Direct mail is not dead. Far from it, direct mail still performs well if you have a good strategy behind it. Many nonprofits are transitioning more investment into digital but aren’t seeing the return in email that they’ve seen in direct mail. The lessons we’ve learned in direct mail still apply to email: you need a good story, you need to have a strong ask, and you need urgency. Today, we’re going to talk through the five Cs of successful email appeals, then we have a question from Marcy about why her emails don’t perform as well as her direct mail does.


There are many characteristics of successful email appeals. Today I’m going to focus on the five Cs of successful email appeals.

The first C is clarity. You need a clear message to your reader. Most people receive hundreds of emails every single day, and not having a clear message that draws them in will prevent them from wanting to read your email and they’ll just delete it. And so how do you become clear in your message? Need to be clear about who you are. Use your organization name, your president’s name in the header information of the email. Do not use a do not reply cell email address where you’re telling people that they cannot contact you back. You need to have an email address that people can respond to. You need to be clear with what you want. What are you asking for from the reader? Are you asking them to donate, to volunteer? What are you asking them to do. Be very clear in what you’re asking.

If you’re ambiguous here, then you’re going to make your organization seem suspicious and people are going to delete your message. You need to tell the reader how they can help, and so this is probably the most important part of the appeal. You don’t want to leave room for confusion on the reader’s part as to what you’re asking them to do. If you’re asking them to make a donation, ask for the donation. If you’re asking them to volunteer, ask for them to volunteer.

I recommend not having more than one ask in a particular email, so you don’t want to ask someone to sign a petition and also to donate. People will have a tendency to take the easier of the actions and feel like they did something for you, and that their activity is done with you. And so you ask for a petition and a donation. A signature on a petition and a donation, then you’ll probably get more signatures than donations and you’ll see your revenue drop for that email.

So there shouldn’t be any ambiguity in your email appeal. You don’t want to use any jargon or slang that your audience won’t understand, and you can’t assume that your audience understands everything that you understand, as being a part of your non-profit.

The second C is you need to be concise in your email. Being concise goes hand in hand with clarity, but they’re very distinct qualities. You don’t want any fluff or filler in your email. You want to write in such a way that you’re explaining very clearly to the audience what you’re asking them to do, but do so with as few words as possible. So you don’t want to fill up your email with information that is unnecessary for what you’re asking them to do, and so if you don’t need a paragraph or a phrase or individual words, take it out. Writing in a way that is very concise will encourage users to finish your email and take action.

You want to use an active voice when you’re writing. Using an active voice is when you’re asking the person that’s reading that you make them have a feeling of action, that they can put themselves in the shoes of the appeal and the person that’s in the appeal, understanding that they could be that person. They could be that donor, that volunteer. They could be that one that signs that petition.

Third, you want to connect the dots for the reader. And so donors don’t give based on logic. They give emotionally, based on a story that connects them to the cause of your non-profit. And so you want to tell them a beneficiary story, and then you want to connect the dot of what the beneficiary, their history, and how you helped them, to the donation that the donor is going to make. And so kind of the format for that is, you want to tell an authentic story of a beneficiary who was suffering through something, and then they hit a low point in their life, and then they met your organization, and then your organization was able to help them through the eyes of a donor.

And so when you do that, when you connect to that story, and you tell the before and the after and you paint a picture for the donor, then the reader’s going to feel a sense of compassion for that beneficiary, and want to put themselves in the shoes of that donor that helped, and give you money to help more beneficiaries like that, so you’re connecting the dots, you’re connecting between the beneficiary, and the donor, and the organization.

Fourth, you want to make the donation process very convenient for the reader, and so when a donor decides to donate, we want to make it as easy as possible for them to complete the process. A few months ago, an organization that I support sent me an appeal, and so I read through the appeal and got to the bottom, and saw a link to go donate, and I clicked on the link to go donate, landed on the landing page, and could not find how to donate on that landing page. And so the only way that I could figure out how to donate to, was to go up to the header and select the donate button, which takes me to a different page and to make the donation.

