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What to Do When Donors Go Dark

It's a question our team is asked all the time—what do you do when a loyal donor suddenly stops giving? After all, it's up to us as donor relations professionals to build and nurture these relationships, so how do you handle it when you've done all you can and a donor still stops supporting your cause? We asked our team to provide their best tips on what to do when donors go dark:

Lynne I think when donors go dark we have to realize that often times its not about us. So much is going on in their lives too and we are just one component of their complex lives. So don't take it personally. In addition, remember that one unique, personal communication can make all the difference!!

When donors go dark, try something unorthodox. Maybe its a package in the mail, maybe its a shared experience or a link to a performance. Mostly, I try to do something NOT related to the organization or their giving and related directly to the donor instead! Maybe a special candy they love or a link to a song by their favorite music artist, something to stand out in the crowd!


When donors go dark, it’s an excellent time to assess how you are communicating with them.  Are you only reaching out to make an ask, or are you balancing asks with engagement, impact and thanks?  And the cold hard truth is you may be flooding their inbox – so be prepared to dial down the quantity and turn up the quality.   For example, just because they gave to four different giving-day projects doesn’t mean they suddenly want four deans’ reports from four colleges and schools on your campus. Make sure your communications are purposeful and meaningful and not too frequent. 

And when in doubt, reach out and ask how frequently they want to hear from you and what they’d like to receive.  And above all, respect the feedback and the direction donors provide to you.


When donors go dark often times there is a good reason. When this happens I like to get a team of people together who have a relationship with this person and try to learn why.  (Organization leaders, department chairs/faculty/researchers, development officers, donor relations team members, prospect research team - anyone who interacts or can add fresh insight on this donor.)  First we need to seek to understand -  Is it something we did? Or didn't do? Has something major happened in his/her/their life? Have his/her/their circumstances changed? Then once we understand we need a strategy for outreach. Who is the best person to reach out? When is the right time? What will we say? What is our hoped for outcome? Is it realistic? What will happen if they do not re-engage? And finally - we work the plan, follow up, share information as you receive it, and revise the plan when necessary.  Stay vigilant because remember if you do not some other organization will.  

Another suggestion when a key donor goes dark is to acknowledge it. You know their preferred method of communication - so use that to reach out by phone, mail or email. Be honest - tell them that you have missed them and noticed their absence. Who does not like to feel missed?  

Continue to communicate with your key donors. They may have gone dark for a reason unknown to you but do not assume they are done with your organization. We had a key donor who was very involved at UC Davis - his family named a building on campus. He was the chair of our first ever campaign. He was engaged. Then he went dark. Just quit communicating with us all together. We kept communicating with him - acknowledging the impact of his giving to UC Davis, sharing news from campus, etc. And then the pandemic hit and he received some information about our research in this area and he reached out to us to learn more. We kept nurturing the relationship of this important donor and when he was ready he connected with us. Now we are in conversations on his next transformational gift.  


When looking at donor retention broadly and trying to determine why donors may not be coming back to your organization, always survey your supporters directly. We can't fix something if we don't know it's broken, or why it's broken. Consider broad-based surveys for your lapsed donors on an annual basis. This will help you gauge where your organization is succeeding and where there are holes to patch or procedures to fix. Let them know you have noticed their absence and directly ask them why they have stopped giving. Ask them how you can bring them back into the fold. (And then don't forget to recognize them in a special manner when they DO come back!)

For a top level donor who has disengaged, it would be the perfect opportunity to do an individual impact report highlighting their long and generous support of your organization. Remind them of all they have accomplished through their philanthropy and the beneficiaries that are better off because of their support. My favorite question to ask a donor when delivering/presenting this report (always in person) is "what would you like this report to look like 10 years from now?" It opens the door for conversations around their passion areas, propensity to give again, and what they need from you to continue in this relationship.   

How do you engage with donors who have gone dark? We'd love to hear it! Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.


The DRG Group


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