The 3 Step Crash Course in Winning Back-Lapsed Donors

Nonprofits are constantly facing the problem of annual or recurring donors lapsing into inactivity.

Unfortunately, far too many organizations make the mistake of not distinguishing their lapsed donors from other donor groups.

They’ll send these lapsed donors the same correspondence as their active donors or, even worse, prematurely mark them as inactive and ignore them altogether.

But giving up on your lapsed donors is a huge mistake. Considering the high value of donor retention to nonprofits, why wouldn’t you focus on donors who have consistently given to your organization in the past?

First of all, these donors have already shown their affinity for your organization and that they’re willing to give to your cause.

Secondly, it’s more cost-effective for your organization to win back-lapsed donors than it is to acquire new ones. Because you’ve already built relationships with these donors, your organization can forgo much of the initial stewardship process, which will cut your costs (both money and time-wise) significantly.

So, in the spirit of Fundrasing Effectiveness Project (FEP) and our focus on increasing fundraising results as quickly as possible, I thought it might be appropriate to give a crash course in winning back-lapsed donors.

Step 1: Choose the right donors.

To launch a lapsed donor program, first you have to define exactly who your lapsed donors are.

While the definition will vary from organization to organization, the general consensus is that a lapsed donor is someone who hasn’t made a gift in over a year and has given to your organization at least twice.

This definition will probably apply to a good chunk of your base, so it can be helpful to narrow the requirements of your program even further.

For example, it’s probably not worth the money to focus on donors who have made gifts under $10.

You only want to focus on the donors whose contributions will bring you a return on the resources you spent winning them back.

Step 2: Choose the right channels.

When it comes to winning back your donors, some communication channels will be more appropriate and effective than others.

Lapsed major donor prospects definitely warrant an in-person visit or a phone call, but it’s likely your organization won’t have the resources to approach all of your lapsed donors through these channels.

While email appeals and typed letters might appeal to some, I can’t recommend handwritten letters enough.

Handwritten letters provide a personal touch and show donors that you really took the time and effort to win them back.

Make sure to include a handwritten return envelope and a first class mail stamp, too, in case your lapsed donors want to give again!

Step 3: Be personal and heartfelt.

The very best way to show lapsed donors that your organization cares about them, however, is by personalizing your outreach and making it as sincere as possible.

Always, always address your lapsed donors by their first name. Use any information you have on hand that will help you individualize your outreach. (Bonus tip! This is done much more easily with the help of a nonprofit donor database.)

For example, if you know exactly when and how much a donor has given in the past, you should reference the time since their last contribution and suggest the same gift size in your correspondence.

This lets your lapsed donors know you care about them personally, instead of thinking of them as merely a dollar sign.

But above all: be transparent and genuine. Tell your lapsed donors that you miss them. Compliment their kind and giving nature! Don’t be shy in letting them know just how much you value them and don’t want to lose their contributions.

What strategies for winning back-lapsed donors have worked for your organization in the past? Let me know in the comments!

Jeff Gordy

Jeff Gordy

Co-Founder and CEO at Z2 Systems, Inc.
Jeff Gordy is the Co-Founder and CEO of Z2 Systems, Inc., the makers of NeonCRM. Jeff has been working with his team for the last 12 years on building the optimal fundraising, CRM database, and marketing solution for nonprofits. Before starting the company Jeff worked for the Kidney Cancer Association and knew that nonprofits needed better software solutions to help with their many challenges.
Posted in Fundraising, Stewardship.


  1. Thank you for the clarity of this post! I think most nonprofits should build an annual lapsed donor appeal effort into their annual plan. It’s as easy as you describe and costs very little: identify i) the top donors for personal outreach, ii) the right person to make that outreach from your org, and iii) the best way to conduct that outreach (handwritten notes are fantastic!) If the list is long and you can’t personalize all the outreach, then at least put together a one-page letter, possibly enclosing some compelling collateral, have the ED or board pres personalize the letter, and send it off with remittance. Every time I’ve done this, I’ve raised decent money and re-engaged some supporters. Why not?

  2. Thank you so much. I am a Fundraising Consultant specializing mainly in Annual Giving, Planned Giving and Grant Writing. One of my small organizations ($600,000 budget) realizes full well it needs a good software program to track donors, volunteers and human services sessions, which are available through the organization. However, it’s difficult to track “lapsed donors” when (a) email addresses are NEVER available; (b) it is only the long-term staff who can recall people who once donated but do not do so now; and (c) staff time is absorbed in managing day-to-day organizational needs and taking care of this rapidly growing organization. The Board and ED recognize the dilemma; I’ve tried to secure funding for a new software system. I’m having a very difficult time raising money (grant or donations) for new software. Suggestions?

  3. I’m often reminded of the saying “Reality doesn’t count; it’s the perception of reality that does!”. And, in conversations with lapsed donors, I’ve had a few occasions where the donor’s rationale for lapsing was based on their misperception of the charity’s mission or values or behaviour, etc. Clarification of the misperception may bring the donor back into the fold. At the very least, discovering the misperception will give you a chance to adjust your donor communications with the goal of preventing other donors from being led to the same incorrect view. That, in itself, can be the benefit received by talking to your lapsed donors. It’s like an exit interview with departing, valuable employees that may lead you to think “What can we do differently?”

  4. Pingback: 7 Year-End Fundraising Practices That Work All Year |

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