I’m going out on a limb here to challenge one of the oldest and most cherished fundraising habits in our sector.

Not to fear! I’m also showing you how to take that blah-290x300general ask and make it sharper, more urgent, and more compelling.

I remember when everyone’s fall appeal letter was a General Unrestricted Ask. Is yours still? Is your ED or boss still insisting on it?

Here’s the problem: In 2014, a General Unrestricted Ask is not going to light a fire in your donors.

Your donor has changed.

She has trust issues with you — and all her favorite nonprofits.

One of her greatest worries is that her money will go into the black hole of General Administrative and not used for the greatest good.

You and I know this is a fallacy – that all monies to the cause are well used, and so very needed.

But your donor doesn’t know this. So let’s change the way you frame your appeal.

The General Unrestricted Ask is so very blah.

It has no urgency. No specificity. No oooomph. No real reason to give. It’s not compelling.

It certainly is not exciting. (Remember Tom Ahern’s great words: “If you want to raise more money, add drama!”)

Who wants to pay to keep the lights on or to maintain the buildings? Not many people.

Instead, they want to help the kids, feed the hungry, make art, cure diseases, save the world. So why don’t you let them fund what they want to fund?Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 11.37.33 AM

It’s all about your donor and what she wants to accomplish anyway isn’t it?

It’s not ever about you, your organization OR what you need, correct? (I know, I can hear the protests right now! Just read on, ok?)

Writing people with a general amorphous ask dismisses the power of your appeal. It is lazy fundraising.

Roger Craver, one of our sector’s great pundits, agreed when I ran this idea by him. He said it is not only LAZY fundraising but it’s also a bit stupid – because it’s a very weak ask that will not yield a high return.

Why are you asking donors to pay for something they don’t want to pay for? (overhead and maintenance). No wonder they don’t respond!

Make your Ask specific and you’ll raise more money.

You probably know that your donors will give you more money if you make your ask specific.

For example, many nonprofits are starting to shape their asks in terms of “$xxx money will do yyyy work.” That’s a good start. Way to go!

You should also use our IMP Fundraising Formula: Ask for xxx Money for yyyy Project that will bring about zzzz Impact. Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 11.37.16 AM

How to take the General Unrestricted Ask and give it sizzle.

First of all, money is “fungible.”  Money can flow from one purpose to another.

For example, you may have unrestricted monies coming into your organization such as general admission, tuition, earned income, product sales, ticket sales or unspecified website gifts,.

Can’t you “designate” those funds to pay for the lights and maintenance?

I don’t want you to be unethical about where the money is going. Ever.

BUT surely you have some undesignated funding that can go to cover the boring stuff.

Take your most exciting projects and raise money around them.

  • For a school – make it about the kids, teachers, sports, art, tech.
  • For an environmental organization, make it about your field work.
  • For an advocacy organization, make it about your PR and public media campaign. Or your important lobbying.
  • For a social service organization living on grants and starved for unrestricted money, make it about the people you are helping.
  • For a historic preservation organization, make it about the buildings you need to save.

You can take that General Unrestricted Ask and make it specific without being dishonest or unethical.

What you are doing is putting spin on the message. You are shaping your ask to meet the needs of your donors.

Here’s how to give a classic General Unrestricted Ask some sizzle.

Ask for money to “run” your programs:

Mr. Donor, it costs $xxx to run these urgently needed programs. Your gift will help bring these wonderful services to our community . . . “

You are not asking for restricted money to fund the programs — instead you are asking for help to “run” the programs.

This is how you reframe a completely unrestricted ask into something appealing to your donor.

Caveat: If you want to be sure and make a compelling ask, don’ use the words “programs,” “services,” or “underserved.” They are the most BORING words in fundraising! :)


YOU can do a much better job shaping your fall appeal.

Make it as specific as you can! And you’ll raise more money!