So I happen to know the manager of development at this organization, and so I reached out to her and said, “You know, you have an oversight in this whole process of this appeal, leads to this landing page, and there’s no form or anyway to donate on the landing page,” and her response was that her executive director liked it that way, because they didn’t want to be so direct with their donation ask. I advised her that this was a mistake, that you’re not being direct, that what you’re doing is you’re discouraging people from being able to donate. And so you want to make sure that your donation process is as easy as possible, so that people, when they decide they’re going to donate that, at those decision points that they decided they want to give you money, that there is the opportunity to do so.

So include links throughout the text of your email, and then take them to a landing page that’s very clear on what you’re asking them to do, with one call to action, and one easy form or button to click in order to make the donation.

Finally, number five of the Cs to writing great email appeals. You need them to be complete. Your fundraising appeal should be complete and self contained. You want to write it in such a way that they understand what you’re asking them to do, without using any jargon or industry terms that would cause them to misunderstand what you’re asking them to do. Do you want to answer their questions so that you can raise the objections and answer them before the user does. The other thing that you want to do is provide some contact information for the readers so that if they do run into a problem in the donation process, or the sign up process if you’re asking for like volunteers, is that they have a way to contact you in order to get it done.

And so we had a recent situation where a very odd bug would appear in various specific set of circumstances, and it would not allow people to complete a donation through this process. And we did not realize that we had this bug, and so a couple of potential donors called in to our customer service team and told us that we had this issue where it was preventing under these certain set of circumstances, preventing them from making a donation. And so we were very fortunate that we had them call in so we could fix this problem, but if we did not have an easy way for those donors to find that contact information, then we never would have heard about it and people would continue not being able to make donations through that particular process. And so providing complete picture to the donor in your appeal will help them if they run into any issues.

So those are the five Cs that you can use as a guidepost as you’re writing your email appeals and sending out your email appeals to people with the landing page. These five Cs that will help you produce a process that will have the greatest impact and the greatest opportunity for people to make a donation.

So today’s question is really around that topic of, how do we improve our email appeals? This organization, their direct mail appeals are working great, and they need a way to improve their email appeals.

Hi Jeremy, my name is Marcy and I live in Orlando. I have a question about email appeals. Our direct mail campaigns raise a lot of money. Over $200,000 every time we send. Sometimes approaching a five to one return. They are really good. Our emails aren’t so much. We have an agency writing our direct mail, but we do our emails in house. We have a good sized email list. I put my website address in here. Can you get on our list and provide feedback as to why our emails aren’t raising money?

Hi Marcy, thanks so much for what you do. I’ve known about your organization for some time and really appreciate the work that you guys do, and I’ve always been a fan, and I appreciate the chance to get on your mailing list and to take a look at your emails and see, what is working and what is not. So thanks for the question. This isn’t an uncommon problem among non-profits, that the direct mail campaigns are still performing well while the email campaigns are not performing as well, and oftentimes it comes down to a situation like you’ve described here where, there’s one group that’s writing the direct mail appeals, and there’s another group that’s writing the emails. And the lessons that are learned in the direct mail environment are not applied to the emails, and so when that happens, and you’ve got emails going out that do not follow direct marketing principles, then oftentimes those emails are not going to perform as well as direct mail does.

This isn’t to say that you should just take direct mail and copy and paste into your emails. That doesn’t work either. And so there needs to be a medium. The principles of direct marketing itself apply no matter what the channel is, and so there are certain things that you need to have in your appeal, in order for it to land well with the reader. And so I’m going to go through a couple of recommendations on your specific emails on what you guys can do to improve response.

So within the emails, one of the first things I’ve noticed, and I have as I mentioned, I have donated to your organization in the past so I have seen some of your direct mail, and now being on your email list, I’m able to see how those two connect, and so one of the things that you do well in direct mail is that you tell what we call the story of the one, or the solo. The story of one is the story of one beneficiary and how your organization helped that person, and so typically the story goes in the flow of a typical story arc, where you’ve got the life of the beneficiary before your organization became involved. What was it like, what was the major issue or situation they ran into that preceded them becoming part of your program and part of your organization, and then what did your organization did to help them, and then what is life like now, after your organization helped the beneficiaries.

