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Thursday, January 18, 2018

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Donor Disconnects - Where did those loyal donors go?
Mary Downey

September, 2008

With the economy in more turmoil than most of us have seen in years, it is more important than ever to retain our loyal donors.  But unless we are vigilant, we may find that our “lapsed” donor pool is growing.   What causes previously loyal donors to stop giving?  Do you have a plan to identify and retain or reacquire your lapsed donors?  I haven’t conducted a scientific survey, but through my experience with nonprofits I have encountered several reasons that a previously loyal donor will stop giving and these reasons usually fall into two categories:  issues caused by your charity or issues specific to the donor.   

If the reason is caused by something the charity did or did not do, we are probably dealing with a “customer service” issue.  Loyal donors need to be treated well, and certain incidents might cause a donor to suddenly drop off your donor rolls. 

Poor communication

·         It is increasingly important to acknowledge gifts in a timely manner and to systematically and frequently thank donors.  This is basic donor cultivation and stewardship, and a donors can become unhappy when they feel they are not appreciated. 

·         Donors become justifiably upset when gifts are not acknowledged properly or when they request information that is not received. 

·         Donors can get very frustrated or just give up when they call to make a donation and have to explain what they want to 3 or 4 people before they are transferred to the right staff person.

·         Poor follow-up with donors is a relationship killer.  Don’t promise what you cannot deliver and always follow-up with donors when you say you will, even if you have to give them bad news. 

Technical difficulties

·         Some of the angriest donors I have had to deal with were upset because, after years of giving to a charity, their name was spelled wrong or was not included in the proper donor giving list.  Database and donor management is critical.

·         Also included in this category are requests for name or address changes or “do not mail” requests that take weeks or months to accomplish. On the other hand, the charity may have done everything right and still lose a loyal donor.  In my experience, the reason most donors stop giving to a charity is usually a specific donor issue.   

·         Older donors stop making their regular gifts because they simply need those dollars now for living expenses.

·         General economic conditions have put a severe dent in the budget and the donor’s discretionary income has decreased.

·         The donor has had a life-changing event that refocuses their interests or ability to give: o   death of a loved one, which creats a new-found interest in preventing or curing a social ill or disease; o   new friends who introduced your donor to new “causes” to support;

o   marriage and/or divorce;

o   change in social status;

o   changes in family circumstances, i.e. the need to give financial support to family/parents /children. 

The fact is, we will not know why the donor cannot or will not continue to give to our charity unless we ask.  If we have cultivated good relationships with our most loyal donors, which we should have done, our answer may be just a phone call away.  Realistically, of course, we cannot have close relationships with every donor.  But for our most loyal donors (not necessarily just the major donors) we should have the ability to track significant changes in giving patterns if only to say “how can we help” or “have we done something wrong?”  With current economic conditions, this may be a good time to review or create new standard operating procedures for dealing with lapsed donors. 

1.      Have a tracking system that alerts you to changes in donor patterns for your “loyal donor” group.

2.      Set up a system of steps to contact lapsed donors and have a conversation – you can’t fix the problem until you know what the problem is.

3.      Use telephone, mail and email or a combination of all to follow-up with donors and document your attempts.

4.      Consider using Board members to help with telephone calls, particularly if the Board member already knows the donor.  A call from a Board member may be more meaningful to an unhappy donor.

5.      Show real concern for the donor and track responses; is there a pattern of similar responses that identify a systematic problem? 

We all know that it is easier and cheaper to retain good donors that to acquire new ones. If donors can no longer support you with current gifts, suggest other way they can stay involved with your organization, perhaps through volunteering or attending free events.  Loyal donors are also your best prospects for planned gifts, so it is important to continue that relationship by finding other ways to stay connected. 

Show concern and have a non-judgmental attitude when communicating with lapsed donors because in some cases the donor may be embarrassed by his inability to continue to support your charity.  If the reason is the fault of your organization, fix the problem if possible but apologize at the very least.  If the reason is due to donor circumstances, acknowledge that you understand but emphasize your desire to continue the relationship you have cultivated over the years.  Lapsed donors do not necessarily have to become lost donors Check out Mary Downey at


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