Lapsed-donor gold: The evidence

Notably re-quotable

“If you share something with me and I’m cruel, it’s very clear that I’ve been terrible, right? But what we really have to watch out for are the near enemies — the emotions and qualities that masquerade as the virtue we’re seeking but [that] actually undermine it.” ~ Brené Brown, speaking to Sarah Lawson in The New Yorker. Dr. Brown’s newest book, Atlas of the Heart, is already a best-seller, for release on Nov. 30, 2021. Photo: Dr. Brown and a famous admirer.

File this under:

We [heart] “lapsed” donors

They’re Alive!

Your lapsed donors might prove more responsive than first-time donors

The evidence you will read below emerged recently from one of the fastest growing states in America. I won’t name the state, since I promised my source that I would “anonymize” the data.

I can, though, say that this latest evidence is from a faith-based charity. I won’t name which faith … except to hint: it’s a faith that’s been around a very, very, very long time. And it’s BIG.

If you’re thinking “oh, heck, that’s got to be a Catholic charity somewhere in Texas” … sorry, I can neither confirm nor deny.

Finally: this evidence is fresh, not stale. It’s from mid-pandemic 2021.

And just what does this fresh evidence show, anecdotally?

That so-called “lapsed” donors can be a relative gold mine, compared to the yield you might get from new, first-time donors.


Did a Bit-O-Ahern advice lead to record results?

Earlier this year, a certain anonymous director of development emailed me:

“You helped us once before re: our current-donor appeals, and we’ve been able to make great improvements in our performance. We were averaging about $87K an appeal … and now we are up to $102K an appeal! Last year we raised a record $1.4 million from direct mail – generally $500-$600K comes from the [year-end] appeal.”

“YAY!!!” And by the way I take NO credit. How YOU execute is what matters most … and good execution is HARD. This director of development had obviously executed extremely well.

But that wasn’t why she/he/they were emailing me again. Now they had a different problem to solve.

Acquisition was not going well. “I still struggle. And I hope you have some ideas.”


“Let’s review your OE”

With acquisition direct mail (DM), the outbound envelope (OE) is a choke point.

After all, it’s the first thing recipients see, right? It’s where the critical decision to open or discard is made.

Here’s my promise to you: if that envelope has a teaser … and that teaser doesn’t somehow speak to the heart of the person viewing it … your appeal will die instantly, without a moment’s remorse.

Because this is truth at the mailbox: Most people gladly and with satisfaction throw away most of their DM most of the time.*

Where were we? Oh, yes. Well, the teaser on the acquisition appeal OE I was being asked to review had remained the same for three years.

Let me put that another way: HAD REMAINED THE SAME FOR 3 BLOODY YEARS. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” as Einstein is said to have said.

More damning: The same OE teaser for three years was about the organization … and how the organization helped and provided hope. The teaser was NOT about the prospective donor … and how she might provide help and hope.

So I replied:

You’re probably familiar with Occam’s razor, a principle in logic/philosophy/science which basically says: The simplest theory is probably the right one.


The simplest theory I have, looking at your results and now seeing your outbound envelope, is that this direct mail pack failed at the mailbox 3 years in a row. I.e., a vast % of these envelopes never even got opened, hence your low response rates.


You have 3 seconds to connect with me emotionally (that’s science, not opinion)

A lousy OE teaser … one that fails to connect emotionally … one that’s rubber-stamped and committee-approved … one that reads like it came from some “bland enough to please everyone” bin … well, that will just hasten your appeal’s demise.

On the other hand, an intriguing, engaging, unexpected envelope teaser can make a real difference to your DM opening rates.

For your consideration, here are a couple of teasers that worked…

In his storied career, super-achieving political-activist and DM living legend, Roger Craver, has written very few envelope teasers. BUT this particular emotionally-charged one from Roger’s pen brought in legions of fresh and enraged support:

    Sue the bastards.

Then there’s this OE teaser, used by Catholic Relief Services (CRS):

    Follow in the footsteps of your faith.

This happy ending is about lapsed donors

Just last week, this same certain anonymous director of development emailed me an update re: what happened when she/he/they revised their acquisition appeal….

