Email may be the best kept fundraising secret for your nonprofit! Not because you aren’t already using it, but because there is so much opportunity to change and test different parts of a fundraising email to see the impact on results. Today, we’re going to discuss some ideas of things you can put into practice right now to improve your email fundraising.

1. The Subject Gets Me to Open the Email

The purpose of the subject line is grab the reader’s attention and get her to open your email. Think about your own experience with email, whether you’re reading it on your desktop or mobile device, you are often simply trying to get through your email. You receive far more messages each day than you want to respond to and you’re just searching through trying to find the ones that need immediate attention before you move onto the less important emails.

If you don’t have a catchy subject line, you likely aren’t going to grab the reader’s attention. Your goal is to simply get the reader to open the email so you can grab her attention with the email content. So how do you do that? Try these ideas:

  • Pose a question
  • Personalize in the subject line
  • Put urgent words in the subject line
  • Keep it short
  • A/B test different subject lines

Here are some real subject lines from nonprofits to spark your creative ideas:

  • Because of you, all this happened
  • As you requested
  • Keep fighting
  • Action needed by 12/31
  • Double your impact today!
  • Unbelievable 20x match!
  • This doesn’t happen often:
  • So many people benefit from your help today
  • Only days left
  • I open my heart to Syrians: will you?
  • Friend, this can’t wait
  • Think big now
  • Quick update
  • Check this twice
  • Jeremy: There’s still time
  • Stories that haunt me

2. Don’t Neglect the Preview Text

The preview text is shown in many email clients and gives you a secondary opportunity to motivate someone to open your email.

If you neglect the preview text, you end up with a graphic file name or a nonsensical stream of text that is shown to the recipient with no real meaning.

Every email client is different in the number of characters shown, from zero to several dozen.

Every email should have a preview text. Your email service provider should allow you to set the preview text for your email send.

What should go in the preview text?

This is the perfect place to expound on your subject line to motivate someone to open the email. If your subject line is short and catchy, like “Friend, this can’t wait,” you can add a preview text that extends the thought like, “You have an opportunity to change a life today.”

The text should be short yet contribute to motivating the recipient to read your email.

3. Try Text-Only for a Change Up

Text only emails may surprise you in how effective they are. In some tests, we’ve found the all-text email, or all-text with a logo, outperforms emails with a more graphical treatment 3:1.

The all text email is just as it sounds – all text (links are allowed) with no images, photos, videos, colored background, or other design elements. This may feel counterintuitive, but this is definitely something that should be tested with your audience.

If someone says, “no, our audience expects a photo in the emails” without empirical evidence to back it up, it’s not at all certain what the audience expects. We frequently test this with our audience and many times, the text-only email beats the email with a photo by a wide margin.

4. Vary the Sender

The sender name and email can affect the open rate of your emails.

You may want to vary who the email is from to increase the open rate. I recommend you have certain personalities who send certain kinds of emails. For example, you may send the newsletter from the President or Executive Director, the appeals from your CDO or Development Director, and the credit card failure emails from your customer service manager.

One thing to note: this may also impact the spam complaint rate for your emails. If someone is new to your list and sees an unfamiliar name, he may click the abuse button and report your email.

5. Tell a Compelling Story

Telling a compelling story is the primary factor for the success of your fundraising appeal. Stats and facts don’t move people to give, stories do.

The story should be an emotionally moving story about how a beneficiary’s life was before your nonprofit helped. The story will help paint a picture for the email recipient about how your nonprofit helps real people. We call this the Story of the One because it’s that: a story of one person the donor can connect with to help.

Donors have a hard time picturing helping a huge volume of people. She can see herself helping one person. Your story of the one helps the donor understand her impact on one life.

6. Try a Different Email Length

The length of your email can impact giving. This is one of the many things you have to test: in certain circumstances a longer email will outperform a shorter email and vice versa. I can’t give you a specific “best practice” length as such a thing truly doesn’t exist.

