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33 Fundraising Email Subject Lines Your Donors Will Open (And Click)

Published by Nathan Hill

What to expect:

“Below you will find 6 Proven Subject Line Tactics and 33 Subject Line Examples that Will Make Ignoring Your Emails Practically Impossible.”

Your subject line is one of the first elements of your fundraising email your donors will see.

And a subject line that’s able to cut through the clutter of an inbox stuffed with junk is the difference between an email that gets ignored and one that gets opened — and clicked.

Most fundraisers can relate to the feeling of sitting down to write a subject line, getting stuck, and defaulting to something you’ve sent before or have seen in your own inbox.

But a copycat approach all but guarantees your emails get ignored, or even junked, potentially impacting your ability to inbox future sends — not great.

With some guidance and practice, you’ll be able to write simply irresistible subject lines that your donors can’t help but open, in no time flat.

So let’s begin by checking out some general tips to help you write compelling subject lines for your fundraising emails.

Then we’ll take a closer look at 6 nonprofit subject line tactics, plus several examples of each, that make ignoring your emails practically impossible.

Best part: you’ll be able to quickly and easily apply these concepts in your own fundraising emails right away.

Let’s dive in!

Some General Tips for Writing Fundraising Email Subject Lines

Here are a few general tips to help you write effective fundraising email subject lines more efficiently, effectively, and with confidence.

1. Write Your Fundraising Email Subject Line before You Write the Email

This might be counterintuitive, but I always recommend that fundraisers write the subject line of their emails first. Your subject line is effectively the headline of your email.

And as David Ogilvy said, “On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

So if your subject line is the headline of your email, it makes sense to invest time into getting it right!

But there’s another reason to write your subject line first … it helps you frame the content of your email.

If the subject line is a promise of what the recipient will get, then the body of the email is simply the delivery of that promise. Start with the subject line and you’ll have a much better understanding of where the rest of your email should go!

2. Deliver On Your Subject Line’s Promise

Yes, the primary job of a subject line is to get your email opened. But that’s not a subject line’s only job.

Ultimately you want someone to click through your email and take whatever action you are calling them to take (like making a gift).

So you can’t just write a shocking subject line that has nothing to do with the content of your email. Whatever you promise in the subject line needs to be paid off in the body of your email.

For instance, you can’t write a subject line promising free ice cream and kitten videos only to ask for a donation once the reader opens your email. Your reader will feel tricked and now you’ve lost their trust.

Good luck appealing to their generosity.

Writing a subject line that has nothing to do with your reason for writing is like booking a one-way ticket to Spamville … or Junktown … you get the idea.

Always make sure your subject line creatively hints at the content of your fundraising email. This will keep the momentum going and create a “slippery slope” that leads your reader effortlessly to your offer or appeal. Much more on this in the next section.

3. Write Your Subject Line Like You Talk

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found there are better ways to open a conversation than by declaring what I’m about to say is URGENT.

I might try to be funny, or even witty. But the line between witty and obnoxious is a lot thinner than you might think. As is the line between personable (emails done right) and promotional (emails done wrong).

Something we like to say at NextAfter is that “people give to people, not email machines.”

What that means is that you should aim to make your fundraising emails feel as though they’re coming from a human, not a brand. The goal of the next section is to show you how.

Put these practical subject line concepts into practice and you’ll be well on your way to making your emails practically impossible to ignore. Sound good? Good.

Let’s go!

Fundraising Subject Lines that Will Boost Email Engagement

There are really two strategies for writing fundraising email subject lines:

  1. You appeal to the topic
  2. You appeal to the conversation

It can be tough for many nonprofits to appeal to the topic as it requires you to know a lot about the person you are sending to so you can be extra relevant — context is everything.

Also, often, the topic you want to discuss, like clean water in Africa, for instance, may not be the most top-of-mind topic for your recipients. It feels far away and impersonal.

The fundraising email subject lines below use conversational cues to entice the recipient to engage. It’s a subtle but powerful strategy that helps you begin the conversation and “get your foot in the door.”

These subject line ideas have been developed from more than a decade of fundraising research and thousands of fundraising A/B tests.

Fundraising Email Subject Line Ideas

  1. Use mystery in your subject line
  2. Use a person as your sender name
  3. Convey opportunity in your subject line
  4. Use the recipient’s name in your subject line
  5. Use time indicators in your subject line
  6. Humanize your subject line

Use these subject line ideas correctly and you could instantly see a 2X lift in the open and click rates of your fundraising emails.

Let’s take a closer look at these subject line tactics and some examples of each!

