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How to Create a Successful Fundraising Email

successful fundraising email
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successful fundraising email

Many nonprofits spend oodles of time developing their direct mail campaign. From theme… to text… to visuals… to design… to who the letter will come from… to envelope teaser copy… to type of stamp… to when the campaign will drop… to how many times you’ll mail… to how you’ll segment your list… to thank you strategy. But what about a successful fundraising email?

At the last minute, they slap a lone email together and send it out. The copy and design may not match their mail campaign. Timing may not be integrated with their offline strategy. There may be no user-friendly donation page or thank you landing page. And the thank you may be an automatically generated receipt.

Yipes stripes — what a half-baked strategy!

You need to spend just as much time – if not more – fully baking your online campaign strategy.

You need ALL the right stuff to stand out (capture attention), make an impression (draw people in) and compel an emotional response (persuade people to act).

And when I say all, I mean ALL.

If you’re crafting your email as an afterthought to your offline campaign…

If you’re thinking about what it says, but not how it looks…

If you’re thinking about how it looks, but not what it says…

If you’re focusing on the body of the appeal, but not on who sends it…

If you’re focusing on the content, but not on who you’re sending it to…

It will not be enough!

You need a strategic plan of attack.

25-Step Formula for a Successful Fundraising Email 

That’s where the following 25 steps come into play. For planning purposes, they’re divided into six areas:

  • The Right Pre-conditions
  • The Right Header and Pre-Header
  • The Right Design
  • The Right Content
  • The Right Frequency and Timing
  • The Right Donation Landing Page

The Right Pre-Conditions

Before you sit down to write, you absolutely need a good email list. I’ve seen too many terrifically written email appeals fail for want of the right list and/or proper list segmentation. If you don’t send your appeal to the right people (folks likely to care about your mission and be philanthropic), or you don’t send it to enough people (because you neglected to put in place intentional strategies to collect emails), you simply won’t get desired results.

So make sure these pre-conditions are in place:

1. The Right List

You can have the best email copy in the world, but it won’t do you much good if you’re sending to the wrong list. To people who don’t care about your cause (a reason you definitely don’t want to buy an email list). Or to a list that’s too small. Or to a list that’s out of date or filled with dupes and deceased.

Do you know about the 40-40-20 rule? [Get our free e-Book here] This is a rule long preached by direct mail experts, and has to do with where the success of your mailing will come from. It’s NOT all about what you say, but much is due to who you say it to!

  • 40 – Mailing list (audience you’re talking to)
  • 40 – Offer (what you’re asking audience to do)
  • 20 – Creative (words, pictures, fonts, colors and design)

Are you actively building your email list to add folks likely to have an interest in what you do? Here are strategies to put in place:

  • “Join our list” box on website (“we’ll send you… [something appealing, like a recipe, white paper, invitations, research, Top 10 list, etc.]).
  • Include option to add email address on hard-copy remit devices (to “help us save paper.”)
  • Include link in social media posts and tweets that takes folks to your email sign-up on your website.
  • Add in emails from your “House List” – folks affiliated to you in other ways.
  • Gather emails on collection forms at reception; events; in-kind donation drop-offs, and tribute envelopes.

2. The Right Segmentation

List segmentation is a topic unto itself. The point is to deliver the most valuable and relevant content you can. See here, here and here. Here are a few strategies to get you started:

  • According to level of gift (e.g., donors under $250 receive a slightly different email than donors of $250+).
  • According to purpose of gift (e.g., cat lovers receive different message than dog lovers).
  • According to longevity of giving (e.g., first-time donors receive different message than ongoing donors, multiple gift donors and/or monthly donors; lapsed donors receive different email than current donors).
  • According to affiliation (e.g., board, committee members and direct service volunteers receive different email than non-volunteer donors; parents receive different email than grandparents; patients receive different email than non-patients; event attendees receive different email than non-attendees).

The Right Header and Pre-header

The first thing to include in your email is a well-crafted header. Your header contains the (1) Subject line, (2) From name, (3) Reply name/email, and (4) Preview line. You can almost think of the header as a design element, because it’s the first thing people see in their inbox. Every part of the header is important, as each one can determine whether or not your email gets opened.  Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements to assure you get each one right and don’t leave anything to chance.

