What I Learned About Lapsed and Long-Lapsed Donors (And How It Can Help You Too)

old mailbox

Credit: Photo by Glenn Haertlein on Unsplash

Before you purge, write off, or otherwise ignore the lapsed and long-lapsed names on your database, consider what happened to two of my nonprofit clients…

“I’m not dead,” says the raggedy man draped over the shoulders of another. “I’m getting better.”

“No, you’re not,” replies Raggedy Man’s transportation. “You’ll be stone dead in a moment.”

Raggedy Man objects, “I don’t want to go on the cart.”

So proceeds Bring Out Your Dead, one of my all-time favorite scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail…

… And as someone who was recently lumped into the lapsed donor file at a nonprofit I’d given to only the year before, I can tell you from both personal and professional experience that the generous hearts of many of your lapsed givers are not even partly dead: they are very much alive.

So why the pause in giving?  Reasons are as unique as the people who support you. 

In their minds, they may be just “taking a break” – their financial situation may have changed, of course, or maybe their lives simply got busier than usual.  Or, as likely, your nonprofit has simply fallen off their giving radar because you haven’t communicated with them enough (and that’s a story for another day, but as an example, if you never mail a donor newsletter and send just one or two appeals in a year, it’s almost certainly not enough).  But make no mistake: many donors, even those lumped into the ‘long-lapsed’ segment, may still feel a connection to your cause. 

Why then are they excluded from every mailing, relegated to the database dustbin, or ignored for months on end? (Food for thought: it will cost you 5-7 times more to acquire a new donor than it does to keep an existing supporter.)

What if, with a bit of stewardship and a good appeal, your nonprofit could see something like this instead?

At client #1, we saw:

  • Response rates of between 6 and 11 percent from their lapsed file, with an average gift of nearly $100,
  • Long-lapsed donors gave, on average, $45 to $50+, with response rates of 2 to 4 percent,
  • All in all, mailed to around 2,000 names, this nonprofit raised an additional $18,000.

At another:

  • A holiday mailing yielded an 11% response rate from lapsed donors,
  • Average gift of more than $100,
  • Total additional gross revenue of over $30,000.

Instead of purging or ignoring, here are some things to test with your lapsed and long-lapsed files, especially multiple or long-time lapsed givers, instead:

  1. If you are a membership-based organization that sends renewals, try a “forgiveness” appeal similar to Audubon Society of RI’s approach, featured on SOFII. (A fifty percent renewal rate, for the record – and for the donor gratitude win.)
  2. Follow the advice from Bonnie Catena of Catena Connects, and I quote Bonnie directly:
    1. “Test mailing 2+ year lapsed who have given 2+ or 3+ gift
    2. Test ‘super dupes’ – run lapsed files against other prospect lists in your acquisition merge/purge to identify which lapsed donors are still active direct mail donors to other organizations…they may be willing to give to you again.”
  3. See Pam Grow’s superb write-up of Ontario Nature’s approach, in Loving Lapsed Donors Back Into the Fold.
  4. Send a brief survey: before you simply declare that their membership has ‘expired,’ why not let them know it’s been awhile since they’ve given and you wanted to make sure their mail is reaching them.  Do they need to update their address?  Has there been a mix-up?  Would they like information on other ways to help?  Do they have questions or feedback they want to share?  Let them know they’re important to the work you do, and you’d like to keep their generous hearts and fighting spirits beside you.  

You can also test sending lapsed donors a thank-you/update, or a modified version of your cold/prospect mailing, or even an unmodified version, as a test to long-lapsed. 

And definitely, positively, absolutely consider these supporters in your legacy drip-feed messaging.  (All part of what Bonnie is talking about, above, and what Claire Axelrad writes about in this excellent article for Bloomerang, here.)  At my clients we’ve used a bunch of these ideas, and more, I encourage you to do the same.  Because just like our raggedy man from the Monty Python movie, lapsed donors often don’t see themselves as ‘expired’ in any way – and many still have a lot left to give.  They just need a little love… and a chance to show you.

About Lisa Sargent

Lisa Sargent is an award-winning fundraising copywriter and story strategist on a mission to transform the way nonprofits communicate with their donors, for visibly better results and retention. Contributing author to acclaimed decision science book Change for Better and upcoming author of Thankology, Lisa’s free Donor Thank-You Clinics were named one of the world’s “top 10 gifts for fundraisers” by SOFII (Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration) and remain the most-ever visited exhibit there. Follow Lisa’s no-holds-barred blog Sargent Writes and subscribe to her newsletter, The Loyalty Letter, for free insights on the art, heart, craft, and science of generous stories, fundraising writing, and donor communications.

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