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Nonprofit Email Fundraising: 9 Questions to Ask Before Sending

Published by Nathan Hill

Nonprofit email fundraising is complicated.

Especially when there are so many different voices and opinions all trying to tell you what the “best practices” are.

Traditional fundraisers want you to write your email fundraising appeals like you’d write a direct mail appeal.

Email platforms want you to use lots of design elements and features because, well, that’s part of how they sell their tool.

And standard “best practice” blogs just recycle old ideas, hoping they work, – rarely having any real evidence of what leads to results.

The only way to really know what works to increase nonprofit email fundraising revenue is to test.

Luckily for you, we’ve done the leg work.

Looking deep into our library of over 2,500 online experiments, I’ve pulled out 9 questions that you can ask when creating your nonprofit email fundraising appeals to ensure they are optimized with tested and proven tactics that can lead to more revenue.

9 Questions to Ask When You Create Your Nonprofit Email Fundraising Appeals

Is your email sender a real person?

Send from a person, not an organization or brand name.
Read more about the email sender name »

Does your email subject line use these 5 elements?

Mystery • Utility • Personalization • Relevance • Authenticity
Read more about nonprofit email subject lines »

Do you say “Hello” and call your donor by name?

Conversations start with a greeting, and friends call each other by name.
Read more about the email salutation »

Does your email copy explain the problem you’re trying to solve?

There’s no reason to donate if there’s not a problem to solve.
Read more about the writing your email fundraising copy »

Does your copy articulate the impact your donor can have?

Donors need to know what their gift is actually going to do
Read more about the writing your email fundraising copy »

Do you demonstrate your organization’s unique approach?

Why is my donation better invested with you than another similar organization?
Read more about the writing your email fundraising copy »

Is there an extra reason or incentive to give now?

Matching Challenges • Goals • Deadlines • Premiums
Read more about email fundraising incentives »

Does your email clearly ask them to donate?

Ask them to donate, not to “give hope” or “stand with you.”
Read more about email fundraising calls-to-action »

Does your email appeal look like a friend wrote it?

Heavy design makes your email look like marketing, not a conversation.
Read more about nonprofit email design »

The Email Sender Name

Email was designed for humans to communicate with humans. Yet when most marketers write a nonprofit email fundraising appeal, it sounds and looks nothing like what you and I would send to our friends, family, or coworkers.

If we want to communicate with the real human beings on the other end of our emails, we need to first make sure we’re sending from a real human being – not an organization or brand name.

Sending from a Person Can Increase Email Opens

When this strategy is A/B tested, it often leads to more email opens – and sometimes even more clicks and donations.

In one experiment, the original email was sent from the organization name: “Competitive Enterprise Institute.”

The treatment email was sent from a real person: “Kent Lassman.”

By sending the email from a person, they saw a 28% increase in email opens.

Email Sender Line Experiment image

You can find a few more examples on how to optimize your email sender name here.

The Subject Line

There are 5 proven “mental levers” that you can use to write better subject lines for your nonprofit email fundraising – even if you don’t consider yourself to be a great copywriter.

Mystery – Don’t completely give away the topic of the email.

Utility – Focus your subject line on the value it is going to bring to the reader.

Recency – Use time indicator words to let people know why they should open now.

“You” / Personalization – Use the word “you” or other personalization to let readers know the email was made for them.

Subject Line Worksheet image

Authenticity – Make sure your email doesn’t come across as self-centered or opportunistic.

Need a guide to help you write an effective subject line? You can get the free subject line worksheet tool here: https:/

The Salutation

Real people start conversations by saying some form of “Hello.” And friends call each other by name.

So why wouldn’t you start your fundraising email appeal the same way?

Calling someone by name can increase clicks

In this experiment, the original email jumped straight into the copy.

The treatment, however, added two impactful words: “Hi Jeff.”

Saying “Hi” and calling the donor by their name led to a 270% increase in clicks.

A few different ways to start your email like a human being

Writing like a real person is surprisingly hard. So here are a few ideas to start your fundraising email appeal without sounding like a marketer.

  • Hi [First Name]! I hope you’re having a great day.
  • [First Name], I was thinking about something this morning.
  • Good morning, [First Name]. I came across something today that I thought you’d be interested in.
Email Salutation Experiment

You can find 5 other ways to make your email sound more human here.

