What Unrestricted Funds and Phone Booths Have In Common

People aren’t interested in them anymore.

If you fancy yourself clever, persuasive, charismatic, or irresistible, I challenge you to see how many people you can get to use a phone booth on any given day. The same applies to board members, CEOs, and CFOs who think their fundraisers should be bringing in more unrestricted gifts. Please try it for a couple of years and then you’ll see what it’s like trying to raise unrestricted funds.

People look at you as if you are from another time as in “Where have you been?” The world has changed. Tastes change. Human behavior changes. And when human behavior changes slowly over time, it doesn’t un-change quickly because you want it to or think it unjust. The only people who might consider unrestricted giving are my age or older (please note the gentleman’s attire to the right). They might do it because they’ve known you for a long time.

Urging people to use phone booths by saying you’re a good person doing good work and they should trust you won’t work either. You’ll discover that the more you say it, the more they will think something is wrong with you, that you’re out of touch. They’ll wonder why you keep urging them to do something they don’t want to do rather than suggest ways you can work together with them.

More and more donors (the ones that are still giving) are issues-driven. They look across institutions to decide which are best addressing the issue they care most about. When they give it is to support an initiative or project that addresses that issue. If you have a single-focus organization that corresponds to the issue the donor cares most about, you will still need to demonstrate that you are competent and well-run. You will still need to equate various levels of investment with improved and/or expanded levels of service. Donors don’t care where the money goes as long as you get the job done. The more you deliver, the more trust you build and the more the donor is likely to become an ongoing investor in what has proven to be most productive.

Another option is to simply add the cost of business to privately funded projects and initiatives. This was even suggested several years ago by Nick Addington, the chief executive of the William Grant Foundation. He and other donors recognize the need for a certain amount of flexibility to adjust and adapt to changing circumstances on the ground. But that is very different from being asked to give to organizations who assert “Just trust us” or, even worse, “We can’t do our work without unrestricted support.”

Give your fundraisers the chance to succeed by providing them with compelling projects and major-gift-worthy ideas. That’s how you’ll get the flexible funding you need as long as you deliver on your promises. And that’s how you’ll build trust over time – not by trying to shunt donors into the philanthropic equivalent of your CFO’s phone booth.


Jim Langley is the president of Langley Innovations. Langley Innovations provides a range of services to its clients to help them understand the cultural underpinnings of philanthropy and the psychology of donors and, with that knowledge, to develop the most effective strategies and tactics to build broader and more lasting communities of support. Jim has authored numerous books including his most recent book, The Future of Fundraising: Adapting to New Philanthropic Realities, published by Academic Impressions in 2020. 

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