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!


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

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