Lapsed Donors: How to Write a Fundraising Letter That Wins Them Back
Our definition may differ, but I define a lapsed donor as someone who has not donated to your organization within the last year, two years or three years. Donors who have not sent you a gift in over three years are not lapsed donors. They are former donors.
Lapsed donors are valuable. Unlike strangers, they have supported you before. And they believe in your mission enough to have sent you a gift (or gifts). That means they are worth mailing to. You can expect to receive an 11 percent response rate from a mailing to lapsed donors if your results are typical, says fundraising expert Kent Dove (Conducting a Successful Fundraising Program. Jossey-Bass, 2001).
Here are some tips on writing an appeal letter that will win them back. In the fund development profession, the letter you write is called a recovery letter because it aims to recover donors who have lapsed.
1. Write to one person
You will likely not know why each donor has lapsed. Donors stop giving for any number of reasons. Some forget. Some lose interest. Some get distracted with the arrival of children—or grandchildren. Others decide they do not like your new executive director’s ties. Each donor is an individual, and the way to win each one back is to send a warm, sincere, personal letter from your heart to theirs.
2. Say “we miss you”
What you are trying to communicate in your letter is that you miss the donor more than their donations, which should always be true. You have lost a supporter first, and a source of support second. So write your letter in such a way that you show your concern for the person. Here are some lines to use:
- We have not heard from you since March 2004. We miss you! We are counting on your renewed support this year for . . .
- We miss you. We miss your moral support, and we miss your financial support.
- We sure have missed hearing from you these last few years.
3. Invite the donor to come back
Provide a tangible way for the donor to renew support. Ask for a gift toward a particular project. Offer a subscription to your free newsletter. Do something to involve the donor and make them take action.
4. Customize your appeal
Whenever possible, customize your recovery letter to the unique circumstances of each lapsed donor. For example, if you know from your database that a donor only sent a gift once a year at Christmas, mention that in your letter. Or if another donor supported only one area of your work, mention that. The more that your letter appeals to the interests of your donors, the more likely you are to recover them. Here’s an example:
“The last time we heard from you, you had generously responded to the humanitarian crisis in Honduras. You sent us a gift that helped us meet the immediate needs of that emergency. Today, I am writing to you because I think you can help us overcome another crisis.”
5. Match your language to the length of lapse
Statistically speaking, the longer you’ve had to wait for a gift, the less likely you are to receive one. That means you should segment your database into groups of 12-, 24- and 36-month lapsed donors (or another criteria that you use), and send each group a slightly different appeal. To a donor who has not given in a year, for example, you can say, “We miss you.” To the donor who has not sent a gift in three years, you can say, “You have supported us in the past. Your gifts made a difference. I urge you to renew your commitment by sending a gift today.” The idea is to be casual with the new lapsed donors and progressively more vigorous with donors who have not given in two or more years. Some examples:
“Your financial support in 2001 made a difference. Your gift at the end of this year will have a positive impact on the people, which in turn will lead to better health, hope and confidence for humanity.”
“Your financial support in recent years was a great help to us. Now I’d like you to renew your support by joining with me and the volunteers at . . .”
“We have not heard from you for quite sometime and yet your past support has made a difference for populations in danger. I think you can help us overcome this crisis.”
6. Tailor your ask
Some of your lapsed donors will have given once and never again. Others will have given faithfully each month for years. Each donor demands a different letter. The more faithful your donor has been, the more that donor requires a personalized letter with a personalized ask amount. In other words, don’t take the easy way out and ask a one-time donor and a 10-year supporter for the same amount, treating each one the same way. You could ask the one-time donor for a gift that’s the same size as their last one. And you could ask the long-time supporter for a gift that’s the same size as their smallest one, or their average gift over time, or their last one, and so on. I’ll leave the decision to you.
7. Win back their hearts and minds
Lapsed donors need to be persuaded again to support your mission. You’ll need to re-state your case for support, and address any reasons you know of for donors stopping their support.
The two most important things to say in a recovery letter are that you miss the donor and that their support made a big difference in the lives of the people your organization serves. “A carefully crafted appeal that lets past donors know they are important, appreciated and missed almost always produces a net income,” says Stanley Weinstein (The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management).
© 2005 Sharpe Copy Inc. You may reprint this article online and in print provided the links remain live and the content remains unaltered (including the "About the author" message).
Alan Sharpe is a professional fundraising letter writer who helps non-profits raise funds, build relationships and retain loyal donors using creative fundraising letters. Learn more about his services, view free sample fundraising letters, and sign up for free weekly tips like this at http://www.fundraisingletters.org.
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