (Shhh, I’m aging myself.) This is also the roadmap I teach my nonprofit clients. Here is an example.

When I arrived at the Singing Angels in Cleveland, they had no donor database. They rarely sent appeal letters. Their donor communications were nil including their newsletter which was outdated and inconsistent. So, what did I do? I enlisted a few volunteers to help me enter donor information into a simple excel database. We pulled donor names and addresses from hard mailing lists, the alumni list (found on index cards), old donation stubs, cashed checks, event receipts – anything we could find! We began mailing a newsletter to them quarterly and at the end of the year I sent an appeal letter to this list. We followed up with a formal thank you letter with a personal note, newsletters, and concert invitations. And you know what happened? The outpouring of support from the alumni, parents and donors was amazing – checks, calls, handwritten notes. Our stakeholders were starving for communications, inclusion and the opportunity to support the organization. From there we launched an alumni association and grew the annual donations from individuals by 50%. Best yet, we set the stage to grow individual giving year after year.

Secret sauce to growing gifts from individuals

I know, the “science of asking for money” can get complex real’ quick. You could go down the rabbit hole overanalyzing every type font, word and image in your appeal(s).

The truth is, donors will respond to your sincere appeal to support because your organizations and mission is something they already care about. You simply need to ask, ask a few times a year and change up what program/needs you ask for. It’s really that simple.

Donors will respond to the program/need that resonated with their heart.

  • Be genuine in your request for help.

  • Be honest about your needs and how you plan to use their money.

  • Inspire them with a story.

  • Make it easy to give.

  • Be personal; write a note on the appeal letter.

  • Send a timely thank you, either a personal handwritten note or add a note to your formal gift acknowledgment.

That’s it!

Donors are ready, willing and able to give - despite any world events. So go out there, be brave, and boldly invite your donors to give. They will thank you for it!

Wishing you all the best,


P.S. Remember, you are awesome. You are capable of raising more than you think. You are changing the world. Thank you for all you do.

142 views2 comments


Zsofi Jarmay
Zsofi Jarmay
Aug 10, 2021

Such a great article!! Thanks Danielle!

Danielle M. Locke
Danielle M. Locke
Aug 10, 2021
Replying to

Your so welcome!

bottom of page