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What I Learned About Email Fundraising in Canada from 1,234 Emails from 152 Charities

Published by Brady Josephson

Have you ever wondered how many emails your donors get from nonprofits? Or what types of emails those other organizations are sending? One of the neatest things about signing up to get emails from 152 Canadian charities — which I did and you can read about my signup experiences here — is that you actually get emails from 152 Canadian charities! Obvious I know but by monitoring the inbox you can see what it would be like to be a donor or follower of multiple charities (side note: I also get all their direct mail, sent to my house, which is not as nearly as neat…) or as a researcher look for patterns, insights, and ideas to test.

Which is what we did for The Canadian Online Fundraising Scorecard, and why I signed up for all those emails in the first place. In the study, we were only analyzing fundraising focused emails where we looked at if the main focus of the email was to get donations or, as a donor, it would feel that way. For example, if an organization sent out a newsletter but there was a big DONATE NOW button as the first thing or one of the first things you see when you open it, you would, fairly, feel like you were being asked to give. So that counted as an appeal… just not a good one.

So that’s a bit of context about why I got all these emails and here are…

4 Things I Learned About Email Fundraising in Canada

1. A lot of organizations didn’t ask me for a donation.

Actually, 58% of the organizations in the study didn’t ask me for a donation in the first 90 days. This is partly because 15% of organizations in the study sent me nothing, no emails of any kind, in the first 90 days which is, hopefully, a broken form or, potentially, a broken strategy, but that still means that less than half of the organizations that sent me an email didn’t ask me to make a donation in the first 3 months that I was an email subscriber.

Now, when it comes to email appeals, frequency, how many you should send, how soon, etc. there are a lot of factors to consider (quality of the email and appeal being a big one) but when someone first signs up to get your emails they are engaged — enough to find and fill out your form — so there is an opportunity to use those first emails to further engage, build a relationship, and, possibly, move to a donation. Something many organizations aren’t doing at all or not very quickly as 52% of organizations that did ask did so after 30 days:

Should you be asking for a donation in the first 30 days? 90 days? Probably. But you should absolutely be sending good content that can further engage these new subscribers.

Key Questions & Insights:

  • Is your email signup form working?
  • Try signing up for your own emails and make sure (once a quarter).
  • Are you engaging with your followers when they are engaged with you?
  • Do you have a ‘welcome series’ (something you can easily automate) set up?
  • Try making a (good) ask for a donation within the first 30 or 90 days.

2. Fundraising emails weren’t very personal.

There are a number of ways to have your email fundraising appeals sound more human — like sending from a person instead of an organization, cutting down on the design, and having a more personal tone in your copy — but here are three reasons why it’s important:

  1. You can get more opens
  2. You can get more donations
  3. You can stand out from other organizations

You can get more opens because, according to Litmus, who an email is from is the most important thing for when we ‘triage’ our inboxes. And when your donors see an organization name, they most likely think ‘this is a marketing email’ whereas an email from a person doesn’t stand out, in a bad way, quite the same way. Here’s one of many experiments proving this idea:

How an individual sender impacts the open rate of an organizational email (Experiment #8010)

Control

Treatment #1

27.46% Increase to Opens

You can get more donations as fundraising, and giving, is very personal and relational — something we know in the major gifts world but often forget when it comes to online fundraising — so when we have overly designed templates, buttons, and images it can distract the reader and take away from the personal nature of giving.

Take this experiment for example, where we just changed the design elements so it felt a bit more personal:

How the design of a fundraising email affects clickthrough rate (Experiment #4174)

Control

Treatment #1

80.29% Increase to Clicks

That experiment had a 112.5% increase in donations so it wasn’t just about clicks. Or take this experiment, where we reduced the design even further but also tried to make the copy sound and feel a bit more human:

How a personal tone affects donations in an email fundraising appeal (Experiment #4171)

Control

Treatment #1

145.5% Increase to Conversions

You can stand out from other organizations because 77% of the fundraising emails we received were sent from an organization. Here’s a quick screenshot from the aggregate inbox with the four from people highlighted and the two from just people (as opposed to people and organization) circled:

So if all you were wanting to do was standout from other organizations, sending from a person would help. And when we opened and analyzed the emails we found that only 3% of the email fundraising appeals we received looked and felt like a personal email. The majority of fundraising emails looked a bit more like this:

Big logos. Hero images. And copy about the organization (as well as a bunch of links that don’t take you to the donation page…) comes across as marketing so more personal, human looking and feeling emails can help you stand out from other appeals from other organizations.

Key Question & Insights

  • Are you sending emails from and as an organization or a person?
  • Try testing a person as the sender and even different people.
  • Try sending emails that sound and look as if they’re from a person, not a brand or an organization
  • Write an email, read it out loud to a colleague and ask yourselves if it sounds like how a person would talk if not, rip it up and write it again

3. It wasn’t very clear what I was asked to do

When it came time to actually make the ask in the email appeal, we first saw that 42% of organizations had multiple calls to action in their emails. Look at all the other links and things they’re asking me to do:

Now that’s not a pure appeal but as a donor you are clearly asked to donate and see a big donate button so you would feel like this is an appeal (just a poor one). And when it came time to actually ask, we saw that 39% of organizations didn’t make it clear how my donation would be used. Look at the above example again for their ask:

Do you know why you should give or what your donation will do? Not really. And it’s also pretty passive: “If you would like…” and “… we invite you to make…”. I know Canadians are nice and all (and we are) but when asking you need to be more direct and clear. You may get fewer clicks but those who do know why they are clicking and what to expect and are more likely to give. That’s what happened in this experiment where we changed a few things to make it sound more emotional and personal but look at the call to action sections:

The second option — the one that was more clear and direct — got a 67% decrease in clicks but a 246% increase in conversion rate and 209% increase in total revenue which are the goals for fundraising appeals.

Key Question & Insights

  • Do you have multiple calls to action in your email appeals? Remove them!
  • When you ask, is it clear what a donation will do?
  • Are you being direct in your ask so the reader knows what to do next?
  • Try being very clear, simple, and direct in your call to action.

4. Reading emails on mobile was a pretty good experience.

There is a lot of room to improve when it comes to email fundraising in Canada — remember, good is the enemy of great so everyone can always improve — but one of the positives in the study was that 91% of organizations sent emails that were readable on mobile. 

When we did this study in the US 4 years ago (you can check it out here) only 46% of emails were optimized for mobile so it appears the tools we use and our knowledge of mobile has come a pretty long way which is great. Now, 26% of the donation pages we looked at were still not optimized for mobile so going from mobile optimized email to non-mobile optimized donation page is pretty much useless but hey, that’s another section of the study and another blog post.

Key Question & Insights

  • Are your emails readable on mobile? And all types of mobile phones including older, smaller smartphones?
  • Are you pointing people to a page that is also mobile optimized?
  • Make sure the full flow — email, donation page, confirmation page, confirmation email — is optimized for mobile

Summary & Infographic

Those were just some of the findings and stats about email fundraising in Canada but here are more:

Get the Canadian Online Scorecard and Start Optimizing Your Online Fundraising Today

Learn from 152 Canadian Charities and 1,200 experiments to improve your email signup process as well as email fundraising strategy, donation pages, and overall online giving experience.

About the author:

Brady Josephson

Brady Josephson is a charity nerd, entrepreneur, digital marketer, professor, and writer. At NextAfter, he focuses on business development and partnerships, content creation, and marketing. He's also a huge Liverpool FC fan. #YNWA