What do you do with a lapsed donor?
When a donor does not give after a period of time, they become a ‘lapsed donor’. This period can vary from ministry to ministry, but typically a person who has not given in a year can be considered to have ‘lapsed’.
People stop donating for different reasons. One might have moved to a new area. Another might have lost their job. Perhaps you had a database error and they haven’t been getting your direct mail appeals. Or maybe a poorly worded political statement in your recent newsletter angered them. Other times people just get busy or forget to give.
Don’t take it personally!
Lapsed donors might make you feel rejected, but the examples above should show you that a lot of times it’s more about what’s going on in your donor’s lives than anything you’ve done. So do we put our tails between our legs and give up on lapsed donors? No, of course not! They have already demonstrated their willingness to support your ministry… You just need to find a way to reconnect with them.
Pay close attention to the way your lapsed donors made their last donation. Was it in response to an email, direct mail piece, or even an event? People are creatures of habit and are more likely to respond in a way that feels comfortable. That doesn’t mean that you should try different approaches, but a person who responded to emails in the first place is more likely to give in response to an e-mail than someone who has only ever given in response to direct mail.
The first thing you have to do with your lapsed donors is to build a list. Your donor database should have the ability to run reports for SYBUNTY (some year but not this year) and LYBUNTY (last year but not this year) donors. These two categories are important because a person who gave a year ago is more likely to give again than someone who hasn’t given in two or more years. That means you should invest more energy in your LYBUNTY’s than in your SYBUNTY’s… You’ll get a better return on time and money invested.
Plan Your Strategy
Your donor reactivation strategy should work on an annual schedule as part of your annual fund drive. You can be creative with how you approach it, but it should include a mix of e-mail, direct mail, and even phone calls. Many fundraisers report that a holiday season phone campaign to lapsed donors can do wonders.
Example lapsed donor calendar
- January: Letter to lapsed donors that missed the holiday giving season.
- March: Email with volunteer opportunity and donation request.
- June: Letter to lapsed donors about increased need in the summer.
- August: Invitation to your big annual BBQ event.
- October: Letter with impact story and ‘the holidays are our toughest time of year’.
- November – December: Volunteer assisted phone call campaign to lapsed donors.
You’ll see from this schedule that your donor reactivation strategy doesn’t need to absorb all of your attention. It should be seamlessly integrated with your other donor acquisition and donor cultivation efforts.
In your communications with lapsed donors, don’t be afraid to point out the facts that 1. they have given before, and 2. it has been a while since you’ve heard from them. I don’t recommend using the phrase ‘lapsed donor’ because that is fundraiser jargon that won’t make any sense to them. Instead say things like, “We missed seeing you at this year’s <insert the name of this year’s spectacular event>.” “It’s been a while since we’ve heard from you, but we wanted to make sure you didn’t miss out on a great opportunity to make a big impact on <hunger, rain forests, children’s health, church life>”
Lapsed Major Donors
Major donors who stop giving require a special touch. Likely, they are people who have been close to the organization but are not for some reason or another. First off, they should not go into your general pool of lapsed donors right away. Their gift was probably cultivated through personal contact, so switching to a more impersonal approach will probably be off-putting. Rather, you’ll need to approach it like repairing a personal relationship. Find out why they stopped giving and if it’s a problem that you can fix. You’ll never know until you go out of your way to ask.
In this scenario, a fear of rejection is often the biggest reason for inaction. Be not afraid! Your major donors have invested heavily in your ministry. Most will appreciate it if you don’t just ignore the problem and let the relationship wither like your high school crush.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
The best time to think about lapsed donors is before they have stopped donating. Make sure that your communications are working to build a relationship and a sense of owning the mission in your donor. Work hard to get your donors involved in doing other things with your ministry. Genuine, heartfelt communications go a long ways to building a stronger relationship. I know my parents support one ministry that does such a good job with their direct mail letters that they actually look forward to them.
Something to remember about your reactivation campaign is that you’re not just trying squeeze one more gift out of a former donor. You are trying to re-kindle a relationship that was extinguished. So you’ll need to think about how to continue cultivating the relationship once you get that fire started again. You don’t want to just start the fire, you need to have a plan in place to tend the fire, too.
“Reactivation” in a Church setting
The term ‘lapsed donor’ fits very well with a reality of modern Parish life when reports of parish closings are all too prevalent. People leaving the Church represents the major crisis of our time. I don’t address this issue as a fundraiser. This is bigger than the donations that they might have made to the Church. No, I’m compelled by my own history of apostasy and joyful return to the faith to address this topic. The consequences are potentially eternal.
While a person leaving the Church is certainly free to make this choice, you don’t have to sit idly by and pine away like character in a Victorian romance. No, your model is the Good Shepherd, who leaves the 99 and goes off in search of the one sheep that has wandered away.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to ‘reactivate’ those lapsed Catholics.
The first thing to realize is that the word ‘lapsed’ indicates a relationship that was not well cultivated. A relationship thrived at one time, but it has slowly withered away until it has disappeared. Or it could have been a relationship that started small, and never really took root and flourished. No reason to point fingers, just honestly see the way things happen to be.
The second thing to realize is that you will have to go out in search of the lost sheep. They have indeed wandered away, but the responsibility for bringing them back into the fold belongs to you.
Here are some different ways that you can encourage donors to give again:
1. (easy) You can create a special ‘reactivation’ mail piece that goes out to people who were registered in the previous year but not this year.
2. (easy) You can do an email survey to ask people what has changed in their lives and why they have stopped coming to Church.
3. (medium) You can have a team of volunteers call lapsed Catholics and ask them if they still live in the area and attend the parish. This is not a solicitation call, mind you, but rather a ‘updating our information’. As part of this, if the lapsed Catholic indicates that they live in the area but no longer attend church, you could have your callers extend an invitation to return to the services.
4. (hard) You could send out teams of volunteers to go door to door to invite lapsed parishioners to come to Easter or Christmas services.
5. (Regional) You could pay for commercials from an organization like “Catholic’s Come Home” on television and radio.
These are not the only options, but should get your brain storming about ways to reach out and reactivate lapsed Catholics.
Looking for more articles on key fundraising concepts and tools? Try these:
- Is my fundraising cost effective? Fundraising Return on investment.
- How can I find new donors? Donor acquisition.
- Can I ask donors to give again?Donor Cultivation.
- How do I inspire donors to keep giving? Donor Retention.
- Why am I losing donors? Donor Attrition.
- How do I segment my donors into meaningful groups? Donor segmentation.
- How do I create an annual fundraising plan?
- What is a fundraising case statement? And why do you need one?
- How do I write a program budget that donors can understand?
- How do I create a donor database?
Check out The Fundraiser’s Playbook for a full list of fundraising articles.
Would you like to learn more about raising money for Church and Ministry? Check out Letters From The Almoner, now available on Amazon.com.
Image courtesy of Lippo Memmi, via the Public Domain.