LYBNTS (Last Year But Not This)

Dear Kim,

How long should you keep people on your list before you call them “duds?” Recently someone on our list made a large donation after ten months of seeming to be dormant. What’s the best approach? How do you know? Do you ever know?
—Milk Duds

Dear Milk,

Your question is a very important one, although generally we don’t advise calling the donors “duds” no matter how long it has been since they have given. We call them lapsed or LYBNTS (Last Year But Not This). A person is considered a current donor if they have made a gift in the last 12-14 months, and a LYBNT if they have not given for the last 24-26 months. I am assuming the person you refer to is in that category. Let’s start with your last question–do you ever know if someone is truly dormant? Probably not unless they are dead or they tell you to take their name off your list. But you can make an educated guess and there are a few variables to consider.

Most organizations look at the size of the gift in determining how long to leave a person on their list. Someone who gave $500 and hasn’t given again is someone I would really try to renew with more personal solicitation. Someone who has given $20 for five years in a row and then stops would get a longer time to renew than someone who gave $20 once. Another variable is your confidence in the accuracy of your own database and in the effort you put in to get people to renew their gift. One or two letters is not enough. Letters alone may not be enough. Many organizations call donors when there is no response to their letters. Also, the letters need to indicate that you have noticed that the donor is not responding and the last letter in the series might say, “We would love to keep you on our mailing list, but in the interest of good stewardship of money and other resources, we need to hear from you.” You enclose a card which allows the person to check a box saying they want to stay on your list, or they want to make a donation and stay on the list, or they want to be taken off the list. If you don’t hear from them after that, you take them OFF your list. Many groups threaten to take people off their list, then they don’t, thus training the lapsed donor that it doesn’t matter whether they give or not. You can hold all the names of people you have taken off your mailing list and roll them into an acquisition mailing later on. You will pick up some people that way.

One way to determine how long you keep someone on your list is to figure out your “fulfillment cost”–what does it cost you to keep someone on your mailing list? What does the newsletter cost? What do the renewal letters cost? What does entering the name in the database cost? Generally fulfillment is about $5-$15 per name on your list per year. When organizations keep hundreds of names on their list, they are sometimes spending a few thousand a year. I think that money can be better spent in more strategic acquisition of donors or more systematic renewal so that you don’t carry any duds, er, I mean lapsed donors.
—Kim