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Fundraising Email Subject Lines That Will Make Your Donors Open

Published by Nathan Hill

Creating subject lines that get potential donors to open your emails is challenging. Creating subject lines that get donors to open and give is even harder. But the good news is that you don’t have to be an expert copywriter to get more opens that lead to more donations.

You may have heard us talk about the 5 ‘mental levers’ to help you write better subject lines. Before diving into experiments that highlight how these mental levers can help increase your open rate, let’s take a brief look at each of them:

  • Mystery: Don’t give away your whole email in the subject line
  • Utility: Focus your subject line on the immediate value it is going to bring to the reader
  • Recency: Use time indicating words to let people know why they should open it now 
  • Personalization: Try using the word ‘you’ or include the recipient’s name to let readers know the email was made for them 
  • Authenticity: Ensure your email doesn’t come across as opportunistic 

Your subject line will make or break your email fundraising. It not only affects how many people open your email, but it can set the tone for how your donor interprets the rest of your communication. It can even change whether or not they give. 

Since it’s so important, let’s look at 6 specific ways you can craft more effective fundraising email subject lines while keeping these 5 mental levers in mind…

6 Experiments To Illustrate The Different Ways To Apply The 5 Mental Levers

#1. Send your emails from a real human being

Yes, I know we’re supposed to be talking about subject lines. But your donors and subscribers judge your email envelope holistically—that includes your sender name, subject line, and preview text.

For your subject lines to be received as authentic, your sender needs to be authentic.

In the experiment below you can see a clear a/b test. Version A is sent from a human while version B is sent from a brand.

The version sent from a human saw a 28% increase in opens. 

We’ve seen this same experiment with similar results too many times to count. And the results point to a proven principle of fundraising: people give to people, not fundraising machines.

#2. Don’t give everything away in your subject line 

Give your recipient just enough information in the subject line to prompt their curiosity, but not so much that you give them an actual call-to-action.

In the experiment example below, you can see two different subject lines.

Version A tells the recipient exactly what they can find in the email: an online course about the book of John. By giving everything away in the subject line, you’re asking recipients to decide immediately if they want the course or not. But they don’t have enough context from the subject line to know if the course is valuable to them or not.

Version B on the other hand, highlights “A special gift”, leaving the recipient intrigued enough to find out what the gift is. This gives you an opportunity in the body of the email to explain why the free course is valuable and worth taking.

Adding mystery gives you a chance to explain your offer. Giving everything away in your subject lines forces recipients to make an uninformed decision.

#3. Frame your donation appeal as an opportunity in your subject line

One of the key mental levers you can use to improve your subject lines is what we call “Utility”. In short, you want to communicate immediate value in your subject line. 

For example, if your recipient is asking “Will this email benefit me today?”, you want the subject line to answer their question with a resounding “Yes!”

It’s simple to communicate value if you’re giving someone a free gift (like a free course in the example above.) But it’s challenging if you’re ultimately asking recipients to donate.

One solution is to frame your donation appeal as an opportunity.

It could be an opportunity to help fund a specific campaign, get a new program off the ground, or help a specific family or person in need. Perhaps it’s an opportunity to raise awareness about a social issue.

Giving is an opportunity to make a meaningful impact—and that has a direct benefit to the donor.

#4. Add your recipients’ first name to the subject line

Adding personalization isn’t some magic trick or gimmick to boost email opens. It’s a tool to make your email feel more personal and human.

To be received well, your emails need to be seen as personal and authentic. Calling someone by their name in a natural way is not only disarming and human — it also leads to more opens.

But note in the example below how adding the first name wasn’t the only way the subject line was made to be more personal. Version A was very straightforward and to the point: “Devotionals for the Christmas Season”, while version B, framed the devotionals as “A Christmas gift for you, Kevin”.

Gifts are often something personal. It’s a gift for you (a personal pronoun) and it’s specifically for Kevin.

By using the first name in conjunction with these other personalization techniques, they saw a 22.5% increase in opens.

#5. Don’t focus on the past in your subject lines. Use time indicators to increase relevance now

Words like today, tomorrow, this week, this morning, Thursday, can all be effective tools to increase relevance in your fundraising email subject lines.

They’re effective because they give recipients and donors a clear deadline to open the email. If your subject line says, “This Friday…”, I need to open the email by Friday so that I don’t miss out on whatever it is you’re sharing.

If you don’t use time indicator words, you may be giving recipients an excuse to delay reading your email.

In the experiment below, both versions use these time indicator words. But there’s a stark difference in how they’re used.

Version A focuses on the past: “Did you eat too much last week?

Version B focuses on the present: “What’s special about today?

As a donor or subscriber, I might see Version A and think, “Why do you care about how much I ate last week? What does it matter?”

But if I see Version B, I may think: “Oh, what is happening today? I better open and find out so that I don’t miss anything.”

And as you can see, focusing on the present led to a 5.5% increase in email opens.

#6. Quit using emojis. Please

Every time I do any type of training on subject lines, the question always comes up: “Hey, what do you think about emojis? Can they help get people to open?”

Or to make it worse: “Can emojis help us get more millennials to open our emails?”

From the perspective of a millennial: “No.” I don’t have some sort of generational connection with cartoon hearts, exploding heads, or whatever other witty emojis you might sneak in your subject line.

But you shouldn’t care what I think. You should care what the data says. And the data says they don’t help.

To put this question to rest, we ran our own emoji test. The a/b test was run on Valentine’s day — so it was a prime opportunity for some heart emojis.

Version A said: “Fundraising Content You’ll Love…see what I did there?”

Version B said: “Fundraising Content You’ll ❤️…see what I did there?”

The result was not surprising. There was no difference in opens whatsoever. And I would hypothesize (based on my experience running email marketing programs) that using emojis in your subject line runs the risk of being relegated to the Promotions or Updates tab rather than the main inbox.

If there is no upside, and the downside is lower inbox visibility, why would you use emojis? If it’s for the millennials, it’s not helping us open your fundraising emails. And we already spent our money on bitcoin and avocado toast anyway. 😊

Fundraising Email Key Takeaways

  • Test, test, and test again: Want to get started with your own a/b testing? You can certainly get ideas from other nonprofit experiments, but running your own a/b tests will tell you exactly what works to increase opens and donations for your donors
  • Authenticy: While the tips above are proven to increase opens, if you try to shove them all into a single subject line, you might sound in-authentic. Make sure someone else reviews your subject lines to make sure you still sound like an authentic human
  • Content: Dialing in your subject line is only part of the job. Next comes your preview text, copy, design, calls-to-action, and more. We’ve developed 9 questions for you to ask before pressing send on your email to help you craft emails that lead to more donations. 

What’s Next? 

Try using this subject line worksheet to craft subject lines that lead to more opens. It will walk you each mental lever and give you ideas to work each element into your subject line in a natural way.

Published by Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill is Vice President, NextAfter Institute.