Beware the Lapsed Donor

So when is a lapsed donor not a lapsed donor? John Grain says they may not be who you think they are.

I have been thinking a lot about lapsed donors lately. In particular about the way we define them and the way we try to ‘reactivate’ them.

Three things struck me. First, it is dangerous to simply assume a supporter is lapsed (horrible term that) if they haven’t given for a while. Second, perhaps they were never truly a donor in the first place. And third, how carefully are we thinking about what we ‘reactivate’ donors with?

In part this is because I recently received a letter from a charity asking me to renew my support for the organization. This gave me pause for thought – the thought being if I needed to ‘renew’ my support, presumably I was now considered a lapsed donor.

Yet I actually considered myself anything but, and was irritated by the charity’s use of language that created this assumption. Granted, I hadn’t given to an appeal for a while, but I still read the information they sent and I had sponsored someone quite a significant sum who was doing an event for that same charity – so to my mind, I had no need to ‘renew’ my support.

In fact, I have found this irritated response is relatively common from so-called lapsed donors. Last year on more than one occasion I was doing research for a number of clients that included groups of lapsers. In one I made the mistake of referring to the fact that none of them were actively supporting the charity any longer, and got a unanimous and very robust rebuttal of such a statement. Without exception they all considered themselves still to be supporters – they just hadn’t made a financial gift in a while. For some, that might have been quite a long while, but irrespective of that, they were not pleased at being told they had stopped supporting the charity.

I do think we could be a bit more careful, even thoughtful, about the language we use and the impression it can create. After all who wants to annoy a donor, lapsed or otherwise.

Contrast this scenario to the six organizations that I had a vague recollection of donating to once, but which I hadn’t ever given to a second time.

I know I am considered a lapsed donor by these charities. Fair enough, but actually I don’t consider myself lapsed from these charities either. My belief is someone who has only ever given one gift to your organization cannot lapse, because they were never really engaged enough to be a donor in the first place.

However, what does strike me is that including these one-time only donors in any kind of reactivation program where they receive the same communications/messages as donors who have given multiple times is clumsy and not as productive as it could be.

After all, there is a world of difference between someone who has only ever given once a couple of years ago, and someone who has given four or five or more times over a period of two or three years or longer. At the very least their level of understanding and engagement must be different.

Now while this might seem obvious, I have been surprised at how many organizations I have come across that happily put all these lapsed donors into one big pool and then tried to persuade them to come back to their charity.

With a little bit of the same attention and planning that goes into segmenting an appeal mailing, much improved results can be achieved. For example, just at the simplest level, we have seen some positive results from re-mailing one-time lapsers with the pack that they gave to in the first instance. We have also seen some greatly improved responses from tailoring copy (and scripts) to reflect accurately that donor’s previous connection with the charity – from single givers to duplicate givers to multiple givers. In some cases the results have been nothing short of startling.

Related to this, the final thing that strikes me as particularly incongruous is the basic structure and format of some charities’ reactivation programs.

Irrespective of whether a charity considers me to have lapsed, and irrespective of whether I gave one gift or 20, my basic premise is this: if I ‘lapse’ from a charity, it is because I am no longer engaging with the communications program I am being offered.

Yet far too many reactivation efforts spend a great deal of time and effort persuading folk to ‘return’ to the organization and then, if successful, put people back into the exact same program that they have lapsed from.

Which seems counter intuitive to me.

While it might take more thought, a bit more planning, and a bit more effort, doing something to distinguish the communications program for re-enthused donors would surely be worthwhile. Even a different way of talking to these people via the copy used would be a start – acknowledging somehow their return to the fold. Better still is re-engaging them in a different way to that which they supported previously (the obvious example being cash lapsers restarting on a (often low-level) regular gift and (hopefully) a different communications plan to boot.

Best of all is giving them a new way to connect altogether – introducing them back to the work of the charity via new products or initiatives and using online engagement are two obvious options.

We have seen some interesting approaches that give lapsed donors a completely different communications program over the first 12-18 months of re-engagement that are showing very encouraging first results.

Surely it has to be better to re-inspire, re-enthuse and re-vitalize rather than just reactivate and ultimately relapse!

Using all this readily available knowledge, and dare I say, common sense appropriately can reap real rewards. And in these days of squeezed purses and shallower pockets, getting increased benefits from reactivating ex-donors has to be easier and cheaper than finding new ones.

John Grain is a director of specialist fundraising consultancy John Grain Associates Ltd.

Copyright, The Resource Alliance; posted with permission.