Subject Line Tactic 1 – Use Mystery in Your Subject Line to Create Curiosity

Giving people just a taste of what they could get if they open your fundraising email leaves them wanting more, creating an “itch” of curiosity they almost can’t help but scratch.

In the subject line example below, Subject Line A tells the recipient exactly what they’ll get in the email.

But by giving everything away in the subject line, you’re asking recipients to decide immediately if they want the course or not. And they may not have enough context from the subject line to know if the offer is valuable to them or not.

Subject Line B doesn’t really say much about what’s contained inside the email but instead opens a loop of curiosity as a means of starting the conversation: as a recipient, you very likely want to know what you did to deserve such a flattering email.

In this instance, the tactic led to a 137% increase in open rates.

But remember: you have to pay it off in the email. If you tell a recipient they amaze you, you need a valid response to the question in your donor’s head, “Why do I amaze you?

In the next subject line example, Version A again states exactly what’s in the email (a webinar invite) while Version B states “I’ve been working on this for you,” leaving the recipient intrigued to find out what exactly it is that the sender has been working on.

This tactic led to a 25% increase in email opens.

Below we see a third example of this tactic with the subject line in version A explaining exactly what’s inside the email while version B is more vague, leading the recipient to want to learn more.

Opening a loop of curiosity in the recipient’s mind led to not only an increase in opens but also created enough momentum and motivation in the reader to produce a massive 53% lift in click rates!

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

Additional Subject Line Ideas

  • Did you see this?
  • You made this child’s day
  • This is great news
  • Because of you…

Optimization Tip: To activate the element of mystery, you need to leave just enough information out of your fundraising email subject line. Don’t focus on trying to sell the topic in the subject line, just focus on starting a conversation — like you would in person.

Subject Line Tactic 2 – Send Your Emails from a Person, Not a Brand

OK, so this isn’t a subject line concept, per se.

But when it comes to your fundraising emails, it’s useful to think of your subject line in the context of your entire envelope — the subject line, the sender name, and the preview text.

These elements work together to get your emails opened.

For your subject lines to be received as authentic, your sender needs to be authentic. Every other concept shared in this post is based on an assumption of authenticity. And using a real name as your sender is one of the most powerful ways to come across authentically to your recipients.

In the fundraising subject line example below, version A is sent from a person’s name while version B is sent from a brand.

The version sent from a name saw a 28% increase in opens! 

Like all the other concepts, the benefits of humanizing fundraising emails go beyond the open. Our tests have found that using this tactic not only increases nonprofit email open rates but click rates as well.

In the subject line example seen below, simply removing the organization from the “sender name” led to a 102% lift in email click rates, demonstrating that improving your subject line can have downstream benefits for your fundraising as well.

And in a third example, we see the impact of combining concepts 1 & 2 (mystery & personal sender) on email open rates where these two tactics worked together to produce a 330% lift in open rates.

Using a real person in the sender line (and excluding the organization name) can help keep your fundraising emails human and encourage your donors to engage.

Optimization tip: Leverage every part of your email’s “envelope” to entice people to engage with your appeal.

Subject Line Tactic 3 – Frame Your Fundraising Email as an Opportunity

One of the key tactics 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.

This may seem at odds with concept 1 (using mystery) but this concept is centered more around the idea of making it clear that there is value inside the email, rather than telling them exactly what that value is.

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. 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.

In any case, giving is an opportunity for your donor to experience the direct impact of creating a meaningful impact on an issue they care about.

And in the subject line of an appeal email, shown below, we see that moving away from this tactic produced a 21% decrease in email open rates. Ouch.

Here again, we see another example of combining more than one subject line tactic (mystery and utility) together to make a larger impact.

Additional Subject Line Ideas

  • This is our chance
  • Now or never
  • Opportunity knocks
  • Big change ahead

Optimization tip: To leverage the concept of utility in your fundraising email subject lines, you need to imply that there is something useful to the recipient inside the email, even if that is the opportunity to make an impact by making a gift.

Subject Line Tactic 4 – Customize with Your Donor’s First Name

Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”

Fundraising email subject line concept #4 leverages this truism to create a meaningful bond and inspire donors to engage with your email.

Now, adding personalization isn’t some magic trick or gimmick to boost email opens. It’s a concept to make your email feel more personal and human — because it is.

Calling someone by their name in a natural way is disarming and personable, leading to more opens.

But note in the subject line 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”. (mystery + name).

Using the first name in conjunction with these other personalization techniques led to a 22.5% increase in opens.

In another fundraising subject line example, we saw that appending the recipient’s first name to the beginning of a subject line, changing nothing else, produced a significant 12.6% lift in email open rates.

