you don’t really want to say goodbye, do you?

Are you thinking about lapsed donors right now?

We’ve been living through a few years of crisis, calamity, catastrophe… you name it. From Covid to conflict, it’s been a heck of a ride.

This climate has been good to some organizations. Human services and international aid – these are needs that are ever-present in people’s minds.

But others have not done as well. Arts organizations, for instance, often went dark. That made it hard to stay connected to their audiences.

But whether your fundraising has been boom or bust lately, keep your eye on how donors’ giving has lapsed.

If you’ve been doing well, that might be hiding a looming issue. If you’ve been struggling, you can’t afford to lose anyone’s support!

How can you measure lapsed donors?

The simplest way is to look at who gave last year who hasn’t given this year. But as I write, 2022 is still in the first quarter. So look at 2021 and 2020. Who are you missing?

You can also dig deeper. Regular donors who stopped their giving. Donors who gave year after year and then suddenly stopped.

You’re really looking for patterns. Identify particular donors, yes. But look at the big picture. What’s going on?

Remember: a 10% improvement in attrition can yield up to a 200% increase in the projected value of the database. That’s a lot!

Why do donors stop giving?

Adrian Sargeant’s research found the answer below. (This is from Building Donor Loyalty: The Fundraiser’s Guide to Increasing Lifetime Value.) The research is now 20 years old, but still informative. Here’s what he found, with the percentage of responses for each. (Yes, you quick-eyed person… they add up to more than 100%. I assume people could offer more than one answer.)

  • I can no longer afford to offer my support. 54.0%
  • I feel that other causes are more deserving. 36.2%
  • Death/relocation. 16.0%
  • The organization did not acknowledge my support. 13.2%
  • I do not recall supporting the organization. 9.2%
  • The organization did not inform me how my money had been used. 8.1%
  • The organization no longer needs my support. 5.6%
  • The quality of support provided by the organization was poor. 5.1%
  • The organization asked for inappropriate sums. 4.3%
  • I found the organization’s communications inappropriate. 3.8%
  • The organization did not take account of my wishes. 2.6%
  • Staff at the organization were unhelpful. 2.1%

(Here’s another way to look at the information.)

Looking at these reasons, you can see the first three are beyond your control. But everything else comes down to communication and stewardship.

And that’s good news. Really!

Communicate well and regularly

If you’ve been depending on a once-a-year annual campaign, now’s the time to redesign your program. Once a year is not enough to stay in people’s minds. And when yours is not the organization donors think about, yours is not the organization they give to. Out of sight, out of mind… and out of a gift.

If you have only been asking once a year, you may be placing far too much weight on that one, big, ask. And I’ve seen this suddenly get quite complex. A huge undertaking. THE annual appeal. That’s understandable when you depend so heavily on it!

But communicating more often is not as difficult as you might think. Or as expensive. At the very least, try this simple calendar of communications: 3 appeals and 3 newsletters a year. That means at least every other month, your donors will hear from you. (More is probably better, but… baby steps!) In between mailings, you can use email and social media to stay connected.

Your donors want to know: Do you need my support? Did it help? Appeals tell donors you need their support. Newsletters tell them how their support helped. If you go dark for most of the year both those donor questions go unanswered.

Solo development shop? You need outside friends to help. Find a great mail house. They can take your data and copy. And then both print and mail it all. They may even have contacts with local copywriters who can help you put together a great appeal.

And when you’re told the organization cannot afford to mail that often, remind the powers-that-be that you can’t afford NOT to. Finding new donors is much harder than keeping your current donors.

Good donor relations matter

Everyone in your organization needs to be aware of this, and part of the effort. If you’re wonderful with donors (I’m sure you are!) but the person answering the phone is not, bad feelings ensue.

Donors don’t own you or your mission, of course. But they absolutely should be treated with respect. (Everyone should!) If someone calls with a question, they should get an answer. If the person who answers the phone can’t help, have a plan in place to get them to the person who can help.

And thank donors well. It takes as long to send out a warm, personal thank you as it does a cold receipt. Do you want people to feel connected to your organization and its work? Personal communications – especially thanks – make a big difference.

Use the data you’ve pulled together to personalize your communications

For example, a donor who’s given once or twice in a few years and then stopped is not likely to think of themselves as “lapsed.” So mentioning that they haven’t given might sound… grabby. Or whiny?

On the other hand, a donor who has been giving loyally, every October, for years? That might warrant a check-in. Or a mention that they’ve been missed.

Too complicated? It’s not! A variable sentence can easily be added to different segments. (See the mail house suggestion above. I’ve spent hours standing over the copier doing this, too… your time is more valuable!)

Giving patterns change

And donors’ priorities change, especially in times like these. Remember, as Mark Phillips says, “They’re not your donors, you’re their charity.”

But if you want to stay their charity, you need to stay in touch and you need to treat people with respect. Make those the backbone of your fundraising program – and your organization’s culture. Do it well, and you’ll build a community of donors who really care.

Photo by Nagesh Badu on Unsplash