Lapsed donors don’t think of themselves as lapsed, so don’t treat them like they’re a lost cause.
January in fundraising is an odd time. You’re either breaking open the champagne from exceeding your end-of-year goals or digging deep into planning how you’ll hit your target in the new year. Often both. Outbound development activity is often muted and almost completely focused on gratitude for last year’s gifts, and cultivation moves without big asks.
But January can also be a time to grab a new valuable piece of data: the list of those donors who are now lapsed, having not given for the whole previous calendar year (or previous two, depending on how you want to splice your data).
You probably spent a lot of time and effort trying to communicate with those donors in November and December, so it might be tempting to think of them as a lost cause or relegate them to that March prospecting mailing list and turn your attention to other things.
But there’s good reason to keep working on reactivating those donors. Most importantly, lapsed donors will almost always be more likely to give again than completely cold prospects, so it’s a better investment of scarce development dollars if your goal is to increase the size of your donor base.
First, remember that donors don’t think of themselves as lapsed. In a study AmPhil completed of over 1,000 lapsed donors to 10 organizations, 49% categorized themselves as current supporters. And that was in an audience where the median survey responder hadn’t given in more than 4 years!
In that same study, we found that 76% of lapsed donors still regard the mission of the organization as “highly important”. So we’re not talking about people losing faith in the cause or giving to completely different sectors.
So how can you capitalize on this audience in January?
First, keep communicating and *asking* this audience early in the year. It might not be appropriate yet to send hard solicitations to those who doubled their gift in December. But if you haven’t given in over a year, you bet it is. Plus, you will benefit from the relative silence of other organizations who are still in a hangover state from the previous year.
I would also encourage you to consider ways to dial up the aggressiveness of the ask with this audience, in all channels (email, mail, and phone for mid-level donors). Many of them probably don’t realize they haven’t contributed in a while, and may appreciate a reminder of that fact.
“Our records show that your last gift was on 03/31/2021. If that’s correct, we’d like to know more about your decision to stop giving.”
“Since you haven’t donated in a while, please let us know if you’d like to continue receiving information about our fight to save the rainforests. If you’d like us to take you off our update list, we can do so. But if you still think that fighting for this vital but fragile ecosystem, know that a donation of even $100 can make a huge difference today….”
You might even—and I acknowledge that this is going to feel weird to many of you—consider including lapsed donors in your annual “tax receipt” mailing which informs last years donors of their total contributions and thanks them for last year’s gifts. A big bold “Our records show that your 2023 contributions total $0.00” might not be appropriate for everyone and every organization, but it can be effective with some donors and, for the long lapsed at two years or more, there’s not really a compelling reason not to dial up the rhetoric. The problems your organization exist to solve are still in fact urgent, aren’t they? If so, there’s nothing wrong about accurately conveying those facts and the seriousness of the need for contributions.
Donor surveys are a great way to get more insight into this demographic, by the way. You’ll be surprised how many otherwise unengaged or lapsed donors will fill out substantial surveys and give you information on where your donor experience can be shored up. Even by answering the survey, they’re telling you that they still like to be involved and that another gift is certainly possible.
Another strategy might be to target lapsed mid-dollar and major donors during January. Since you won’t be making a lot of January solicitations to current major donors, you can use this time to reach out to less engaged audiences.
For the traveling major gifts officer in northern climates, think about using January to book meetings with those lapsed who winter in Florida or Arizona. Seasoned gift officers have often noted that when you meet with donors in warm climates and vacation homes, donors native to the Midwest or the Northeast are often in a very different mood than when you meet them in Chicago or New York. They are more relaxed and open to conversations about the long term, leading to very different topics and therefore different gifting opportunities.
For those skittish about hard asks in January, remember that the current tax code opens the door to more of these early-year gifts than ever. Today, fewer people are itemizing their taxes than ever, making charitable tax deductions that function on a calendar year basis less of a determining factor on gift timing than ever before.
And even for your high net worth itemizers, many are now giving through DAF accounts, where the tax deduction has already occurred and the money is no longer technically theirs. That means they have no need or incentive to push giving to the end of the year, and the psychological “pain” of gifting funds is largely removed from the equation.
Lastly, don’t forget about planned giving asks. That may sound crazy. Why would we ask for a planned gift from someone who hasn’t been giving in cash for a year or two?
The reason to do so is that many people will leave gifts in their will or estate plans without having ever given cash gifts. If they are still involved with your cause or organization, as volunteers perhaps, or even if just on the level of reading newsletters or emails, they might be very open to making a gift that costs them nothing now. This may be particularly true for lower and mid-level donors who manage their assets conservatively and may be on a fixed income, which can be behind the initial lapsing behavior.