Additional Subject Line Ideas

  • Have a sec, {FIRST.NAME}?
  • Hey did you see this, {FIRST.NAME}?
  • Your resource is here, {FIRST.NAME}
  • {{FIRST NAME}}, meet Maya!

Optimization tip: Using a first name should never feel gimmicky. Always try to keep in mind how it would sound in a personal or professional setting.

Subject Line Tactic 5 – Use Time indicators

Words like today, tomorrow, this week, this morning, next Thursday, etc., 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.

Additional Subject Line Ideas

  • Tomorrow will be too late
  • Today’s the day
  • See you tomorrow?
  • This week

Optimization tip: Time indicators can be a helpful way to inject a little urgency into your subject lines without coming across as overly promotional. But remember only to use this tactic if there is an actual deadline. And use it sparingly so as not to diminish its effect.

Subject Line Tactic 6 – Humanize Your Subject Lines

Humanizing your subject lines is one of the most powerful ways to increase the opens and clicks of your fundraising emails.

It combines elements of the subject line concepts shared above to create a subject line that reads as if it could have been sent from a colleague, an acquaintance, or even a family member.

The trick to this technique is to make the subject line read like it’s either a) sharing news they need to hear (good or bad) and/or b) something that might require their attention.

The idea, in short, is to make your subject lines read as they would in an email sent from a colleague, client, friend, or family member sharing news or trying to get their attention.

And like many personal email subject lines, they are brief, conversational, not title case (a dead giveaway that an email is promotional), slightly urgent, and somewhat vague.

It can be hard to hit this concept’s sweet spot, but when you get it right *chef’s kiss*, it can lead to some major boosts in your open (and click) rates.

Remember: these subject line concepts are all about starting a conversation, not asking for a donation. That comes later.

Let’s look at a few subject line examples that illustrate this concept.

In the A/B test below, we replaced a highly promotional subject line, “Deadline today,” with the more casual, personable subject line, “Did you see Kevin’s email?”

Which reads almost like something you’d receive from a coworker, right?

You might see it and think, “I don’t know a Kevin,” followed by, “Wait, do I?

And it’s very likely that the combination of curiosity and urgency created by this subject line will indeed get even the most hardened skeptic to open your email. And in the case of this example, it led to an encouraging 11% increase in email opens.

Another takeaway from the subject line in the treatment above is that it asks a question, another highly persuasive element that entices recipients to open that email!

“Did you see Kevin’s email?” begins a mental conversation in the mind of your recipient: “What email from Kevin? Did I miss something? Is someone waiting on my response?

In another subject line example, we see that a one-word subject line was able to produce a tremendous 30% lift in email opens. The word?


Because who doesn’t like to reconnect? Or, at least, who doesn’t want to know who is reconnecting with them? It’s this kind of humanized subject line that seems too authentic to resist.

Let’s take a look at one more example of this subject line concept that I hope will demonstrate how easily it can be used and the impact it can have on open rates.

In the A/B test above, an obviously promotional subject line was changed to one that simply read, “I’ve got good news.”

This reads like a subject line you’d receive from a friend or family member. Is someone expecting? Getting married? A new job?

Everyone loves good news (sometimes it seems in short supply), and because this subject line is warm and personable, it entices the recipient to open.

Additional Subject Line Ideas

  • Thoughts on this?
  • About last night
  • See you there?
  • We’re here
  • Hey just following up

Optimization tip: This tactic looks easy when it’s executed well. But it’s tricky to get right. A few things to keep in mind: because these emails can seem generic (it’s kind of their charm), it’s important to vary how you apply this concept. Questions can give them extra oomph. Try messaging that implies there is some action for the recipient to take. And to get it just right, imagine you’re writing an email to a friend, a coworker, or a family member (preferably one you like) … this will help you find the right tone.

Fundraising Email Subject Line Takeaways

  • Authenticity: While the tips above are proven to increase opens, you might sound inauthentic if you try to shove them all into a single send. Make sure someone else reviews your subject lines to make sure you still sound like an authentic human.
  • Humanity: the less promotional (and more personable) your fundraising email comes across in the subject line, the more likely that email will be opened—it’s really as simple as that.
  • Practice Makes Perfect: for many fundraisers, writing subject lines isn’t a favorite pastime. There’s often a lot of pressure to “make the sale” in the subject line and fit as much into a small space as possible. But with practice applying the concepts in this post, you’ll find that writing subject lines your donors can’t help but open becomes second nature.
  • Test, test, and test again: Ready 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, in your context, with your donors.

Your Next Steps… 

Published by Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill is Vice President, NextAfter Institute.