So that is the story of the one, and that is a really effective fund raising model to tell that story. Really emotionally appeals to the reader, and makes them connect with a single person, that they can see the impact that your organization has had. And so one of the things that I’ve noticed in your emails is that you shy away from telling the story of the one, and instead go for general terms of how many people you’re helping, what kind of audience of beneficiaries you help, and when you tell that story of multiples, it doesn’t resonate as the story of a single beneficiary.

Next, within your email appeals, you need to place some urgency among the readers, so that they know that giving this gift is an urgent thing. When you receive two appeals from two different organizations and one of them has an urgency to it, then you’re more likely, if all things else are the same, to give to the organization that has urgency behind it. So and the thinking goes, in the mind of a donor, if you tell the reader that you need to have this donation by the end of the month, and another organization comes along and does not say that, then the reader looks at it and says, “This first organization needs this money by the end of the month. The second organization, they can wait.” And so they make a decision that they’ll support the organization that needs it now, versus another organization who may not need it so urgently. So you do need to have some urgency in your appeals.

There’s a number of ways that you can do that. That’s a topic, a much broader topic for another podcast, but basically you need to come up with why are these funds urgently needed to support this particular cause that this email appeal is going out for.

Another thing is that you need to ask more directly within your email appeals. One of the things that you guys are doing well is, you know you have a great organization, a great brand, you tell a great story, but you’re not very specific in asking directly for the donation. It’s very vague as to what you’re asking them to do. So you need to be more specific in exactly what you’re asking the donor to do. So you may say, “$35 will feed this family for a month.” You know if you’re very specific in what you’re asking them to do, and very specific about the ask itself, then you’ll raise more money from that appeal.

You also need a stronger call to action within the appeal. So if that $35 number was correct, you might put something in there about how $35 feeds a family for a month and with your gift of $35, $70, or even $105, you’re able to feed multiple families each month. And so having a very strong call to action and asking them to donate is very important for your email appeal to perform well.

Once a person lands on your website, there are a couple of issues on your landing page that you should take a look at. First is the flow of the landing page. So if you imagine the landing page as a funnel and you’re trying to move people to the point that they want to donate, right now your funnel does not flow very well. You’re not pushing people to a point of a decision. You need to ask them and show them what life will be like if they don’t donate. And so in doing that, then you’re pushing people down to a point where they can make a decision as to whether or not they’re going to support you, and then at that point, you need the call to action.

And the call to action is, asking the person to make that decision, and asking them specifically what you’re looking for. And so if you’re looking for them to donate that $35 so they can feed that family for a month, then ask them for that. That’s the call to action. And then you’ll have a form of some sort or a button, that will allow them to then proceed to make the donation. As I’ve already mentioned, you want to be specific with what you want them to do.

You know one of the things that I found that was difficult to navigate was the placement of your giving form, off to the right hand side. Because you’ve got the appeal on the left, and then as you flow down the page, you get to a point where you make a decision that you want to give, and there’s no form there. It happens to be on the right hand side at the top of the page, and so in doing that, what’s happened from a flow perspective is I’ve gotten to the bottom of the page and I’ve made a decision that I will support you, and there’s no way for me to take action on that decision because the take action is further up the page and I have to scroll back up and find it. And so moving that gift form down to the bottom of the page will just naturally allow the donor to make a decision to donate and have the opportunity to donate right there at that decision point.

I hope those tips really help you in re-visioning what you want to do with your email. Again you don’t have to take exactly what you’re doing in direct mail and apply it to email. In fact, that wouldn’t work very well, but the principles of direct marketing do apply, and taking those principles from your direct mail and applying them to your email, should see a big transformation in your email fundraising program.

Thanks again Marcy, for the question and for what you do. Really appreciate it. Take care.

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