Chances are you’ve lost a donor at some point in your organization’s history. More likely, you’ve lost dozens or hundreds.

And if you’re like some, you’ve probably lost major donors—the kind that can make or break a program.

You and I call this donor attrition—and for those in fundraising, it doesn’t come as a surprise that donors come and go. In fact, successful nonprofits count on losing donors, even while trying to reduce attrition and minimize its effect. To some extent, donor attrition may even help organizations to focus on growing their inner circle of most committed donors.

Still, if losing donors doesn’t occasionally make you want to get out of your chair and scream from your office window, it probably should.

It’s crazy to think how many donors—both individuals and foundations—stop giving. (We find that organizations typically lose 40 percent of individual donors year-over-year, and not surprisingly, attrition rates increase significantly when you consider the challenge of retaining a donor for more than two years).    

Yet the truth remains that many nonprofit leaders don’t think enough about their “lapsed” donors—the names and faces of those who haven’t given for a year, two years, five years, or more.

The good news is that organizations can uncover untold potential among their lapsed donors if they apply a bit of systematic thinking and persistence. This is true of foundations just as it is of individual donors.

Here are five steps for winning back lost donors:

1. Know who your lapsed donors are.

First, you need a database for donor records—and the information in your system needs to be accurate. This may sound elementary, but it’s painful how frequently organizations struggle to keep sufficient records. As long as you have the donors’ contact information and complete giving history (including the amounts, sources, and dates of each gift), you have what you need. Preferably, you’d also be able to sort by donor type so you can identify individuals, foundations, and perhaps corporations. Of course, you also need to be able to run some simple reports.

2. Prioritize which lapsed donors are most likely to give again.

With yearend campaigns about to be in full swing, it’s likely that your organization has run the ubiquitous “LYBUNT” report (a query that pulls donors that gave last year but not this year). If so, you’re on the right track since this cohort of recently or almost lapsed donors is the easiest to convert, especially through yearend solicitations. However, don’t stop with pulling the report. Make a plan with your staff and volunteers to call and write to these donors. And don’t just look at the donors from last year; look for indicators such as frequency of giving, longevity of giving, and gift size among donors who haven’t given in the past two years. Approach these individuals and foundations throughout the year by assigning staff to seek out relationships with these donors.

3. Communicate in a targeted way to lapsed donors.

Most fundraising communications treat everyone as generous active donors. And this makes sense since your most recent donor is most likely your next donor. However, with lapsed donors, it’s important to acknowledge the impact of their past support, share about what’s happened since they’ve given, and ask them to renew their support. If you talk with your lapsed donors, you’ll quickly find that many have simply overlooked the fact that they haven’t given recently.

4. Give your lapsed donors a shot to renew their support—don’t talk yourself out of it before you even try.

Have you reviewed your lapsed foundations donors? How about your lapsed major donors? Most organizations have a closet full of lost grants and major gifts, and for every one of these lost opportunities there’s an explanation . . . We missed that deadline. That project didn’t turn out the way the donor hoped it would. We had a falling out at the 2014 gala. Our contact at the foundation left. Our director of development fostered that relationship and she’s gone now . . . Donors stop giving for any number of reasons, and sometimes it’s our fault. Don’t let that be an excuse. Seek out and build up relationships, reconnect periodically by sending updates, and don’t tell yourself why you’ll never receive another gift.

5. Keep track of the lapsed donors you reacquire.

Just as it’s a wise practice to review how many new donors you’re acquiring each year, it’s also good to measure how many lapsed donors you’re reacquiring and how you’re doing it. Whether it’s through personal contact or mailings, you’ll find that the cost to reacquire a lapsed donor is far less than acquiring a brand new donor, and that should be cause for celebrating and promoting renewed relationships with lapsed donors.


American Philanthropic helps purpose-driven organizations achieve their fundraising goals, craft clear and compelling communications, and achieve greater influence. To learn more, visit and check out its ongoing fundraising trainings throughout the year.