Three Ways to Get Your Old Flame Back

Re-engaging lapsed supporters and donors is a prime concern for mature nonprofit organizations

It can happen to the best of us. In our youthful shortsightedness, we might have let a good one get away. Or in the rush of our daily lives, perhaps we put a true friend on the backburner one too many times, and now we’d do anything to get that ally back on our side.

Some nonprofit organizations face a similar and common, but no less unfortunate, dilemma. This may be particularly true for mature charitable organizations that, over a 25-, 50- or 75-year history, have made many new friends and advocates over the years at the expense of letting older, established ones wither on the vine.

Often this happens by accident. [tweet bird=”yes”] Squandering proven and fruitful relationships is just not a strategic decision that most nonprofit organizations deliberately make. [/tweet] Instead, as organizations’ administrations change (people retire or pursue new opportunities), established connections may get lost in the shuffle, and institutional knowledge is not passed down, and contacts are not sustained. Additionally, as newcomers make their mark and unleash a range of changes intended to attract new audiences, the impact of long-time devotees, donors and supporters may be hastily undermined.

The end result: At best, a donor base that’s less robust than it could be. At worst, shared negative donor and supporter impressions that tarnish your organization’s brand and turn off would-be funders, volunteers and enthusiasts.

If your organization has inadvertently neglected to appreciate, recognize and retain key supporters over your long history, here’s how you can try to rebuild those connections, though you may have to eat a little crow.

Fess up. For some, issuing an actual apology to lapsed donors or supporters takes matters a bit too far – especially if there hasn’t been any true organizational or professional malfeasance. In that case, going so far as to say “I’m sorry” can be a dicey move, according to the Harvard Business Review: “For leaders to apologize . . . is therefore a high-stakes move: for themselves, for their followers, and for the organizations they represent.”

However, there are more nuanced ways to express regret for not fully appreciating and engaging former donors. If you raise a white flag with a letter, choose your words precisely and selectively. Consider using more tempered expressions such as, “It is with great regret . . . ,” “We realize that we have not done our best . . .,” or “We humbly recognize that . . .”

Though your organization may not go so far as to apologize to long-forgotten contributors, be sure not to issue a non-apology apology even if you opt to exercise sound judgement and be careful with whichever words you put in print.

Be personal. Use direct, personalized tactics when trying to re-engage former donors and backers. Formulaic and non-specific outreach approaches are not advised. That means not sending generic form letters, even if the Excel auto-fill feature is more expedient and tempting. Create personal, individual-specific letters that show you recognize and respect the history and relationship your organization and the recipient formerly shared.

Review your files and records to refresh your memory about their role and involvement with the organization. Mention events they supported, times they volunteered or the last donation they gave. We know this approach takes more time and involves research, but the positive impression it makes and the re-connection that may be forged could pay off.

Another “icing-on-the-cake” move likely to be appreciated by disengaged donors is a personal phone call. Yes, we know that people supposedly don’t like talking on the phone these days, but setting aside the time to call someone shows just how sincere your organization is.

Extend an invitation. If a prior supporter hasn’t attended any events, fundraisers, parties or activities hosted by your organization in a while, it may be because they’ve fallen off the radar since you failed to invite them. Try to make this up to lapsed donors by sending them the invitation or “Save the Date” notification for the upcoming gala or next soiree.

Take this a step further by personally contacting them by phone, extending your regards and promising to make the experience worth their while. Make good on that pledge by giving them complimentary tickets and delivering the signature VIP treatment. Do all you can to make the outing an enjoyable one for them – and don’t close the evening by specifically asking them for money. You can get to that later – after you invest the time it will take to rebuild the relationship.

How do you attempt to re-engage lapsed donors? What steps does your organization take to ensure there’s no love lost on either side? Which actions – or inactions – lead to the loss of long-time donor, volunteer or supporter involvement and giving?



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