The Value of the Unrestricted (Broadly Specific) Gift

Rande Richardson

“The great use of a life is to spend it for something that outlives it.” — William James, American philosopher 

I’m often asked what I see in trends in charitable giving. It has become evident over the past decade that the interest in unrestricted giving has been trending downward. Donors have been expressing their interest in being more directed in their support of their communities. 

    When the Community Foundation was incorporated 90 years ago it was done with the premise that making communities better belongs to everyone and that a donor in 1929 could not possibly fully anticipate the needs of the community nearly a century later. Their founding gifts were made with only one restriction —geography. Because of the foresight of these donors, their support has enabled: 

    ▪ Start-up grants to help establish Hospice of Jefferson County, North Country Children’s Clinic, Watertown Teen Center, Thousand Islands Performing Arts Fund (Clayton Opera House), Volunteer Transportation Center, and the North Country Children’s Museum.  

    ▪ Transformational grants to advance the work of Watertown Family YMCA, Samaritan Medical Center, Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library, Thompson Park Conservancy, Lewis County General Hospital, Carthage Area Hospital, River Hospital, Gouverneur Hospital, Clifton-Fine Hospital, Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, Thousand Islands Land Trust, Children’s Home of Jefferson County, Disabled Persons Action Organization, and Jefferson Rehabilitation Center. 

    ▪ Ongoing support of organizations such as the Orchestra of Northern New York, Jefferson Community College, Jefferson County Historical Society, Frederic Remington Art Museum, Thousand Islands Arts Center, SPCA of Jefferson County, and WPBS. Support is provided each year to food pantries, soup kitchens and school programs across the three counties. 

    Many of the grants have come at pivotal points in the evolution of these organizations when there might not have been other resources available. They would not have been possible without the trust of an unrestricted gift. They were enabled by the willingness of community-minded donors who saw an avenue to focus their generosity in the broadest way with the highest degree of impact. Unrestricted giving remains the cornerstone of the ability to respond with flexibility to emerging needs at times when they are most needed. 

    This type of giving requires a deeper level of trust between the donor and the organization. While it is easy to resist the notion of leaving a gift at the discretion of an organization’s board, unrestricted giving is critical to almost every nonprofit organization. Even if a donor is supporting a specific program, those programs cannot thrive without the underlying health and supporting structure unrestricted giving provides. Full commitment to an organization helps ensure its health so the things donors care about most can be ably implemented. 

    For those unable to overcome the thought of a totally unrestricted gift, some Community Foundation donors have taken a hybrid approach. “Broadly specific” giving has seen the number of donor-directed funds at the Foundation grow substantially. Many of these funds support certain fields-of-interest (education, health care, environment, children and youth, history, arts and culture, animal welfare). There has also been a trend toward geographic-specific giving. A donor can restrict the use of the gift to a certain city, town or village, or county. Recently, six separate charitable funds have been established at the Community Foundation to benefit St. Lawrence County, including specific provisions for Gouverneur, Canton, Massena, Potsdam and the CliftonFine region. These join other funds that focus on specific communities such as Lowville, Boonville, Constableville and Westernville, Clayton, Cape Vincent, Alexandria Bay and the Six Towns of Southern Jefferson County. Some of those geographic-specific funds also have directives within them for certain focus areas. 

    Many donors have created endowments to benefit multiple nonprofit organizations in perpetuity in the spirit of an unrestricted gift with the accountability of a directed gift. These funds also contain field of interest language in the event a specific organization ceases operation. This certainly proves the point and has helped provide middle ground. 

    Whether it is unrestricted giving or broadly specific giving there are mechanisms available to help ensure the gifts are good for both the donor and community and are enduring and relevant far into the future. 

    While causes may come and go, we need strong charitable organizations to be nimble enough to meet the changing needs of a region bolstered with undesignated gifts. They provide both the fuel for growth and the proper execution of specific programs, projects and endeavors. Knowing the variety of options to support the work of nonprofits and affect change ultimately helps ensure that whatever way you choose to see your values and interests perpetuated, there are a variety of options to better guarantee lasting energy and actions with stewardship both broadly and specifically. In this way, every gift goes further.