Effective Strategies for Recovering Lapsed Donors
by Mike Montalto
August 30, 2018

Do you think your nonprofit can get by without focusing on recovering lapsed donors? Think again! According to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project’s (FEP) 2018 report, every 100 new and recaptured donors were offset by 99 lost donors.

How can nonprofits overcome this trend? In addition to making every effort to ensure your current donors are ready to give the next time an opportunity arises, you also need to make recovering lapsed donors a priority.

In general, nonprofits are faring better in terms of retaining donors. According to the FEP report, the average donor retention rate has recovered from a low of just 40.5 percent in 2009 and has hovered around 45 percent since.

However, nonprofits still lost $96 from downgraded and lapsed gifts for every $100 gained from new, upgraded, and recovered gifts, according to the report. If your nonprofit is missing out on donations, we suggest utilizing the following strategies to help with recovering lapsed donors.

Who Are Your Lapsed Donors?

The first step is to examine the differences between your lapsed donors, and donors who continue to give year after year. Are there any characteristics consistent among your current donor base that you lapsed donors don’t have?

Maybe some of those lapsed donors weren’t people you should have been focusing on in the first place. Consider focusing on recovering lapsed donors with similar traits, goals, and motives as your organization. They will be more likely to return and to then make repeat gifts.

Have you run A/B tests during past fundraising campaigns? It’s very possible that one of your messages was more effective in inspiring donors to continue giving. Consider reaching out to donors who received the less effective appeal with your message that resonated better with other donors.

A word of warning, it will be much harder to draw conclusions based on this information if you have poor data hygiene. Be sure that you continue updating information for recently lapsed donors. Otherwise you will have a much tougher time creating relevant materials or even getting in touch when you attempt to recapture them.

Be Sure to Get Personal

Speaking of relevant communications, your lapsed donors will be much more excited to hear from you if they receive something that feels unique and personal to them when you reach out again. Remember, this is someone who gave to your organization in the past, someone you had a relationship with. Think of lapsed donor outreach as reaching out to an old friend.

Since you are reaching out to an old friend, your message should demonstrate that you really know them. Consider sending a handwritten note to really give your communications that personal touch. You can also attach a sticky note to the appeal with a short “we miss you” message. If you are trying to recapture a high-level donor, take the time to call them or even meet in person.

No matter how you make contact, you can reference specific programs they’ve supported in the past and share pictures that demonstrate the impact of prior gifts. Do your friend a favor and include a prepaid reply envelope in direct mail appeals so it’s easier for them to give.

What Does a Lapsed Donor Want to Hear?

Appeals to lapsed donors should be casual, concise, and remind the reader of the impact their support made in the past. Even if they haven’t given in a while, be sure to thank them for their past support. Remind them they can still make a difference by renewing their gift.

The language you use can have a tremendous impact when recovering lapsed donors. For example, we found the call to action, “renew your gift,” is three times more effective in generating clicks than the standard “make a gift now.” Why is this the case? “Renew your gift” acknowledges that a donor has given in the past, which adds an extra personal touch.

A Three-Part Message

There are three key points that should be part of your message when you reach out to lapsed donors.

1. “Thank you for your past support, we miss you!”

You don’t want lapsed donors to feel like they are receiving the same appeal as other donors on your list. Your communications need to feel relevant. The simplest way to do that is by thanking them for their gift of $X two or three years ago. Let them know the impact that gift made and that you miss their active presence as a member of your community.

2. “Here’s all the great work that we’ve been up to.”

Since you’ve already reminded them of their last gift’s impact, you can now talk about everything you’ve accomplished since then. The idea is to get them thinking, “Wow, this organization has been doing a lot of great work! I bet they could have accomplished even more if I had continued giving.”

3. “You can still make a difference, please consider renewing your gift.”

There are few things more powerful than a perfectly timed ask. The goal is to have the lapsed donor reach the ask right as they were wondering how much more your organization could have accomplished had they continued giving.

Other Ideas for Recovering Lapsed Donors

When recovering lapsed donors, the goal is to secure a donation. This is not the time to persuade them to upgrade their gift from three years ago. The dollar amount of their contribution is not as important right now. Consider using an ask string that places their last gift on the higher end. Lowering the bar might be enough to push a hesitant donor over the edge.

You can also experiment with some out-of-the-box ways to generate excitement among your lapsed donors. Can you incorporate a giveaway or competition into your lapsed donor appeal strategy? For example, if your nonprofit works to preserve nature, send lapsed donors who renew their gift a butterfly pendant, as a symbol of the donor/organization relationship’s new beginning.

Of course, the best strategy would be to have as few lapsed donors to worry about in the first place. This is why a strong stewardship program is essential for nonprofits. You want to communicate with donors regularly to keep them in mind and avoid making ask after ask.

Like what you see? Stay in touch!