Tips on Calling Lapsed Donors

Dear Kim,

I am on the Board of a local arts organization. We noticed that a disturbing number of people who formerly made annual contributions to the organization didn’t give us any money this year. I volunteered to call each of our former donors to figure out why they are no longer financial supporters and to get information about their attitude toward the organization and advice on how we can improve. Do you have any suggestions for how I should open the conversation and for questions I should ask? Any other tips on how to perform this task?
—Please Don’t Say This Is the End

Dear Steps,

I am really glad that you are taking the initiative to call your lapsed donors, learn why they have stopped giving you money, and invite them back into the fold. Your actions are pro-active and show the donors that you value their contribution. Many organizations just let their donors go, which can give them the message that their support wasn’t all that important in the first place.

You need to figure out one thing before you start calling. When you say “a disturbing number of people…didn’t give us money this year”, do you mean over 33%? Many people are surprised to learn that you should expect about 1/3 of your donors not to renew from one year to the next. This is called your “attrition rate.” Be sure you have figured this out before you think you have a serious problem. It is important to keep track of your attrition rate so that you know how many new donors you need to recruit every year just to keep your donor base the same size.

As for tips about making these calls:

1) Identify yourself right away as a volunteer board member.

2) Be prepared for people to be wary, abrupt, curt, rushed, and to sound disappointed when you say who you are. Take none of this personally. Some people will actually be pleased that you took the time to call and hear what they think about your organization.

3) Decide what you are going to do when you get voice mail. I would suggest hanging up the first time and leaving a message the second time. (Obviously, you will need to figure out ahead of time what message you are going to leave.)

4) You will probably be able to get at least 10% of the donors to renew. Mostly you will be leaving messages, finding out that numbers have been disconnected or finding out that the donor has lost their job or gone through some other life change that precludes them from giving right now. You may want to offer unemployed people some way to stay involved in your organization until they get on their feet.

5) If people are critical of your organization, just listen and get as much information as you can. If it is easy to straighten out a misunderstanding, then do that, but don’t argue with them.