Every new year, you, along with all nonprofit fundraisers, probably pause to wonder about your lapsed donors. You probably spend many hours pouring over reports of “LYBUNT” donors, fighting to renew a few donors before that horrible fate when the ball drops on the 31st: a donor lapsing.
But despite your best efforts, every year a few donors inevitably don't renew. The ball drops in New York City and, even as the tail end of direct mail returns stop trickling in, a few donors officially become lapsed donors.
So what happens now? Once a donor lapses, how much time and thought are you giving them? Too often the answer is, “not much.” Most fundraising departments have some meagre reactivation strategies. You might include your lapsed donors in the mail file at select times throughout the year. You might try to get them back through an email campaign later. Maybe you’ll even assign some lapsed donors to the new junior gifts officer to see how they fare on renewals or even upgrades.
That’s all well and good, but there’s more you can do.
First, Identify Your Problem
Before pursuing lapsed donor reactivation strategies, though, it pays to ask some questions. And the most important question is the simplest: why did they stop giving?
I encounter many attitudes toward lapsed donors in nonprofit organizations, the most common of which include:
1. They aren't that interested.
Lapsed donors were never really that interested in the cause, to begin with. Maybe they came to an event because a friend cajoled them into it, or they gave a small amount in response to an urgent-sounding letter. But they were never truly committed to the importance of the mission.
2. Leadership or staff changes.
When there has been turnover or acrimonious changes in leadership or in the fundraising department, many development leaders will simply chalk lapsing activity up to the sins of their forebearers: “Of course, many of our donors lapsed in the dark days of 2015-2019, when You-Know-Who was asleep at the wheel!”
3. Their priorities or capacity changed.
Lapsed donors are on their own journey. Maybe they had a personal change in fortune or decided to give all their charitable funds to a cancer center that saved their grandchild’s life. We can’t know what caused them to lapse, but we know that some donors always will, because circumstances and priorities change.
4. They are tired of us and are shutting us out.
Donors are probably sick of hearing from us. We’re experiencing the effects of donor fatigue. We are soliciting too much, or maybe we’re even sending out too much cultivation material. So they are blocking us out of their lives, even if they are still passionate about what we do in theory.
Of course, none of these beliefs are wrong or right per se (though #4 rarely has much explanatory power in my experience). In any given donor file, there are probably some donors that would fall under each description.
But think about what a difference it would make to know! What a difference it could make to our reactivation strategies if we knew why exactly they fell into the lapsed pile to begin with. In some cases, the lapsed donors might be easily brought back on board, if you fix elements of your fundraising operation. In other scenarios investing in reactivation might seem like a lost cause, or at least a suboptimal investment of your limited time and resources for building up the donor base.
Learning About Lapsed Donors
That’s why AmPhil set out to ask the donors what they think. We partnered with 10 nonprofits to survey their lapsed donors, receiving responses from over 4,200 individual donors.
Sometimes when we take the opportunity to truly listen to donors—and not just the small portion of donors we meet face to face—we learn amazing and unexpected things. And our survey of lapsed donors was no exception.
To encourage you to dig deeper, though, I’ll leave you with one key finding from the study that needs to be the lynchpin of any lapsed donor efforts: a majority of lapsed donors do not know that they have lapsed.
49% of respondents told us that they continue to support the organization. In their minds, they are still current supporters, even though we only surveyed donors who had not given in at least 24 months. Another 16% said they did not remember ever making a gift at all. That leaves just 34% who have a memory of consciously choosing not to give.
So why do they stop giving? One big part of the answer is that for many donors, they can’t answer the question any better than you can.