How to Win Back Lapsed Donors

On average charities lose 15-20% of their donors each year from deaths, old age, retirement or change in financial status. Another 14% move each year but few bother to notify their charity. Finally, 10-15% stop responding due to disinterest, annoyance at the charity or at someone in the charity.

Some may have outgrown their current relationship with the charity and found another charity they feel is more worthy. Others stop due to a job loss or change of circumstances or simply because someone misspelled their name or address.

These are “lapsed donors”—people who made a gift at one time but after repeated solicitations, simply don’t give again.

Pick Up The Phone

Now, let’s look at positive ways to handle this. If a long-time or high-dollar donor stops their support, the person responsible for fundraising should immediately pick up the phone and find out why. Perhaps there is something going on in the donor’s world that has created this interruption in their support or they may have become disillusioned by a miscommunication.

However, if the person responsible for fundraising, or others directly involved with the charity, do not have a personal or close relationship with these donors then the question becomes: How do you win these important donors back?

Send a Specially Crafted Direct Mail

Here are some suggestions that have worked well:

1. First of all, keep in mind that it costs less to reactivate lapsed donors than to recruit new donors. Think in terms of Return on Investment and lifetime customer value lost. Review your donors and gift histories, identifying the best donors for recapture, such as multiple or consecutive year givers

2. Donors whose last gift was under $10 or who only gave one gift in 60+ months should be avoided, they will likely draw a low response.

3. Select only those high value donors who have not given for 2, 3 or 4 years and send them direct mail specifically created for them.

4. You could even send them a survey to try and find out why they have stopped responding.

Any specially created piece should:

  • Tell them why you miss them and invite them back: Voice your concern in the letter and show them how important they are to your charity. Do something different to involve the donor and make them take action.
  • Be very customized: Ask for a gift toward a particular project they gave to before. Mention their last gift amount and the occasion. For example: “The last time we heard from you, you generously responded to the humanitarian crisis in Honduras. You sent us a gift of $XXX that helped us get through that emergency. Today, I am writing to you because you can help us overcome another crisis in Haiti.”

Examples of approaches that have worked

The Royal Conservatory of Music
Their house membership list of 50,000 had been dormant for several years. After scrubbing (cleaning up the list) a membership appeal was sent to 5,586 members in the $100 to $999 range and 203 members in the $1,000 to $25,000 range. It resulted in a renewal win-back rate of 70%. One of the key strategic points was an option to become a member whenever they chose to do so.
Lapsed donors

The Audubon Society of Rhode Island
They used a “forgiveness” appeal with their members and generated a 50% renewal win-back rate. To view, click on link featured on SOFII here.

They used the following strategy:

  • An envelope and note that was handwritten and personally addressed with a real stamp.
  • A photo of a bird, a business card from the person sending the mail and one-year free membership to past loyal donors.

Lapsed donors

The United Way in Montreal
They reached out to all the people who had not given for 5 years or more. The survey renewal win-back rate was just 1% but, more important, those who could no longer give responded candidly, giving reasons why they could no longer afford to donate.
And that is valuable as it saves you the expense of mailing to them.

Front of survey/letter
Lapsed donors

Back of Survey
Lapsed donors

If you decide to include a survey, here are some suggestions:

  • Remember a survey should be like a conversation: Treat it like a face-to-face or telephone conversation.
  • Spend some time thinking about what you’d like to know. Try to balance curiosity with respect for your donors’ privacy.
  • Keep it focused. Keep it short. Use multiple choice or yes/no questions but no more than 11 questions.
  • Leave room for honest opinion: You’ll be surprised at what you hear back. People appreciate being asked for their thoughts and opinion. And while not everyone will return a gift or a pledge, many people will. Also ask donors for permission to use their comments. Once again you would be surprised to see a spike in responses.
  • Don’t forget to personalize the package where possible.
  • And don’t forget to include a business reply envelope.
  • Consider the survey as doing double duty. It does not hurt to appeal for funds but make sure to tell them that this is not compulsory.
  • Finally, don’t forget to thank them for completing the survey. This last step is important: every donor who returns a survey – with a gift or not – should be thanked.


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