Our lapsed donors, because they’ve already demonstrated they care about our mission, are clearly worthy of some significant effort and attention.
Yet many nonprofits do nothing more than mail the same letters and newsletters that everyone else gets, cross their fingers, and hope for the best.
If you attempt only one new thing for your annual fundraising this year, developing thoughtful, intentional ways to get your lapsed donors back will provide a great return on investment.
Follow these steps to get your lapsed donor re-engagement plan underway.
Who are your lapsed donors?
At first glance, the term “lapsed donor” seems self-explanatory. In practice though, the definition of lapsed can vary from organization-to-organization and from person-to-person, often leading to inconsistency and confusion.
Your very first step in creating a lapsed donor re-engagement plan is to establish a written consensus for when a donor is actually considered lapsed. You’ll also define the point at which a “lapsed donor” becomes a “former donor.”
So how should you define a lapsed donor?
I recommend you give your donors at least an entire calendar year before they are considered lapsed. This makes sense particularly for the many donors who give at the end of each calendar year. If a donor gave in December 2013, they shouldn’t be considered “lapsed” (or heaven forbid a “lybunt’) in August of 2014.
First-time donors who have not yet made a second gift should not be considered lapsed under this definition. Rather, they are “one-gift” donors, who should be included instead in an donor conversion effort.
Some organizations consider a donor lapsed at exactly 13 months (and sometimes 6 or 9 months) past their last gift date. While this makes sense on a theoretical level, I personally find the management and evaluation of renewal activities much more complicated when donors are lapsing every month. But if this system works best for your organization, then go for it.
The most important thing is to have a consistent definition of a lapsed donor along with manageable, repeatable processes in place to encourage renewals.
Identify and contact your recently lapsed donors
Now that you know who your lapsed donors are, you’ll want to identify the ones who are the most recently lapsed. Typically, this includes donors whose last gift was 2 years prior. For example, 2020 recently lapsed donors made their last gift at some point in 2018.
Ideally in the first or second quarter of the calendar year, send your recently lapsed donors a targeted appeal, written specifically for them. Your intention is to gently nudge those who may have simply forgotten to contribute or whose financial situation may be more conducive to a gift at this point.
What should you say in your lapsed donor letter?
Your objective is to communicate that your mission depends on their support. You notice that they have been a loyal partner in your mission and you notice their gift was missing. Their support does truly matter.
Identify and contact your VIP lapsed donors
Because we realistically can’t focus on every one of our lapsed donors, we need to spend our time and money reengaging donors who have already demonstrated a strong affinity for our mission. We need systems in place to define and identify donors who are most likely to renew if given some extra attention.
These are the donors you really don’t want to lose. You need to work harder to get them back.
As you did with general lapsed donors, you’ll first need to establish criteria for your VIP lapsed donor segment. Start by looking at these parameters:
- Cumulative giving amounts
- Number of years of giving (3 to 5+ years)
- Personal connections to your organization (former board members, volunteers, family of someone your organization helped, etc…)
As you work through this process, make sure you end up with a manageable number of donors that fall under the parameters you select. You may have to adjust your cutoff for total giving or years of giving, for example.
What do you do with these donors? Think through new ways to reach out to them on a more personal level. What haven’t you tried yet?
- Invite them to a (cultivation-only) breakfast event where you’ll simply update them on your work.
- Have board members write handwritten notes of thanks.
- Email them personally with an update on a recent project or program. Ask if they are interested in supporting this particular program.
- Conduct a phone-survey about what compelled or prompted your donors to support your mission originally. Ask what might compel them to continue their support.
While you’ll want to try a variety of activities, reaching out to your VIP lapsed donors needs to become a routine annual activity. You’ll need to record, track, and measure every activity you try and determine what works best.
What not to do with lapsed donors
Do not attempt to “recapture” your lapsed donors. Your donors are not wild animals on the loose. No one wants to be captured. This is internal industry jargon that really needs to become extinct. Instead, when we refer to our lapsed donors let’s talk about reengaging them in our mission or earning their continued support.
Please drop the terms “Lybunt” and “Sybunt” from your organizational jargon. Just in case these terms are new to you, “lybunt” is an acronym for “last year but unfortunately not this year.” This label is a relative term and usually confusing and irrelevant. A donor who gave in the prior year but hasn’t given yet this calendar year should be considered a current donor in good standing! There is nothing “unfortunate” about this.
Similarly, the term “sybunt” (some years but unfortunately not this year) is also often irrelevant. It matters specifically which years and how many years they gave. Lumping them in to “some years” just isn’t helpful. A donor who gave “some years” in 2014, 2015, and 2016, but not “this year” in 2020, is not as important as a donor who gave in 2018 and 2019, but not 2020.
Don’t keep them on your list forever. After several years as a lapsed donor with no response, a lapsed donor becomes a former donor.
One of the most important things you can do for your nonprofit’s donor retention is to develop a lapsed donor re-engagement system. Through a consistent, well-defined and personalized series of activities that you implement and test annually, you’ll keep your donors engaged and giving.