Lapsed Donors: How to Write a Fundraising Letter That Wins Them Back

by Alan Sharpe, August 4, 2008

Lapsed donors are valuable. Unlike strangers, they have supported you before. And they believe in your mission enough to have sent you a gift (or gifts) or to have made a commitment to your support. That means they are worth mailing to. You can expect to receive an 11 percent response rate from a mailing to lapsed donors if your results are typical, says fundraising expert Kent Dove (Conducting a Successful Fundraising Program. Jossey-Bass, 2001).

Here are some tips on writing an appeal letter that will win them back. In the fund development profession, the letter you write is called a recovery letter because it aims to recover donors who have lapsed.

1. Write to one person
You will likely not know why each donor has lapsed. Donors stop giving for any number of reasons. Some forget. Some lose interest. Some get distracted with the arrival of children-or grandchildren. Others decide they do not like your new executive director’s ties. Each donor is an individual, and the way to win each one back is to send a warm, sincere, personal letter from your heart to theirs.

2. Say “we miss you”
What you are trying to communicate in your letter is that you miss the donor more than their donations, which should always be true. You have lost a supporter first, and a source of support second. So write your letter in such a way that you show your concern for the person. Here are some lines to use:

We have not heard from you since March 2004. We miss you! We are counting on your renewed support this year for …
We miss you. We miss your moral support, and we miss your financial support.
We sure have missed hearing from you these last few years/months.

3. Invite the donor to come back
Provide a tangible way for the donor to renew support. Ask for a gift toward a particular project. Do something to involve the donor and make them take action.

4. Customize your appeal
Whenever possible, customize your recovery letter to the unique circumstances of each lapsed donor. For example, if you know from your database that a donor only sent a gift once a year at Christmas, mention that in your letter. The more that your letter appeals to the interests of your donors, the more likely you are to recover them.

5. Match your language to the length of lapse
Statistically speaking, the longer you’ve had to wait for a gift, the less likely you are to receive one. That means you should segment your database into groups of 12-, 24- and 36-month lapsed donors (or another criteria that you use), and send each group a slightly different appeal. To a donor who has not given in a year, for example, you can say, “We miss you.” To the donor who has not sent a gift in three years, you can say, “You have supported us in the past. Your gifts made a difference. I urge you to renew your commitment by sending a gift today.” The idea is to be casual with the newly-lapsed donors and progressively more vigorous with donors who have not given in two or more years.

6. Tailor your ask
Some of your lapsed donors will have given once and never again. Others will have given faithfully each month for years. Each donor demands a different letter. The more faithful your donor has been, the more that donor requires a personalized letter.

7. Win back their hearts and minds
Lapsed donors need to be persuaded again to support your mission. You’ll need to re-state your case for support, and address any reasons you know of for donors stopping their support.

The two most important things to say in a recovery letter are that you miss the donor and that their support made a big difference in the lives of the people your organization serves. “A carefully crafted appeal that lets past donors know they are important, appreciated and missed almost always produces a net income,” says Stanley Weinstein (The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management).