Chasing Lost Donors

Chasing Lost Donors


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Several weeks ago, I posted an imaginary conversation with “Well-Meaning Tom” about a person who had made a gift of land to a land trust and subsequently hadn’t given anything at all. (See It’s OK to Ask.) In fact, I see the pattern all too often. And in some cases, it isn’t even gifts of land.

Sometimes, the giving drought is spurred by an extraordinary gift of cash (or stock). Just as Well-Meaning Tom had trouble asking for a membership renewal from someone who had just made a gift of land, many land trusts have the same trouble asking for membership renewal from those who make extraordinary gifts of cash toward a specific project.

Note that I have tried to stay away from allowing the word “major” to modify the word “donor.” One who gives $1,000 isn’t necessarily a major “donor.” They might be a major gift donor (if that was a major gift for them) or possibly just an annual giving leader.

The difference relates to how big the decision is for them. Maybe $1,000 is a HUGE gift for them. One that they needed careful consideration to make. One that they may have agonized over.

These are major gift decisions – regardless of the number of zeroes.

On the other hand, someone else might feel very comfortable making a $5,000 gift every year. This is NOT a major gift for them – it’s an annual gift. I refer to donors making the largest annual gifts, which would certainly include $5,000, as annual giving leaders.

The reason I am drawing this out is to make the same point I made in the Well-Meaning Tom post: these are completely independent decisions. It’s OK to ask for one even in the face of the other.

So, what’s up with these donors who give a major gift and then never get asked to give again?

And more importantly what can we do about it now? If it’s just one person, the answer is easy: Call them.

But, let’s say that you have a group of donors – say 20 or 30 – who made major gifts toward a specific program or project some years ago and haven’t given since. Maybe it’s because you haven’t asked; maybe not. What can you do now?

I have had two such instances within my client base recently. One involved a donor group who made large-ish gifts toward a specific project. The project was completed. The donors stopped giving. And it was complicated by several changes on the Board and staff. The relationships grew stale.

The other related to an event that encouraged large-ish gifts in support of a specific program. The gifts were “sponsorships” from individuals as well as businesses. The event was discontinued. The program was completed. The donors stopped giving.


Here’s what I told each:

First, separate those who have made other gifts from those whose only giving was to that specific program or project. What you are looking for is their primary connection to the organization – was it that specific program or project? Or is there another connection? Can we infer that they have a broader interest in the mission than just a single event? If so, then we can reconnect without necessarily using the event to do so.

If their prior engagement was related to a specific project – and their donation was more specifically a gift toward that specific project – it’s a little easier. I might suggest systematically calling them and inviting them to re-engage personally over coffee or lunch. Prepare a specific update for the project and include pictures and anecdotes. Perhaps a special “Five Years Ago This Week” publication.

You could also stage a “reunion” of sorts to revisit the accomplishment and current situation. Have the event chaired by a recognizable name – perhaps a Board member or former Board members – who was around at the time. Those who come are clearly still interested. Those who don’t or can’t could receive information about the event as well as the project. See how much fun we had? Missed you!

It’s tougher if it was an event “transaction” versus a gift. They paid for a sponsorship, enjoyed an event, and went home. Like seeing a play or a movie or a sports event. No ongoing connection to, engagement in, or commitment to the mission would be necessarily implied or should be inferred. Now you will be starting from scratch, and simply adding them back into the appeal mailing lists is probably the best course. If they respond to the appeal, their connection to the event should be noted – you should be able to use that in your donor communication.

Again, however, you might consider recreating the event. Some of these donors might consider sponsoring again.


In both cases, know that five years is a long time. Jobs change. Geography changes. Marriages change. Presidents change. I encourage a flurry of engagement activity – a campaign. But keep it bottled into a short window of time and keep your expectations pretty low. This is a rabbit hole that could eat you up.


I’d love your ideas here. Do you have a story you can share of chasing lost major gift donors?



Cheers, and Have a great week.




Photo by Markus Spiske courtesy Pexels


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  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 08:33h, 10 September

    Whether lost or not, this inspires me to send an update to donors who gave to our “bat cave” acquisition 2 years ago. Let them know about the bats, the research taking place, and the educational events we’ve held there.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 09:51h, 10 September

      And especially those donors who either had a specific affinity for the project or whose gift was one of the larger gifts to the project. Put a premium on delivering the “update” in person. Perhaps you will be able to find another project that inspires them even more!