Vary and test the length of your emails and measure the impact of these decisions.

7. Be More Direct

Potential donors don’t understand soft asks. If you have a soft ask in your email, it will underperform stronger asks every time. There are times where you may strategically want a soft ask like in a monthly newsletter or annual report. In an email appeal sent to raise money, you must use a strong ask to be effective.

Why don’t we use more strong asks in our fundraising?

You’re afraid you’ll offend the reader.

What you end up doing is wasting the reader’s time.

There’s three things you need to keep in mind:

First, your nonprofit ceases to exist without fundraising. Fundraising is not a negative thing, without it, you can’t serve the people you are there to serve. Your staff don’t get paid. You don’t keep the lights on in your buildings. You can’t purchase assets and supplies to help people.

Second, your donors are smart people. They know you need money to stay active. They are passionate about your cause and want to continue seeing you do good work. They aren’t offended by a direct ask for money, in fact, you have to because these are busy people who don’t have time to guess what your intentions are. When you use words like “please support us,” the potential donor doesn’t understand what you mean. You need to be direct and tell them what you want: With your gift of $25, $75, or even $125, you’ll be changing the life of children like Abe. Give now to make sure we can continue helping children like Abe.

Third, your donors are passionate about the cause, that’s why they signed up for your email list or gave in the past to your organization. I’m going to break the news to you: very few donors care about you. They care about the cause. They are passionate about helping someone. If you are mealy with your words and a difference organization in the same space as you asks more directly, that organization will receive your donor’s gift.

Fundraising isn’t a bad thing. Ask more directly for your donor’s gift.

8. Be Consistent from Your Email to Your Landing Page


It’s a great word. It means “in agreement or harmony.” When you have a fundraising process that is congruent, or each step is in harmony with another, you’ll be more likely to receive a donation.

Your design and language should be harmonious along the entire process from the email to the landing page to the checkout process for the donation. When you send a potential donor from a beautiful email to a product page that is universally used for whatever giving fund they’re giving to, the donor will question if they’re in the right place. When there is confusion, you lose the donor.

We often talk in digital fundraising about “friction.” When you add friction into a process, sometimes through inaction like not setting up a customized landing page for the campaign, you lose potential donations as people who encounter friction walk away.

The other day, I received an email from a nonprofit I love that was beautifully written. When I clicked to give, it took me to a page that was not consistent with the email. The giving fund was called something else. There was a one sentence description with a big empty text box for the donation amount and a Give button. Nothing motivated me to give on the landing page. Nothing moved me to take action though the email motivated me to click thru to the landing page.

I’d be willing to bet this landing page resulted in few donations and the nonprofit may not even realize why the email underperformed.

Create a harmony in your donation process so the donor knows she is in the right place from the email to the thank you page.

9. Create a Great Call to Action

A great call to action moves the potential donor through the process to complete the donation. As I mentioned earlier when discussing how you should be more direct in your language, you must be direct with your call to action.

Your call to action is what you say when you want someone to click thru to your landing page and then what you say when you want someone to make a gift.

You should use strong language like Give Now when you’re asking for a donation. Asking for support, or can you possibly help won’t move the reader to make a gift. Be clear and direct when you call someone to take an action.

10. You Should Always Be Testing

The beauty of email is the ease that we can test different elements. I recommend running different tests over a series of emails to get more accurate results. You should always be testing! Testing is how we improve and you’d be amazed at the results you can get from simple tests. Here’s a few ideas of things you can test:

  • Subject line
  • Preview text
  • Name of the sender
  • Graphical email vs text-only email
  • Copy length
  • Buttons
  • Colors
  • Hopeful imagery vs dire imagery
  • Fonts
  • Use of URL for links vs linked text
  • Videos
  • Different calls to action, e.g. Donate Now vs Give Today

Use these ten tips to help improve your email program and get better results for your nonprofit!