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7 letter-writing tips to win back your lapsed donors

March 15, 2022
A nonprofit professional leans over her colleague's desk as he writes, offering him some letter-writing tips to win back lapsed donors.

Donor lapse is normal for nonprofit organizations to experience, but by being proactive and learning who is lapsing and why, you can craft a plan to regain their support. Reactivating lapsed donors can be as simple as reaching out with personalized communications. With the right lapsed donor letter, you can rebuild these important relationships.

Let’s start with the basics to understand what a lapsed donor is and why they lapse.

What is a lapsed donor?

A lapsed donor is a supporter who hasn’t contributed to your organization in a year or more. There are many reasons for a former supporter to stop giving that are outside of your control. For example, their financial situation could have changed. However, a nonprofit’s actions—or inactions—can also influence donor lapse.

Think about your past stewardship efforts. Did you recognize each gift? Did you show donors how their contributions were being used? Was there anything else you could have done to increase donor retention? By identifying lapsed donors and possible reasons for their departure, your nonprofit can brainstorm ways to reactivate their support and prevent future lapses.

How can nonprofits reactivate lapsed donors?

Lapsed donors are valuable. Unlike potential new donors, they have supported you before, demonstrating that they have a vested interest in your purpose.

Consider winning back their support with a sincere appeal letter. A lapsed donor letter, or recovery letter, encourages past supporters to give again through compelling and personal language.

7 tips for writing an effective lapsed donor letter

The following seven tips will help your nonprofit write a successful letter that can bring your lapsed donors back into the fold.

1. Write to each donor personally

The first step in a lapsed donor appeal is to identify the recipient. Use your nonprofit CRM to pull data about donors and decide which donors should receive a letter. Even with limited time and resources, you can make an impact by targeting high-value donors to win back their support.

Then, get personal. Donors can tell when an organization sends out a mass appeal. Rather than opening your letter with an impersonal greeting, such as “Dear valued donor,” greet them by name, reference their past engagement, and tailor your donation ask to their average giving amount. An authentic letter can drive meaningful support to your cause.

2. Say “we miss you”

A lapsed donor letter should communicate that you miss the donors more than their donations. Remember that there’s a human behind every donation that believes in your cause, and they should come first. Write your letter in a way that conveys your concern for the person. Here are some phrases to keep in mind as you draft your letter:

  • “We haven’t heard from you since last year. We miss you!”
  • “We miss having you as part of our family.”
  • “We’ve missed hearing from you over the last year.”

To win back your lapsed donors, let them know that your nonprofit has noticed their absence and is still thinking of their personal connection to the cause.

3. Share a story of impact and need

When possible, center your lapsed donor letter around creating a sense of need. Start with an impact story that sparks emotion and shows how your nonprofit relies on donations to make a difference.

Focus on a real person who benefits from your programs or services. Then, introduce a specific benchmark you want to reach to stress the urgency of your cause. For instance, you could tell an impact story in just a few sentences:

“Your last gift helped us feed hungry children like Nala. She now has the carefree childhood that she deserves. But, we still have a lot of work to do. By the end of the month, we need to feed 100 more children. Will you rejoin our cause?”

Sharing these stories will allow you to connect with lapsed donors and show that your nonprofit needs their renewed support.

4. Appeal to their habits and interests

Some of your lapsed donors are one-time donors, while others have given faithfully for months or years. Each donor requires a different appeal that aligns with their relationship with your nonprofit and interests. The more loyal your donor has been, the more that donor requires a tailored letter with a personalized ask amount.

For example, if you know from your database that a donor made an annual gift to your year-end giving campaign, mention that in your letter. Or, if another donor supported only a specific area of your work, mention your goals in that area and how they can help. Consider this example:

“The last time we heard from you, you generously responded to the humanitarian crisis in Honduras. You sent us a gift that helped us meet the immediate needs of that emergency. Today, I am writing to you because I think you can help us overcome another crisis.”

When donors resonate with your letter, they will feel inspired to recommit to your cause.

5. Match your language to the length of donor lapse

Statistically speaking, the longer your nonprofit has to wait for a gift, the less likely you are to receive one. That means you should segment your donors based on the length of their lapse and send each group a different appeal.

Consider the following examples when matching your language to the date of a donor’s last engagement:

  • One year lapsed: “Your financial support in 2021 made a difference. Your gift at the end of this year can help our nonprofit make an even bigger impact.”
  • Two years lapsed: “Your financial support in recent years was a great help to us. Now I’d like you to renew your support by joining our fight against childhood cancer.”
  • Three years lapsed: “We haven’t heard from you for quite some time. Because your past support has made a difference, I think you can help us with our new campaign.”

Be casual with newly lapsed donors and more vigorous with donors who haven’t given in two or more years.

6. Give the donor actionable steps

Provide a clear path for lapsed donors to reconnect with your cause by giving them actionable next steps.

Remember to diversify your engagement opportunities to get a better chance at capturing your lapsed donors’ attention. For example, you could ask them to:

  • Donate to a particular campaign.
  • Subscribe to your newsletter.
  • Attend an upcoming event.
  • Volunteer for your programs.

Just remember to tailor the opportunities to each donor’s interests and preferences. If a past supporter only participated in online events, they might not be interested in participating in your bike-a-thon.

7. Win back their hearts and minds

The last thing your lapsed donor letter needs to do is drive home the emotional impact of your organization and back it with logical reasoning. A final call-to-action does just that.

If you run an animal rescue, you might conclude your letter with, “We’ve already saved the lives of 200 stray animals. Will you help us save just one more?” Not only does this help your audience understand that they have a critical role to fill, but it also motivates them to take action.

Regaining support from lapsed donors

Reactivating lapsed donors may seem overwhelming. But remember, you won their support before. With the right letter, you can do it again.

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