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From Lost To Loved: Turning Lapsed Donors Into Devoted Donors

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Every nonprofit worries about them. Laments them. Broods over them. They hang over us like a persistent shadow. The looming storm cloud in the far distance. A tangled web of worry and loss.

Who am I talking about? Your lapsed donors.

The ones who left you, and you don’t know why. Perhaps so much time has passed that you may be scared to reach out to them—or worse—ask why they left.

Could your nonprofit have done something to drive them away? Perhaps they had a falling out with one of your predecessors or a board member. Maybe they don’t remember giving to you in the first place.

Odds are, they plain forgot they gave to us; frankly, that’s our cross to bear. We have to make the experience a memorable one they’d like to repeat.

But how do we make it memorable? By thanking them quickly and personally, communicating impact, and sharing success stories.

This timeline offers a clear road map to prevent lapsed donors:

What makes donors lapse?

Before we talk about how to win them back, you need to consider why they left. Research tells us there are eight reasons donors quit1:

  • 5% Think the charity doesn’t need them
  • 8% Received no information on how organization used contributions
  • 9% Have no memory of supporting the organization
  • 13% Never got thanked for donating
  • 16% Died
  • 18% Received poor service or communication
  • 36% Found others more deserving
  • 54% Could no longer afford

Roger Craver argues in his book Retention Fundraising that aside from death and personal finances, every one of the reasons donors stay or go is within your organization’s control. The minute you understand and act on this, your retention rates will rise.

How lapsed is “lapsed”?

The second thing you must know is what defines a lapsed donor. The simple definition of a lapsed donor is someone who hasn’t given in a certain amount of time. For many nonprofits, that period is 12 months, but for others, that term is 18 months. These are considered to be “recently lapsed” donors.

The terms “LYBUNT” and “SYBUNT” are often used to segment communications to donors that have given before but not within the current calendar/fiscal year. LYBUNT stands for “last year but unfortunately not this year,” and SYBUNT stands for “some year but unfortunately not this year.”

Do donors realize they’ve lapsed?

It’s worth noting that a recent study by Philanthropy Daily found that 49% of lapsed donors who hadn’t made a gift in at least two years believe themselves to be current donors.

How valuable are recently lapsed donors?

Lapsed donors are more likely to respond than individuals with no prior relationship to your organization. According to Roger Craver, you have a 20%-40% chance of obtaining a gift from a recently lapsed donor. That means regaining lapsed donors is more cost-effective than acquiring new ones.

Recently lapsed versus deeply lapsed

Deeply lapsed (or “long lapsed”) donors haven’t given in two or more years.

These long-lapsed givers are no longer lapsed; they’re former donors.

To secure another outright gift from them, you have to treat them, more or less, as brand-new prospects. You have a 2.2% chance of getting a deeply lapsed donor back.

Should I keep deeply lapsed donors in my communication stream?

You need to age-stratify your list and keep older lapsed donors in your communication stream.

The hidden gold mine of deeply lapsed donors

A certain group of lapsed donors should ALWAYS receive your fundraising materials. Do not segment them out of your communications just because they’ve stopped giving.

These are your older donors. These donors have likely stopped volunteering and also stopped giving. They could be in their 70s or 80s.

According to the world’s leading expert on planned giving, Dr. Russell James, data shows that 78% of Will documents that transfer dollars to charity tend to be signed by people in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. (Wondering if wealthy people live longer? They do! In one Harvard Study, 10-15 years longer.)

Stop communicating with these folks, and you’re almost guaranteed to lose out on planned gifts, even if they’re part of your legacy society. Bottom line: stay with it! If you stop communicating with a donor in their last five years of life, or at minimum, the last two, the loss rate of their planned gifts goes to 50%.

How you SHOULD NOT communicate with lapsed donors

Stop sending reinstatement and member renewal mailings to lapsed donors on auto-pilot. If you work with an agency, ask them why they’re reusing the same pack and demand to see the results it’s bringing in.

Rather than sending a member renewal to lapsed donors with a 20+ year history of gifts, The Audubon Society of Rhode Island gave these long-time members a free one-year membership. Since they started this program, 50% of those who’d lapsed have renewed their memberships, and 25% have upgraded their giving.

What to say to win them back: be heartfelt and personal

The key to winning them back is making them feel special, valued, and important. All it takes is a note of thanks. Our letter should thank them for their last gift and remind them of the impact they made.

Here’s a sample:

Dear [donor first name],

I’ve been thinking about you and wondering how you are.

It’s been a while since we heard from you, and I just wanted to check in.

I’m not coming to you today to ask for a gift.

(Of course, if you wanted to help us, we would greatly appreciate it and put your gift to immediate work helping [insert target beneficiary here]).

I only want to tell you that I’m thinking about you, (donor first name).

I know how much you care about (insert mission here).

As you go about your day, today and every day, I hope you feel joy in your heart. Joy in knowing that you matter. That your compassion saves lives and supports (insert mission here). That you, (donor first name), inspire me and our team at the (name of org) to keep fighting the good fight advocating for (target beneficiaries).

Thank you for being a part of our family, (donor first name).

Your fan,


P.S. I’m always here for you. You can find me at (insert email address) or [insert phone here] (when I’m not (description of some awesome mission activity), of course!

This lapsed donor letter that Ontario Nature mailed to Pamela Grow is another excellent example of a thoughtful, compassionate lapsed donor letter.

Which lapsed donors should I prioritize?

  • Monthly donors. If you have a monthly giving program (which I sincerely hope you do!) with lapsed donors whose credit cards have expired, you must address this immediately. Platforms like Bloomerang include a payment processor that automatically updates expired cards. If you don’t have a credit card updater service, run a report and set automated emails to go out to donors to update their payment information, ideally online if they can. If they don’t update their card, pick up the phone to call and ask.
  • Donors with 2+ gifts who have given in 2 consecutive years or more
  • Older donors 

Successful package formats recommended by Mary Bogucki, vice president at Amergent, typically include the following components:

  • A laser automated card format with handwriting or a handwritten font
  • Handwriting or a handwritten font on the outside envelope
  • A handwritten font on the reply envelope
  • First-class postage on outgoing and return envelopes
  • A message that lets lapsed donors know you miss their support and hope they’re well

Mary also recommends asking for the last gift and using a ‘friends for life’ approach, as in, “I don’t expect you can help us year in and year out. Perhaps today is one of those days that you can help us.”

My lapsed donor came back! Should I send them my usual thank you?

No! Acknowledge and celebrate their return. Let them know they were missed! Check out this great lapsed donor thank you card from the University of Tennessee:

Re-engaging lapsed donors is more than a task; it’s an opportunity to strengthen the foundation of our nonprofit community. By understanding the reasons behind their departure and addressing them directly, we can turn a moment of loss into a chance for renewal. Effective communication, heartfelt appreciation, and clear demonstration of impact are the keys to warming the hearts of those who’ve drifted away. As we reach out with sincerity and a personalized touch, we not only welcome back valuable supporters but also reignite their passion for our cause. This journey of reconnection revitalizes our donor pool and reinforces the bonds that drive our collective mission forward, transforming challenges into triumphs of community and shared purpose.

1Source: Center for Philanthropy, Indiana University and

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  • Kristen Hay

    Hi Moniqua - We just reuploaded the image in the article. You should be able to save and download it to your device.
  • Moniqa Paullet

    Do you have a legible or higher-resolution version of the New Donor Timeline image available?
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