How to Win Back Lapsed Donors

We recently recommended that organizations with fewer than ~10,000 donors should not create a “lapsed donor version” of appeal letters.

If lapsed donor versions of your appeals was one of your tactics for reactivating lapsed donors – and you’re wondering what to do now – you’ll love “The right way to win back lapsed donors” from Jeff Brooks.

His post is the perfect follow-up. We shared a tactic not to use, and Jeff shares multiple tactics to use.

Jeff goes deeper on two powerful things you can do:

Here are two additional things you can do to improve your lapsed donor reactivation:

  1. Lower the ask amounts for these donors. You have a valuable piece of information on each of then – the amount they gave last. With current donors, we normally ask for amounts around their most recent donation and up. For lapsed donors, ask for their most recent donation and down. That improves response. Better to get them back at a lower level than to lose them!
  2. Be choosy about which donors you try to reactivate. Very low-amount donors who are lapsed may not be worth the cost to regain them. On the other hand, it can be worth it to keep trying longer for those high-dollar donors. You might mail donors who are several years lapsed if their last gift was $100+.

Having a lapsed donor strategy is an important part of most nonprofits’ overall strategy. For many organizations we work with, 25% of their “new” donors each year are actually lapsed donors who have reactivated

Plus, reactivated donors have higher lifetime values (on average).

It’s worth spending time to build a coherent lapsed donor strategy for your organization. If you think yours can be improved at all, read Jeff’s post!

Updated Recommendation re: ‘Lapsed Donor Versions’ of Appeal Letters

Please come back!

After looking at some fundraising results, Better Fundraising recently changed one of our longstanding recommendations:

For smaller organizations, we no longer recommend creating a “lapsed donor version” of appeal letters.

If this is something your organization does, keep reading and I’ll get into the details.

To set context, a “lapsed donor version” of an appeal is a standard tactic used by many (usually larger) organizations. Here’s what it looks like…

  • When an appeal is sent out, a “version” of the appeal is created.
  • Without changing anything else in the appeal, a sentence or two is added at the beginning of the letter that says something like, “You’ve shown through your generosity that you care about the unicorns, but I haven’t heard from you in a while. I’m sending you this letter because I think what’s happening right now will touch your heart.” Then the letter continues with the same copy as the regular letter.
  • That “version” of the appeal is sent to donors who have recently lapsed. Usually that’s donors who are 13-18 months since their last gift; occasionally it’s 13-24 months since their last gift.

That tactic is used by many organizations because, done well, it slightly increases the response rate for lapsed donors. The cost (in time and money) to create the additional version of the letter is a good investment because of the increased number of lapsed donors who are reactivated.

But Wait…

What gave me pause was looking at the performance of these “lapsed donor versions” of appeals for a couple of clients.

The response rate for lapsed donors was exactly the same, regardless of whether we sent them a special “lapsed donor version” or sent them the unmodified appeal to lapsed donors.

That meant we were spending time and money to create the lapsed donor versions and getting the same performance we’d gotten before.

We were wasting time and money. Ugh.

Now, if I saw this once, I’d wonder if the data were correct. Or perhaps the added copy wasn’t particularly good.

But I saw the same thing for three organizations over the course of a year. So we’ve changed our recommendation.

New Recommendation

Our updated recommendation goes something like this:

  • If you have less than about 10,000 active donors, it probably does not make sense to do “lapsed donor versions” of your appeals. Just send the regular version of your appeals to lapsed donors.
  • If it’s easy for you to create a lapsed donor version, it’s a good thing to test. But be sure to benchmark the results of your “regular” appeals to lapsed donors and compare those results to the new results when you send lapsed donor versions.
  • Do continue sending most appeals to donors who are 13-24 months since their previous gift. Just don’t spend the time and money to make a special version of the appeal unless you have information that indicates otherwise.

I want to acknowledge right away that this is a complex issue. For instance, the gift ask amounts for lapsed donors is another variable that can be tested – perhaps that could have played a role. The total number of communications also plays a role, as does an organization’s strategy towards lapsed, deeply lapsed and lapsed major donors.

For the purpose of this post, I’m setting all of that aside.

If we just focus on whether a smaller organization should create “lapsed donor versions” of their appeals, our default setting is that you don’t need to. Save yourself the time and money!

Super Simple Segmentation

Segmentation list.

You can save a lot of money by segmenting your mailing lists.

I’m going to make a couple of super simple recommendations here, then I’ll unpack why:

Only mail your appeal letters and newsletters to donors
who have given you a gift in the previous 18 months.

Of course it gets more complex than that, as your donor file grows.

But if you’re new to segmentation, here’s where to start: mail only to donors who have given a gift in the last year and a half.

Why Just Those People?

Two reasons:

  1. The longer it’s been since a person gave your organization a gift, the less likely they are to give you another gift. (This has been tested, analyzed and proven again and again.)
  2. The dropoff in a donor’s likelihood to give you another gift is not a straight line. There’s a real “cliff” 12 months after a donor’s last gift.

When sophisticated organizations analyze the success of their mailings, they notice something: it often costs more to mail their lapsed donors than the income they receive from those donors.

Here’s what that means for you: if you’re sending your mailings to more people than “donors in the last 18 months,” you’re almost certainly throwing some money down the drain.

So the savvy organizations stop mailing those folks – with a couple of exceptions.

Should You Ever Mail Your Lapsed Donors?

Absolutely. But do it smartly:

  1. Mail them only a couple times a year. Pick those times carefully; they are usually your Holiday / Year-end Appeal, and your other best-performing appeal.
  2. When you do, create a version of your main appeal just for your lapsed donors. That version should, right at the beginning, tell the donor that you haven’t heard from them in a while. It usually goes something like, “Dear [NAME], I haven’t heard from you in a while, but I’m writing today because [URGENT REASON].” Then use the rest of your original letter.

Nerd Nerd Nerd

Please forgive me, the Teacher / Explainer / Nerd in me is making me say something.

Most nonprofits with large mail files do not follow my recommendation above. Instead of mailing to donors in the last 18 months, they mail donors who have given a gift in the last 12 months.

You know that “cliff” I mentioned earlier? It’s real. After it’s been 13 months since a donor gave you a gift, their chances of giving you another gift really drop. Fast. So most larger organizations don’t waste money by mailing donors who are unlikely to give a gift.

But I recommended 0 – 18 months above because, through testing, we’ve found it fruitful for smaller nonprofits.

Why? Because smaller nonprofits aren’t mailing their donors often enough. They just aren’t giving their donors enough opportunities to give. So when we mail to donors 0 – 18 months, we give the 13 to 18-month donors another chance or two to give a gift. And those gifts (plus the additional revenue from reactivating those donors) make the investment to mail them a good one.

What Should You Do?

The next time you pull a mailing list, critically think through who you are selecting.

If you’re mailing more people than “donors 0-18 months,” you can save real money by cutting your mailing costs!