Fire Up the Lapsed-Donor Reactivation Machine!

Hey, lapsed donors! Lady Antebellum isn’t the only one who “needs you now.”

Let’s face it — it costs a lot of money to acquire a new donor. So, it hurts (it ought to hurt a lot) when we lose one.

Most donors don’t set out to lapse. In fact, many don’t know they have lapsed. Some stopped giving because their income changed, they have new interests or you unintentionally irked them. But others will give again (and again) if you help them remember what made them support you in the first place.

A lapsed-donor renewal program doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. If you have the budget, predictive modeling can help you identify which of your lapsed donors are most likely to give again. But even without that tool, you can still reactivate a respectable percentage of your former supporters and be cost-effective about it.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Who is a lapsed donor? If your organization has a big event every two years, you might want to give a donor 24 months before you designate her “lapsed.” But for nonprofits that mail regularly, after 12 months of no activity, consider a donor lapsed.

Donors seldom keep track and know how long it has been since they last gave to your worthy cause. So, your job is to remind them gently — early and often. When nine months have passed without a donation (six months if the last donation was also the first and only one), it’s time to fire up the “lapsed-donor reactivation machine.”

Here’s a model for how your program might look:

  • Nine months since the last gift: A telephone call or a letter, mentioning that it’s been several months since you heard from them, but you know they will be interested in this special project. Ask for a specific dollar amount (no higher than their last gift) for a specific project.
  • A year since the last gift: Start using “lapsed language” in your direct mail. This isn’t over-the-top bashing, but occasional copy versioning: “We would love to welcome you back to our family of active supporters.” “We need your renewed support to continue this critical work.” Include lapsed versioning in every letter, if possible.
  • 13 months since the last gift: Send a special mailing that includes a letter referencing the fact that it’s been more than a year since you heard from them, and that concerns you. Also enclose a survey with just a few questions, including, “Can you tell us why you stopped giving?” List typical responses (too much mail, I lost your address, my giving priorities have changed, and — of course — “I didn’t realize it had been so long since I last gave”). You will be (pleasantly) surprised how many donors check the “I didn’t realize” option and enclose a donation with the reply card or slip and reply envelope you provided.
  • 16󈝾 months since the last gift: Another telephone call or mailing with a specific offer and an ask that is a slight downgrade from their last gift. (I confess I don’t like telephoning donors, but it can be very effective with lapsed donors — and what do you have to lose?)
  • 21 – 24 months since the last gift: One last telephone call or mailing with a matching gift offer and an ask that is a more significant downgrade from their last gift (“even $10 will help, and will be matched dollar for dollar …”).
  • 25+ months since the last gift: Continue to mail your appeals on occasion, focusing on mailing in months that typically have the highest return on investment. Use lapsed versioning in the copy. Send occasional planned-giving offers, especially if modeling or overlays indicate that the donor is older.

Most importantly, track your results and know when to quit. You don’t want to spend $15 over time to get a $10 gift from a donor who only gives to lapse another day.
Pamela Barden is the creative juice and the copywriting machine behind PJBarden, Inc. You can follow Pamela on Twitter @pjbarden.

Pamela consults with nonprofits in the United States and internationally, helping them develop their fundraising strategy and writing copy to achieve their goals. Additionally she teaches fundraising at two universities, hoping to inspire the next generation of fundraisers to be passionate about the profession. Previously, Pamela led the fundraising programs for nonprofit organizations, getting hands-on experience in everything from direct mail to DRTV, and major gift solicitation to event management. Pamela is a CFRE, a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) and Dominican University, and has a Doctorate in Business Administration from California Southern University. Contact Pamela at or follow her on Twitter at @pjbarden.

Related Content