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Would you live next door to a lapsed donor?

Would you live next door to a lapsed donor?

Our great fundraising profession has slipped unthinkingly into some outlandishly inappropriate language. I’m talking about the terminology we fundraisers routinely deploy when we refer to those nice people, our donors and potential donors.

We casually describe them as targets, prospects and segments. We seek to acquire, convert, retain and upgrade them. We talk of optimising their revenue potential and subject them to audits, scripts, screening and customised packages. We wax long about returns on investment, low value responders, mid and major donors, or HNWIs. We refer to our worst performers as the residue, the sediment, even the dead pool.

Charming, it’s not. A 21st century fundraiser’s lexicon would hardly make a donors’ heart soar. More likely it must make any supporter stumbling across our patois feel something akin to a slab of meat at the butcher’s.

The most carelessly denigrating term of them all, I feel (though I should suspend judgement till I’ve heard Dr Andrea Macrae’s conclusions, see below*), is that super-villain arch-nemesis of fundraisers everywhere, the lapsed . Anyone deserving such a label must surely be irredeemably suspect, a lost soul. To me lapsed donor implies character flaws at least as serious as America’s ‘moral turpitude’, or that biblical condemnation of old, the ‘fallen woman’.

I often describe my mother’s experiences at the hands of direct mailing fundraisers. As she grew elderly and a little forgetful my mother – I hesitate to admit it but yes, even my sainted mum herself – became a lapsed donor. Not deliberately, you’ll appreciate. Not with any malice aforethought or neglectful intent.

But what a very unpleasant experience it was, for her.

For years my mum supported ten or more British charities. These organisations often made her very uncomfortable, reporting as they did examples of cruelty to animals or children, dangers to health and other diverse threats and nastiness. Then in turn they’d comfort and reassure her with details of their campaigns and achievements that she’d contributed to, that she could identify with and feel a part of.

She loved supporting them. Then quietly, as the years passed, she stopped sending in her regular gifts. Not by choice, but because she’d become old. It started with overlooked payments and missed mailings. That’s when she became a lapsed donor. At this point in her vulnerable twilight years she began to be besieged by the very charities she’d once sustained, with ever more strident demands to reactivate, to renew her support.

And really she didn’t like that one bit.

So what had changed, for my mum?

  • Her chosen causes lost sight of what she wanted and how she expected to be treated.
  • They were unaware of how her life was changing.
  • They behaved as if she’d stopped supporting them, when that wasn’t in her mind at all.
  • They started focusing only on what they wanted.
  • And they wanted more, and more, and more.
  • So they decided that was what they should go after.
  • …which made my mother feel unacceptably uncomfortable.
  • So she stopped believing in them at all.

The point is that by referring to and treating my mum as a lapsed donor these charities not only made her life unpleasant, they all also lost out on any prospect of picking up a legacy when, a short while later, my mother made her last will.

What’s in a name, or a negative term?

Well, if it blinds us to the individual behind it and leads us to see people as financial targets to be reactivated rather than customers whose joy and satisfaction should be our first priority, perhaps there’s quite a lot.

For putting our donors’ interests, not our financial targets, at the heart of our strategies is the most important thing we need to do now, to right what we’ve recently got so badly wrong.

*Dr Andrea Macrae of Oxford Brookes University is leading a major project for the Commission on the Donor Experience, investigating how fundraising language can better engage with and meet the needs of donors.

Published with kind permission of Ken Burnett.


Photo: draw labels by Mark Carrel on


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