Okay Tom, I admit it, I cheated a bit. He went on to say…

Thanks for your feedback a few months ago on our acquisition appeals. We did our best to incorporate your ideas. Among other things, some of the changes we made were:

We loved the idea of Following the Footsteps of Your Faith, so we incorporated it on the outside envelope. “Will you follow the footsteps of your faith?” We also included an expanded version at the top of the page and in the body of the letter.

The pictures on the top of the page now all make eye contact with the reader

We put a clear offer in the letter — For $24.12, you can feed a family for a day

Made the need more urgent — don’t delay … you can make a difference right here, right now

PS has more urgency

Added a graphic that shows the impact of the donor’s gift

And here’s how I cheated.

They always say that your best prospects are already in your database, so I made this a long-lapsed donor appeal. Many of them had given so long ago — 20 years was not uncommon — that they surely didn’t remember doing so. I sent the letter to anyone who lived in our area, but had not made a gift in more than six years. 


I thought our goals were reasonable: 1% return (67.88 donors) and to raise $6,788.

But results were much better than expected:
123 donors responded (1.81%) and contributed $10,200.  


Now, I’m sure there are things that we could do better, but not a bad start. 

Thanks for your help!  I couldn’t have done it without you.


* This is why writing direct mail still terrifies me ... even after years of training and decent-to-sometimes-great results. The mailbox is a tough, unforgiving, even hostile neighborhood. It’s easy to fail there. It’s super-hard to succeed there. It’s also why the mailbox is the best school you can attend for donor communications. If you can succeed there, you can succeed anywhere.

# # #

The Giving Tuesday template kits

HERE. DonorPerfect just did every charity a BIG favor. DonorPerfect has published TWO free, downloadable, easy-to-follow primers on how to promote Giving Tuesday (Nov. 30, 2021) ... and how to build a relationship with any new donors you might acquire. And you know what else? Use Giving Tuesday and these templates as just a good excuse to upgrade your ENTIRE email communications program ... because these templates and approaches are useful all year round, every time you campaign!

Free (and fascinating) stock photos

HERE. HT to the Resource Alliance for introducing me to Pexels. “Founded in 2014, Pexels hosts a library of millions of high quality stock photos and videos you can use everywhere. The content is royalty-free and copyright-free so you can use it in designs, presentations, ads, etc., without worrying about your budget or your legal obligations.” ANOTHER source of royalty-free imagery suggested by the Resource Alliance? Pixabay.

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HERE. Lauren Steiner, JD, founder and president of Grants Plus (the best grants agency I know in the U.S.) makes no bones about it: she’s hunting talent. In her words: “This year, we’ve added full-time staff in St. Louis, Knoxville, Ann Arbor, and elsewhere ... and we continue to grow. We are actively reviewing applications and interviewing to hire NOW.” Grants Plus needs both grant writers and foundation-relationship specialists. As an employer, Grants Plus has won numerous awards, including a national one for being a Psychologically Healthy Workplace. The team there is diverse.

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Nudging more new donors to give monthly

HERE. This is another one of those “just got off the phone” things. This time I spoke with Jon Roitman, an account executive at Harness Technologies, which self-describes as “the Nonprofit industry leader in Recurring Giving and Donor Experience Automation.” Translation?A Harness-produced giving page will persuade a lot more of your first-time donors to choose monthly giving instead of a “mere” one-time gift. Is that good for your org.?Big time! Monthly giving instantly solves the single most persistent, most perplexing problem in donor acquisition: the well-documented fact that 70-80% of your first-time donors will NOTmake a second gift to your charity. YIKES!!! You can download an overview PDF here. You can view a demo here. Here, you can book a personal demo with Jon Roitman (recommended). If you book a meeting with Jon, I’m told you can receive Harness free until the new year. Again, this is not an ad; no $$$ was or will be exchanged. Knowing how important monthly giving is to NGO sustainability, I was simply impressed by Harness. P.S.: Harness helps raise a ton of millennial giving for their clients. And Harness easily integrates with popular CRMs such as Bloomerang, DonorPerfect and Salesforce.