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Strategies To Retain Recently Lapsed Nonprofit Donors

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In article #1 of this four-part series on donor retention and gratitude we discussed the benefits of thanking donors in a manner that resonates with them personally. In article #2 we looked at what will make your thank you stand out. In article #3 we looked at how donor retention strategies vary by different donor categories and segments, and specifically focused on renewing first-time donors. Today we’ll look at strategies for lapsed donor renewal. Because if you (or your predecessors) haven’t assiduously followed all the donor retention strategies discussed in the first three articles in this series, you’re going to have a bunch of lapsed donors.

Don’t despair! You can win some of them back.

But, just like with all categories of donors, so-called lapsed donors are not created equal.

  • Donors who gave last year for the first time, but not yet this year, are very warm. That’s why they deserve their own renewal strategy (covered in article #3)
  • Donors who gave sometime in the past two to three years are warm. This is especially the case if they’ve given more than once or have made recurring gifts over the course of the year.
  • Donors who’ve not given more recently than two to three years ago are tepid. You’ll get a slightly higher return than with cold prospects, but not much.

Long-lapsed givers are not lapsed; they’re former donors. When it comes to securing another outright gift from them, you have to treat them, more or less, as brand new prospects. [Note this is not the case when it comes to securing a deferred gift such as a bequest. You may wish to keep some of these folks on your mailing list to receive limited communications, especially if they’ve received a rating as “Planned Gift Likelihood” in your own or purchased donor analytics].

Recently Lapsed Donors are More Warm than Cold

Unlike ‘cold’ prospects who’ve never supported you, from whom you can expect anywhere from a 0.5% to a 2% return, recently lapsed donors have already demonstrated enough of a belief in your mission to have sent you a gift (or gifts). Per fundraising expert Kent Dove (Conducting a Successful Fundraising Program) charities typically can expect to receive an 11% response rate from a mailing to lapsed donors. So, not as “hot” as some prospects, but… they’re too valuable to let them fade away without making a concerted effort to win them back.

In fact, in my experience working in the trenches for three decades, I’ve found many such “lapsed” donors had no idea they’d lapsed. Some don’t remember they ever gave to you, and need to be reminded of their past generosity (which should make them feel good). Others just got busy, or distracted, or simply thought they’d written a check they never quite got around to writing. Many donors don’t fail to renew intentionally.  

Give Recently Lapsed Donors the Benefit of the Doubt

Assume they have the best of intentions. I find when you treat folks as if they’re generous, well-meaning and caring this often serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell them they haven’t renewed yet and you miss them. Give them an easy way to make their gift. You’ll be surprised how many will follow through and renew.


  1. Send a “We miss you” letter or email (depending on how they gave to you) reminding them of the impact of their past giving. Come from the perspective of assuming their good intentions and understanding how easy it is to simply forget. You may want to match your language to the length of time it’s been since they last gave. A “We miss you” sounds genuine for someone who’s lapsed within a relatively recent time frame (say 18 months or so). For someone who last gave three years ago you might try “Your past support meant the world to those who rely on us for support. Your continued commitment today will be put to work immediately to….”
  2. Note in your letter how much they gave last year; remind your donor they already made the decision to support you (people are inclined to repeat their past behaviors).
  3. Follow up with a phone call; let them know you’ve missed their gift, and ask if there’s a reason they haven’t renewed. Make it easy and convenient for them to renew by credit card right now.
  4. Follow up your phone call with a hand-written note thanking them for their time and giving them the opportunity to give if they did not choose to do so over the phone.
  5. Simultaneously invite your donor to become further engaged in some way that do not require a monetary gift. This demonstrates you care about them for more than their wallet.
  6. As a last ditch effort, send a brief personal note from someone who is perceived as a VIP (i.e. your E.D. or Board President) letting the donor know how much they are missed (I used to put a little sticker of a finger with a red string tied around it on the outer envelope to make it look like a gentle reminder to do something they, no doubt, intended to do; these letters had an extraordinarily high rate of return).
  7. If they still do not renew, include them in your next donor acquisition mailing.

Find Out Why Your Donors Leave

All of the primary reasons donors leave are related to poor communication – both in terms of quality and amount – and the reasons are similar to why friendships frizzle and evaporate. You get busy; forget to call or write… even stop thinking about each other.

If you can figure out why your donors are failing to give again you stand a much better chance of renewing them than if you simply guess.


  1. Send a brief survey to lapsed donors. You can ask “why did you stop giving?” or “What could we have done better?” Use the responses to improve your fundraising and marketing communications efforts moving forward.
  2. Invest in NCOA (National Change of Address). 17% of the U.S. population moves every year. And they often don’t move far away. But if you don’t know where they went, you’ll inevitably lose touch with them.
  3. Invest in a deceased suppression process. According to one study, 16% of donors lapsed because they passed away. If you learn this is why your donor stopped giving, you can remove them from your database with full peace of mind. And if there are surviving family members, you can (1) offer your condolences (which is an effective stewardship opportunity), and (2) stop annoying them by continuing to address appeals and donor communications to their dearly departed loved one.

Don’t give up on folks who’ve supported you in the recent past! When you make an effort to let past donors know they’re important, appreciated and missed, you’ll be pleasantly pleased at the return on your investment.

Make Yourself a Road Map. Follow it!

Donor Retention Has an Important Purpose

Remember, your whole point of securing a donor is maximizing their lifetime value.

Your donor’s point is different, and varies.

  • Donors seek family, community and belonging.
  • Donors seek a greater purpose.
  • Donors seek to identify with the highest version of themselves.
  • Donors want to love the person they look at in the mirror.

Whether you’re dealing with a prospective, new, ongoing or lapsed donor, never forget your purpose, and theirs.

  • Your constituents love you, because you did something for them (or someone they know) or you helped them do something for someone else. Remind them.
  • Your constituents need you, because you bring meaning to their lives. Reward them.
  • Your constituents want to be part of a vision that’s larger than what you do. A vision that speaks to the values you enact. The values that align with theirs. Show them you’re a perfect match.

To paraphrase Lewis Carroll in “Through the Looking Glass,” If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll very likely get there. Your job is to facilitate your donor’s philanthropic journey so both they, and you, get to the happy ending you seek.

lapsed nonprofit donors

Donors deserve, and want, more than a one-time, pro forma receipt. They want to know how you value them and how their gift will add value to your mission. They want to feel they made a great decision in giving to you. And they want to keep feeling the warm glow they felt when they acted with caring and generosity.

Different donor segments may warrant slightly different road maps. Major donors will require more touches than smaller donors, for example. Ongoing donors will require different touches than brand new donors. So tweak your strategies accordingly.

Don’t forget donor gratitude needs to be repeated in order to be meaningful.  Ensure your Donor Love & Loyalty Plan includes multiple touch points throughout the course of the year. If donors hear from you only once, they won’t be ready for an ask when you make one. So you’ll likely not find the treasure you seek.

People will continue to give when they feel doing so is a genuine expression of who they are. Help donors channel their values in a positive, expressive direction.

Your road map will guide you towards building the long-term relationships that are essential to sustainable fundraising.

Want more specifics?  You’re in luck!

1. Grab a complimentary guide to winning back lapsed donors here.

2. Read the entirety of this four-part series on donor gratitude and retention to get more actionable tips to help you build and sustain your base of individual supporters.

The Fundraiser’s Guide to Re-Engaging Lapsed Donors

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