The Copy

It’s impossible to tell you exactly how to write your email, but there are a few common threads that we’ve observed from high-performing email appeals.

#1 – Explain the problem you’re trying to solve.

If you’re asking for a donation, you need first show why a donation is even needed.

If there’s not a clear problem that needs to be solved or a cause that needs to be impacted, then there’s no reason to give.

Use the first couple paragraphs to explain the problem.

#2 – Articulate the impact of a donation.

If you’ve explained a problem that needs to be solved, you have to also explain how a donation can make a difference.

Spend the next couple paragraphs clearly and concisely outlining exactly what a donation is going to do.

#3 – Demonstrate your organization’s unique approach to solving the problem.

Why should someone give to you, rather than another organization that’s doing similar work?

Use this next section of your email copy to demonstrate how your organization is uniquely equipped to solve the problem.

Consider using a testimonial to build trust or using data to validate your claims and your impact.

If you’re struggling with any of these 3 areas, you might need to spend some time thinking about your value proposition.

The Incentive

It’s possible for someone to understand the problem you’re trying to solve, know how a gift can make an impact, trust you to make the best use of their donation – but still not donate.

Sometimes you need a little extra incentive to help inspire someone to give now rather than give later.

Here are a few types of incentives you can use to help someone give now:

  • A matching challenge
  • A clear fundraising goal
  • A campaign deadline
  • A premium offer (like a book or swag)

Keep in mind, these are not reasons to give or support your organization. These are extra little motivators to donate now instead of later.

How an incentive increases donations

In this experiment, the control email had no additional incentive to give now.

In the treatment, CaringBridge added a countdown clock to increase urgency.

Adding the countdown clock as an incentive to give now led to a 65% increase in donations.

Email Fundraising Incentive Experiment

The Call-to-Action

One of the most common email fundraising mistakes is being wishy-washy with your call-to-action.

If you haven’t said something to the effect of “Will you donate?”, then you haven’t actually communicated what you want your reader to do next.

Here are a few common calls-to-action that are actually very unclear:

  • Will you stand with us?
  • Will you show your support?
  • Will you help bring hope/joy/love/support/care?

While all of those sound nice, none of them explicitly ask for a donation.

Explicitly asking for a donation increases conversions

In one experiment, an organization tested two different email calls-to-action.

One call-to-action said “Please, make your year-end gift to [us] today.”

The other call-to-action said “Please, stand with [us] today.”

Saying “stand with us” led to a 50% decrease in donations. You may find that a vague call-to-action increases clicks, but without a clear expectation of what’s next, those clicks don’t lead to donations.

Email Call to Action Experiment

The Design

People don’t give to cool looking emails. Or to “great” email marketing. Or to emails at all.

People give to people.

And if your fundraising email appeal doesn’t look like it came from a real human being, your chances of actually getting a donation are lower. You need to humanize your design.

What does it mean to humanize your design?

In short, your email should look like you created the whole thing in Gmail. Here are a few quick ways to humanize your email design:

  • Replace HTML buttons with text links (or raw URLs)
  • Get rid of images and graphics
  • Use a normal email signature, not an image of your handwritten signature
  • Don’t use colored backgrounds

Sending plain-text style emails can increase donations

In this experiment, the NPR station KUOW tested this “humanized email design” strategy.

Their original email included logos, buttons, graphics, hero images, and a photo of the sender.

The treatment email removed all of those design elements in favor of a more plain-text style design.

Removing the design elements and sending a more personal looking email led to a 28.8% increase in donations.

Nonprofit Email Fundraising Design Experiment

There’s a Whole Lot More to Learn About Email Fundraising

Everything in this quick reference guide is based on data, testing, and research. But I’ve only actually shown you 5 examples from our library of over 3,200 online fundraising experiments.

There’s a whole lot more to learn about what truly works to improve your nonprofit email fundraising.

That’s why we’ve created a 7-session email fundraising certification course for you.

During the course, you’ll see what works to improve results in every part of your email fundraising campaigns including:

  • Email acquisition pages
  • Subject lines
  • Email copy and design
  • Donation pages for your campaign

Begin radically improving your results by getting certified in email fundraising. Start the free course right now, here.

Published by Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill is Vice President, NextAfter Institute.