Lapsed in Translation

Two things irritate me more than anything as a donor. First, fail to thank me promptly. Second, imply, even in gentle terms, that my continued support is overdue or inactive when in my mind it is not.

As a fundraising professional, like most, I am diligent about ensuring the former. There is no excuse, ever, for a donor not to be thanked promptly and sincerely.

But I am struck how quickly the fundraising industry as a whole is guilty of the latter.

“It’s been a while since we heard from you…”

“You’ve been so loyal in the past, I hope you will return to us…”

And the annoyingly presumptive:

“Perhaps our letters have crossed…”

“I know economic times are tough, so perhaps you have more pressing concerns…”

The term used occasionally is “WHYFU,” as in “Why Have You Forsaken Us?” The idea, I suppose, is to leverage one of the accepted emotional drivers in direct response copywriting — guilt — to drive a lapsed donor back into the fold.

That may be the crux of the issue. Within the discipline of list segmentation, it is accepted DM practice to define donors who have not given in a prescribed period as “lapsed”. For some non-profits, that may be as little as 13 months between gifts.

And that’s OK as a segment descriptor as long as you don’t start speaking to the donors within that segment as if you consider them such.

Cue the copywriter.

Although the strategy may be sound — making them feel guilty for their inactivity — we must be careful not to actually say it in those terms. In fact, it makes sense to reinforce the importance of the continuity of their past commitment, focusing on the steadiness of their best range of frequency in the past, rather than the recency of their last gift.

“When times are tough, I know I can count on you…”

“You’ve always been there for us, through thick and thin, and I hope you know how much I appreciate it…”

“Your support has been a reason we were able to treat over 15,000 kids last year…”

The fact is, many engaged donors think in terms of yearly giving when they think of their favored charities. They budget their once-a-year gifts to a select few. And that means calendar years, not strict clusters of 12 consecutive months. Furthermore, they may not be tied to a pre-determined time of the year to give, especially in a turbulent financial environment.

An example: Aunt Ramona gave in January 2009, March 2010, and June 2011, and not yet in 2012 (although she will before December 31 to claim her tax deduction). To her way of thinking she is still giving annually, once a year, for the last 4 years.

Her charity, on the other hand, might very well have described her as lapsed in February 2010, again in April 2011 and again in July of this year.

It’s certainly one thing to point out to a donor that ”we haven’t heard from you” and “we want you back” if it has been literally years since the last gift. But use that language on donors (like me and Aunt Ramona) who think they are regular annual givers, and you risk weakening rather than cultivating donor relationships.