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4 Steps to Writing the Perfect Lapsed Donor Letter + Template

Author: Sayana Izmailova
December 10, 2020
🕑 8 min read

If you work in fundraising, you know that in order to successfully bring in revenue, your nonprofit has to consistently do two things: find new donors, and engage your existing donors so they keep giving.

If you’ve been focusing all your efforts on these two tactics, great — you’re on the right track! But you might be missing an important revenue stream that doesn’t quite fit with either of these approaches: targeting lapsed donors to regain their support.

The truth is, finding new donors is incredibly difficult. You need to educate them about your mission, hope that something about it resonates with them and convince them that your nonprofit and its services are worth supporting. With every acquisition letter you send out, you’re throwing a fishing net out into the sea and hoping to catch at least a few fish.

Targeting lapsed donors, on the other hand, is a much more promising approach. These are people who were donors to your organization in the past but who, for a variety of reasons, haven’t made a gift in a long time.

You can be 100% certain that these people already know all about your mission, already feel a connection to your organization, and are already willing to make a gift. The only thing they need is a little reminder that your nonprofit needs their support.

The easiest way to reignite the spark between you and your lapsed donors is with a special direct mail appeal meant just for them.

When I worked in fundraising, every direct mail we ever executed included a segment for lapsed donors. The main case for support would remain the same as the other letters, but the message for lapsed donors revolved all around how much we miss them and how much we need their support again. A simple custom message goes a long way — lapsed donor appeals have some of the highest response rates in fundraising.

In this post, we’ll go over exactly how to write a lapsed donor letter and help your organization win back your past supporters. Having written more of these types of letters than I can count, I’ll share my best tips on how to convince your lapsed donors that their relationship with your nonprofit is worth a second chance.

And to help you get started writing your own lapsed donor letters, I’ve even included a template you can copy and customize.

Let’s dive in!

Step 1: Identify the Right People

The first step in any direct mail appeal is to identify who the letters will be going to. For lapsed donors, you’ll want to start by determining whom you consider to be lapsed. This is completely up to you. Typically, fundraisers will start with people who gave last year, but not this year. Then you can look at people who haven’t given in two years, three years and so on.

You can use your nonprofit CRM to pull this data. It’s also a good idea to segment your letters based on these timelines. For example, someone who hasn’t given in a year should probably be getting a slightly different message than someone who hasn’t given in five.

Don’t forget to also look at people who recently stopped their recurring donations. In one of my nonprofit jobs, I was tasked with calling people who suspended their monthly donations to try and get them back. You’d be shocked at how many of them never meant to stop their donations — they simply forgot to give us their new credit card expiry date.

You can also use your CRM to pull other data about your lapsed donors. In a later section, we’ll discuss how much more effective your letters will be if you can personalize them. You can do this by including information like the date of their last gift, which program the gift was designated to, the date of their first gift, etc.

Finally, take a careful look at your data and make sure everything is accurate and no information is missing. It’s better to not personalize the letter at all than to send a letter with false or missing information.

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Step 2: Tell Them You Miss Them

Donors give for a variety of reasons, but there’s also an underlying force that supports their giving habits: the need to feel needed by your organization. Philanthropy and altruism aside, there’s always a part of us that donates money because it makes us feel valued and appreciated.

Now imagine that a donor has stopped their monthly donations because their credit card expired and they never got around to calling in to give you the update. Did you try to get in touch with them immediately?

If not, think about what that says to the donor — that they’re unimportant; that your organization doesn’t really need their support; that you’ve got so many other donors, you didn’t even notice that one stopped giving.

In order to win lapsed members back, you must communicate the exact opposite of this. Tell them how much you rely on their donations, how much you appreciate their past gifts and how you won’t be able to continue your work without their support.

When possible, you should also center your message around a new case for support. Share a story about one of the beneficiaries who rely on your programs or services and ask your lapsed donors to rejoin you in your mission to help them.

Keep in mind, too, that a direct mail appeal won’t work for all donors. If there’s a specific reason why they stopped giving — orif the gifts they used to make were quite substantial — it’s going to take more than a letter to get them back. For your mid-level donors, consider making a phone call instead or even scheduling a meeting to discuss how you can regain their support.

Step 3: Make it as Personal as Possible

Making your donors feel needed and missed can be achieved by personalizing your letters as much as you can. The goal with your letter should be to make it seem like you wrote it just for them.

Here’s where the data from your CRM comes in again. As I mentioned earlier, be sure to pull as much relevant information as you can and use it to further segment your letters or even place bits of data as merge fields in each individual letter.

For example, you can say something like “We really appreciated your past gift to <<first_gift_fund_designation>>” and use a merge field to fill in which fund they supported in the past.

Or how about something like: “Knowing your personal interest in <<program_interest>>, we think you’ll be interested in the new initiatives we recently introduced in this area.”

Of course, if you don’t have a ton of lapsed donors, or if you’re writing to mid-level or even major donors, you can use the same tactic by manually personalizing each letter rather than using merge fields.

Whichever route you take, here are some more ideas for data you can keep track of and reference in your letters:

  • Date of first gift: mention how long they’ve been a part of your community.
  • Date of last gift: mention how long it’s been since they last gave.
  • Any special campaigns they gave to in the past: mention that the issues they supported before are still present today and you still need their support.
  • Any special connection they have to your organization: did they or their family member personally benefit from your services in the past?
  • Their reason for not donating anymore: you may not always know this, but if you do, it’s good to reference it.

Step 4: Provide a Clear Path for Them to Follow

The last step to the perfect lapsed donor letter is to make the reader feel ready to take action. The best way to do this to offer a clear next step.

You can write the most compelling letter ever, but if you don’t explicitly ask them to do something specific, chances of them responding are much lower.

To make this as easy for your lapsed donors as possible, be sure to do the following:

  1. Be very clear about where the funds you’re asking for will go. Focus on a specific campaign or area of need.
  2. Ask for a specific amount. When doing this, don’t ask everyone for the same amount, but instead, take into consideration what they gave in the past. You can even set up a merge field and use data about their previous gift amount to ask for an appropriate amount.
  3. If you’re sending this appeal via email, include a clear call-to-action button such as “Donate now” or “Rejoin the community”.
  4. Give options to get involved other than through making a donation. Some people might need a little warming up before they’re ready to make a financial commitment again. Consider asking them to share your campaign on social media or inviting them to your next virtual event. The key is to get them re-engaged with your organization. Their financial support might come later, after a few more interactions with you.

Lapsed Donor Letter Template

By now you should feel ready to start drafting your lapsed donor letter. However, if you’re still not quite sure where to begin, we’ve prepared a template that follows each of the steps discussed above. All you need to do is copy the document and start making it your own.

Lapsed Donor Letter Template

Regaining the support of lapsed donors may seem difficult at first, but you’ve won them over once before, and with the right message you can do it again.

Just remember to personalize as much as you can and to collect as much data as possible to help you make these customizations.

Once you’ve regained your lapsed donors, make sure to pay special attention to maintaining your relationship with them. After all, the last thing you want to do is lose them again! Think about how you’re communicating with them, how targeted your messages are and how much you’re engaging them on a regular basis. Donor stewardship plays an especially important role with these donors.

For tips on how to maintain a great relationship with your donors and make sure they stay with your organization for years, if not decades, check out the article Donor Relationships: Why You Should Treat Them Like a Marriage.

So there you have it! Do you have any other tips on winning back lapsed donors? Let us know in the comments!

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