Reignite Your Lapsed Supporters

By David A. Mersky

You just finished your year-end rush and have begun planning for next year. But before you turn the calendar page to February, one important question remains: Who were the people, no matter how many times you asked, who gave in two years ago but did not give last year?

These people — your lapsed supporters — represent an enormous fundraising opportunity for your nonprofit … provided you can understand what happened and reawaken their support for your organization.

Some suggestions…

#1. Know who your lapsed donors are.

Identify them by the date and amount of their most recent gift and by the date and amount of their largest gift to your organization. Then do your research to understand their philanthropic capacity. 

Electronic vetting of both donors and prospects will provide a deep understanding of where these individuals sit in terms of their publicly acknowledged gifts, political participation, compensation, board memberships, place(s) of residence, and overall wealth. You may not be able to speak with all lapsed donors; this type of analysis allows you to focus on those who represent the greatest potential.

Further, if you received a five-hundred-dollar donation in the past but see that this same individual gifted five thousand to another nonprofit, you know that there is an opportunity to win some of that love for your organization.

#2. Be ready with an apology.

As you begin the process of reconnecting, be prepared to apologize, especially if you discover that the reason this person did not renew their support was because they were upset about something you did or did not do (such as failing to thank them properly).

“I’m so sorry we did not connect last year. I would really like to understand why such a faithful supporter of our organization as you, who gave $X for Y years, did not do so last year. I want to make sure it was nothing we did so we can be certain it does not happen again.”

#3. Bring them up to date. 

Remind them that at one point they were among your valued supporters, whether through their time, talent, or treasure.

Then share how their contribution in the past has enabled you to … serve 500 kids in your mental health clinic; help 250 people find new jobs or get trained on new skills; enable 600 inner-city kids to go to summer camp.

In other words, reconnect them to the “Why” behind their past giving.Help them rediscover the affinity they felt for your organization. You might ask a series of open-ended questions:

“What do you remember about your time with us?”

“What past achievement of our organization are you most proud of?”

“What did you find most inspiring?”

These questions are intended to help restart a two-way conversation.

#4. Regain their trust. 

This first reconnection is not the time to ask for money. Instead, engage them with future-oriented questions: 

“What do you think about the fact that we sent so many kids to summer camp?”

“What do you think we could have done differently (if there were problems)?”

“How might we improve program X or deliver it more effectively?”

Are they optimistic about the future? Do they share fond memories about the past? Are they energized about your recent achievements and generally satisfied with the direction of your organization?

Ask for their opinion (which they are generally happy to share) and listen, listen, listen.

#5. Determine the next step. 

If you feel that the embers have been reignited, it may be time to engage them in a straightforward way: Come to an event. Join us in volunteering at our foodbank. Consider mentoring one of our young people.

When you reengage them in activity, their money will follow.

That said, if none of the steps you have taken have been successful, at some point you have to bless and release them. As a former client of mine, a Jesuit priest, used to say to me: “After I have done everything I possibly can to engage with a donor, I wish them well. I tell them our work will continue and we hope they will resume their support. Above all, I wish them all the best in whatever they do.”

You want to leave them not with a sense that you feel resentment, but that you recognize them as valued members of the community who are choosing to do other things with their resources. All of this serves to give you positive buzz in the community.

Planning is key

After current donors, your most ideal prospects are your lapsed supporters. They are familiar with your organization and have already demonstrated a willingness to support your goals and purpose. Often, all it takes to bring them back is your sincere outreach and attention.

The beginning of your annual plan should be to focus on as many of these promising individuals as possible.