I have never loved the term “lapsed donor.” The phrase carries strong negative connotations, hinting that someone is in a fallen state, or at least outside the fold. Suffice it to say, don’t ever tell a lapsed donor they are a lapsed donor.

But nonprofits need some term for donors who have given more than once in the past, but haven’t given in a specified period time. I welcome a better term, if readers have suggestions. Nonprofits also need to create a working definition to identify lapsed donors and a plan to try to reengage them – without chasing them away from your organization for good.

The definition of a lapsed donor varies from one nonprofit to the next. The key points are that a nonprofit has a definition in place and a software/donor tracking system that allows it to identify and engage the donor. First of all, to be considered a lapsed donor, an individual must have given at least two gifts. (Someone who has given a single gift is simply a one-time donor.) But how much time must pass until a donor falls into this category? Is someone a lapsed donor if they haven’t given since January 1 of the prior year? Two years prior? I’d argue that at least a year and a half should have gone by without an additional gift before a donor enters the lapsed category. (Hopefully, your nonprofit is reaching out to donors at least a few times a year and trying to prevent someone from falling into this category.)

Once you’ve identified a group of donors you’d like to reengage, what do you do about them? Do you ask for a gift outright or opt for a softer approach? As a rule, nonprofits tend to seek donor support too infrequently, rather than too often. But in this case, a straight-up ask – by phone call, letter, or email – might push the donor away for good. Just think about it: what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear from someone with whom you haven’t had contact in a while? It might be “how nice to hear from you.” But you know who they are, the people who only reach out when they want something. Likewise, a donor may also feel that the nonprofit only reaches out when it is looking for money and that the relationship is one-sided and transactional.

Relationship building lies at the heart of donor cultivation. Representatives of a nonprofit organization should personally meet with as many lapsed donors as is feasible. The donor — or the donor’s capability — should be at a respectable level to warrant a personal meeting, but I’d urge your organization to err on the liberal side since a personal meeting (or other type of outreach) can go a long way. Cultivate an informational and not transactional tone. The nonprofit professional or lay leader should present an overall update on the organization’s activities, and/or provide an in-depth report on a new initiative. If there are existing or new volunteer opportunities, this is your chance to inform donors directly. One of the best ways to build lasting relationships is through volunteer experiences. Keep in mind that engaged donors generally continue their commitment and usually increase their financial support year after year.

Holding a meeting presents a perfect opportunity to ask about the donor’s thoughts and experiences about the organization. Allow the individual or couple a chance to be heard. It is also the ideal occasion to learn more about the donor’s interests and other philanthropic commitments. I stress that this is not the time to ask the donor why they haven’t given in the past year. In this context, such a question connotes a sense of entitlement. Nonprofits cannot afford the luxury of feeling entitled, nor can they depend on long-term institutional loyalty from donors. It is called giving because donors are not required to contribute, but have a genuine desire to do so. Nonprofits should not convey a sense of guilt, but rather encourage a strong, positive desire to donate and to invest in the future of the group. Personal meetings enable your organization to seek donor input, to learn more about your donors, and to excite people about what the nonprofit is working on. Consider offering donors the chance to think about the new information you have presented and let them know that you plan to follow up with a more detailed conversation about their financial support.

You can’t accomplish all of these things with an email, letter or phone call, but these are solid options for reopening a dialogue with any donor who has supported your organization in the past. Consider mailing lapsed donors a targeted programmatic update or deeper explanation of a new program. You want to reignite interest, not scare people away. And always remember, you are presenting donors with the opportunity to make a difference in a meaningful cause. Nonprofits may ask for gifts, but they also give back to their donors in incalculable ways.

A nonprofit consulting firm like Evans Consulting Group will help you improve donor relationships and surpass your fundraising goals. Contact us to discuss fundraising services and more.