Fundraising Q&A: Reconnecting with lapsed donors

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How do we reconnect with donors who have stopped giving?

“Lapsed” donors, as they are often called, are one of your first lines of defence when realigning your fundraising efforts. They are individuals who have made a commitment to your charity in the past and for some (probably unknown) reason, they haven’t renewed their support. Some fundraisers call them the “low hanging fruit” because they’ve already proven their interest in your mission so there is an excellent chance they will reinvest.

Just so we’re all on the same page, I don’t consider a donor as someone who has only made one contribution to your charity. It’s only after these individuals have demonstrated some commitment beyond their first gift that they move into that realm. Fundraising software is useful for tracking this important information. Often these programs contain reports that identify LYBUNTS and SYBUNTS. For those of you who just went “huh?” the acronyms stand for Last Year But Unfortunately Not This and Some Year But Unfortunately Not This. If a donor hasn’t sent a gift for over three years their connection to your organization has broken and they fall into the category of “former donor”.

Why haven’t your lapsed donors renewed?

Do you ever survey your donors or ensure you talk to them between their gifts? The reasons for not renewing are many and if you don’t ask you won’t know why they’ve lapsed. It can be as simple as misplacing your solicitation. Or perhaps the request never arrived. Was there a job loss or lay off that has affected their spending priorities? Maybe your department continues to spell their name wrong despite their best efforts to correct the information or the letter was addressed to their formerly-married name while they are desperately trying to forget their ex-spouse.

Another reason that people can feel frustrated or taken for granted is when a donation isn’t acknowledged promptly enough – remember – thank before you bank! Have you recorded your donor’s wishes in your database? For instance, if they say they only want to be solicited once a year, then you need to respect their request. Did they state their gift was anonymous and then you named them prominently in your annual report? Perhaps there are duplicate records in your database and you’re sending two matching solicitations on every mailing, demonstrating how well your department can waste their investment. Are you writing to Mr. and Mrs. when you already know one of them died recently because your charity was a beneficiary? Or do you address them as “Dear Friend” when they have supported your organization for the past decade? How would you react to any of the above-mentioned faux pas? If your priority is relationship building – is your nonprofit proving to its donors the worthiness of their support?

Why should they renew?

Refer to my October 2010 and March 2012 articles and you’ll understand the most expensive part of fundraising is acquisition ($1.25 - $1.50 for every $1.00 donated). Therefore, your strategy for renewal is the key to a cost-effective program. Once you have a good system in place for inviting your donor’s support on an annual basis (at minimum) and monitoring the responses, only then can you legitimately begin to identify and track those who have lapsed.

The difference between fundraising software and spreadsheets is the ability to request reports on who hasn’t donated during a specified timeframe, as opposed to who did. LYBUNTS and SYBUNTS are found this way. When you have created lists of who didn’t make a gift for over a year or more, you can craft an appropriate approach accordingly.

How do you renew?

It depends on what level of support your lapsed donor used to give. If they were one of your major donors then your strategy should be more personal than a letter. However, whether you write or meet with the candidate in person, here are some practical tips to keep in mind:

  • Segment your database into groups of 12-, 24-, and 36-month lapsed donors so you can customize each appeal. In the future, stay on top of your correspondence with these individuals so that, ideally, they never reach three years without a gift.
  • Do your homework and know their history: how long have they been a donor; what did they support in the past and how much have they given over the course of their relationship with your charity; what was their giving pattern and how has it changed; and when was their last gift?
  • Personalize your conversation.
  • Ask them what motivated their first investment in your charity and whether they have been offended in any way. Or simply ask, “How can we improve our donor relations?”
  • Don’t get defensive – listen intently and acknowledge their response to your inquiry.
  • Thank them for their honest feedback and demonstrate your willingness to correct any error your department or charity may have made. If their demands for recognition are unreasonable, this is where board policies are vital – the integrity of your brand is always a priority over potential (or publically perceived) “bribes”.
  • Update them on the good things your organization is accomplishing with the generosity of (ethically-motivated) donors like them.
  • Tell them you miss them.
  • Invite them to come back.
  • Specify “your last gift in (what year) helped us accomplish..." Explain your mission-related priorities and how the donor has made a difference to those you serve.

What’s the likelihood they’ll renew?

The longer the donor has gone without sending a gift, the less likely it is that you’ll receive their ongoing support. That’s all the more reason for your fundraising department to track your LYBUNTS and SYBUNTS diligently and have a clear strategy to reconnect. Don’t underestimate the value of board contact, particularly if this is a major donor. Peer to peer solicitation is important to many people. See whether there is any “linkage” within your leadership team or at least choose an effective canvasser from your board who is willing to reengage the donor.

Segmenting those who have lapsed within your database will help you prioritize. With limited time, decide where to focus your energy. Individuals who had a track record of at least three gifts at $25 and up will be more likely to renew than the one-time $10 responder. In next month’s article we will discuss this topic further and also cover lapsed monthly donors (which is somewhat of a contradiction of terms, considering our above-mentioned definitions.) Stay tuned!

In the meantime, for more information see: Ten Simple Tips to Renew Donors by Dec. 31 and Making Your List and Checking it Twice.

Cynthia Armour is a freelance specialist in fundraising and governance. A Certified FundRaising Executive (CFRE) since 1995, she volunteers as a subject matter expert with CFRE International. She works with boards and senior staff to ensure that strong leadership will enhance organizational capacity to govern and fundraise effectively. Contact Cynthia directly at 705-799-0636, email, follow her on Twitter at @CynthiaJArmour, or visit for more information about her services.

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