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Writing a Recovery Letter to Win Back Lapsed Nonprofit Donors

Lapsed donors once gave to your nonprofit but stopped for one reason or another. By bringing them back, you can boost fundraising without having to find new donors. One way to do this is with a recovery letter. Here’s how to write one with maximum effect.

The Difference Between Lapsed Donors and Former Donors

Do you know the difference between a lapsed donor and a former donor? Both used to give to your organization. Neither currently do. So what’s the difference? With a lapsed donor, the cessation of giving is more recent. A former donor has not given to your organization in a long time.

The line between a lapsed and former donor is not rigidly defined across the industry. It can vary with how your membership or donations are structured. If your donors renew their memberships yearly, you might consider someone who fails to renew after one year to be lapsed. Another nonprofit might not consider a donor lapsed until two or three years have passed.

Regardless of where you draw the line, three-plus years without giving almost always makes someone a former donor.

Next question: why does the distinction matter? In both cases, the person used to give and you want them to give again, right? It matters because, in general, lapsed donors are easier to win back. They should be your top targets when sending recovery letters.

The Purpose of a Recovery Letter

A recovery letter is what you write to a lapsed donor to win them back. Its ultimate purpose is to compel them to start giving again.

Savvy nonprofits don’t state that ultimate purpose up-front. Why? Because it comes off like a generic request for money. Those don’t connect with people in any meaningful or positive way. They usually end up in the round file.

Instead, the smart nonprofit approaches the recovery letter as a way to reach out and reconnect. That means being warm, friendly, genuine. It involves asking questions and showing concern for the person, not just as a donor but as a human being.

What’s new with them? Have they had any significant changes in their life? Any questions or concerns about the organization? Anything the organization can help them with?

In taking this approach, you accomplish two things. One, you take the first step toward rebuilding a relationship. Two, through this type of dialogue, you often uncover the reason the donations stopped.

Structuring and Organizing Your Recovery Letter

The structure of a recovery letter is important. It should include the right information, its language should match the length of the lapse, and it must appeal to both the head and heart.

Important Things to Include

The most successful appeal letters feature the following elements:

A personalized approach. Personalizing a recovery letter means more than calling the donor by name instead of “to whom it may concern.” A quality appeal letter speaks to the recipient as an individual. It asks about their life, their kids, their career — things that apply only to them. Sure, this takes longer than whipping out a generic form letter. But the results make the time investment well worth it.

A reminder of how they’ve helped. A good lapsed donor letter lets the person know how much they’ve helped in the past and how much they’re missed. People loved to know they’re valued, that their actions are making a difference. An effective appeal letter reminds donors of this fact.

A soft yet clear call to action. The donor is more likely to donate again if given a specific reason and an easy means to do so. A strong recovery letter might mention a new project coming up and provide an easy way to donate to it.

Keeping the Length of Lapse in Mind

A solid appeal letter treats a donor who last gave one year ago differently from one who hasn’t given in almost three years. For donors with shorter lapses, an assumptive close can be effective. For instance, “Your gift last year helped us do X, Y, and Z. We look forward to putting your gift this year toward A, B, and C.”

An effective recovery letter to a donor with a longer lapse looks a little different. It acknowledges that the organization hasn’t heard from them in a while. It assumes the donor might be out of the loop and brings them up to speed on new projects before asking for their help again.

Appealing to the Head and the Heart

Ever been faced with a decision and felt like your heart overruled your head? Or vice versa?

It happens to everyone. Your donors are no different. The best way to avoid this dilemma is to appeal to both the head and the heart.

A good recovery letter appeals to the head by offering specifics on where donor money goes and how it helps the community. It appeals to the heart through personal stories, pictures, and other items that spur emotion.

A child literacy nonprofit might appeal to the head with facts and figures about rising reading test scores. To appeal to the heart, it might offer a personal story, complete with pictures, of a child who benefited from the program.

Tailoring Your Ask

The best recovery letters tailor their requests to each specific donor. They don’t treat every donor the same. A donor who gave $1 million last year shouldn’t be approached the same way as one who gave $100 three years ago.

Before writing appeal letters, savvy nonprofits do a little research. They learn about their lapsed donors and devise an action plan for each. That way, each donor gets a letter that speaks to them personally.

With a little effort, you can win back lapsed donors and make them current donors again. Mastering the recovery letter is the best way to make that happen.

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