They Loved You Once, They Can Love You Again: How to Win Back Lapsed Donors

There’s a saying among used-car salespeople: Never try to sell someone a car; try to sell them five cars over twenty years. Likewise, repeat donors should be a key component of your organization’s financial strategy. But what do you do when one of your donors suddenly stops giving? Here are a few strategies for re-energizing a donor base that has lapsed:

Know who to go after

Winning back donors may require a significant investment of your time and resources. Begin by identifying your best prospects; eliminate any donors who:

  • Have not donated in over 48 months
  • Donate irregularly or in small amounts (under $10)
  • Have only donated once

While it may be tempting to mount a broad campaign towards all previous donors, your recommitment efforts will be more effective if they focus on a select group likely to yield the best results. Remember that you can continue to reach out to those donors you do not target directly through your organization’s regular communications strategy (newsletters, listservs, etc.).

Once you have a short list of donors targeted for recommitment, begin by doing a little more research into their donation history. Looking for patterns in the way they have given in the past can provide key insights that will help you win them back. Consider when they first started donating: what was your organization doing then that could have induced them to donate? Was there a particular campaign or media strategy your organization was pursuing at the time? Consider also the time of year – certain donors may be in the habit of giving during the holidays; if this is the case, a simple note to the effect of ‘We missed you this year!’ may be all it takes to re-engage them.

Sell the promise

Donations should be treated the same as any sales transaction. Instead of selling a product or service, you are selling the capacity of your organization. Your donors are investing in both the sense of goodwill they get from knowing they are supporting an organization that works for positive change, and the confidence that your organization has the resources and professionalism to use their investment effectively.

As with any investment, donors will lose confidence if they do not feel their money is going to good use. In many cases, donors can be re-engaged by a personalized letter highlighting an upcoming project they can support. If their donation history suggests a specific interest, explain in your letter how this project will support this. Let them know they are investing in a vital organization that is still actively working for a cause they have supported in the past.

Speak to their legacy

An important corollary to this kind of forward-looking appeal is a campaign which codifies and celebrates your past accomplishments. Remember that every single one of your donors was once inspired to write a cheque to support your organization; try to get them thinking about what first drew them to you.

Think of hosting a small cocktail party or learning lunch for former donors. If your organization has an important anniversary coming up, consider holding a party or conference to celebrate it, and get them involved in the preparations. Phone or mail your donor soliciting any memories they have about how they first got involved with your cause. Use this opportunity to remind them not only of what your organization has accomplished, but that as a valued donor they are an important part of those accomplishments.

There are a number of reasons why a regular donor will stop giving. Some of them – a change in their financial circumstances, a disagreement with the direction your organization is headed – will be beyond your control. Others – loss of interest, other demands on their time, simply forgetting – can be easily overcome with a little creativity and personal attention; these are the donors that will make your efforts worthwhile.

In the end, no one relishes the prospect of cold-calling old donors with the hope of renewing their commitment. It is a frustrating process in which a considerable amount of effort and work yields predictably few results. But with more and more organizations vying for the attention of an inundated public, the ability to effectively re-energize your existing donor base is becoming an increasingly important component of fundraising in the non-profit world.


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