3. The Right Subject Line

The key reason folks open emails is they believe there’s something in it for them. Perhaps it’s an issue that matches their values, or there’s an urgency, or there’s a chance to double their money, or there’s an intriguing question to which they’d like to know the answer, or there’s the beginning of a story that intrigues them to learn more, or there’s something that will simplify their life, or…

It’s important to understand that on most devices, subject lines are presented in boldface in an attempt to make them stand out relative to the other text components of emailsMost people do not scan their inbox from left to right. Their eyes focus in the center on the bolded, unread preview lines in their inbox. They decide which to open, and when, based on the subject line – which is why spending time to craft a good one is so important and shouldn’t be a mere afterthought.

Less is generally more, especially if you know a large percentage of your constituents open their emails on mobile devices. Say what is needed to draw the reader in, but as concisely as possible – somewhere between 6– 10 words.

4. The Right Sender

Just because folks look first at the boldface subject line text is not to say the sender isn’t important. People definitely are persuaded to open emails from people they know, trust and/or admire. In fact, research from Pinpointe marketing found replacing a general email address or company name with a specific personal name can increase open rates by as much as 35%!

5. The Right Reply Name and Email Address

In the event folks want to ask you a question, if you use a “noreply@” they’re going to get frustrated. Plus, it screams AUTOMATED and destroys any sense the email is at all personal. Also avoid a role-based email, such as “info@” or “development@.” Instead, use an email address from a person’s name at your organization and assign someone to monitor that for responses.

6. The Right Preview Line

The preview line acts like the second subject line when being read on a mobile device, or when people set up their emails to include a preview pane, further enticing people to open your email. This gives you a few additional words to capture your reader’s interest. Keep in mind the typical inbox preview pane will only show 30 to 40 characters (the typical mobile device shows around 15 characters). Always test your emails to see how they display in a reader’s inbox using common inboxes (e.g., Gmail and Outlook) and both desktop and mobile devices.

The Right Design

With design, we’re generally talking about the header, pre-header and part “above the scroll” that folks see first when they open the email; then click through to the content. You’ll find some general recommendations below. These are tried-and-true ‘best practices,’ but remember that what’s best is always changing. And what’s best for someone else may not be best for you. So, whenever you can, try to do some testing. Because sometimes you’ll find some amazing results.

IMPORTANT EXPERIMENT: The folks at NextAfter tested a personal email against a designed fundraising email template and found the former increased click-through rates by 80% and donation conversion by 14.4% [See Cut Through the Clutter [a free e-Book]. The charity dropped their designed fundraising email sample template and sent a “letter” email that looked more like something that would be sent from a friend.

7. Organization Logo

This can be helpful because it reminds donors who you are. Place this after your header and pre-header, right at the top of your email. For current donors, who already love you, this may help get them to open your email. The same is true for new donors if you’re an established brand they may respect, trust and admire.

8. Organization Colors

Just like adding a logo, incorporating your brand colors can reassure folks. If they know you, and love you, it’s great to be instantly recognizable. Do this judiciously, however. Keep the type font black so it’s easy to read. And don’t make your Donate Button blend in with your brand (see below under ‘Call to Action’).

9. Image

Pictures really can be worth 1,000 words, and this is super handy when it comes to email vs. snail mail – because you’re generally using less space to get your message across. You want a truly attention-grabbing image that pulls the reader down into the next section. The image should relate to the content of the email, and be at least 600 pixels wide. Add a link to the image so if it’s clicked the reader gets directed to the same destination as your call to action (aka ‘donate’ button).

10. Caption

Adding a caption to a winning image can give readers a clear and complete picture of your purpose, and how it will benefit them. For example, a photo of a child with big sad eyes can be captioned “Your caring will give her a hot meal before bedtime.” The prospective donor immediately knows what this is about, and can already begin to imagine themselves as the hero who gives this story its happy ending.

11. Footer

This is the final element of your email design. It shows readers useful information about your organization. This is a good place to include contact information such as your location and phone number, as well as a link to a downloadable form should the donor prefer to send a check in the mail. You can also add a consistent donation call to action in this space. Do not include social media links here, as you don’t want your reader to leave this page for any reason other than to donate.

12. Coordinate Your Design across Multiple Emails and Channels

Make sure your images and design connect, not just across multiple emails but also across multiple channels – website, social media and offline communications. You want to bake repetition into your integrated campaign. This serves not only to reinforce your message but to reassure donors you’re consistent, and they can trust you.

The Right Content

13. Text Readability

If your text is hard to read, guess what? People won’t read it. Generally you want to use 14 point text for the body of the message, and larger headline text so it calls attention to important elements of your message. Use sans serif for headlines, and serif for body copy. Use dark text on light background. Stay away from reverse-out text. Left align any text that’s more than three sentences long.

Don’t use too many different fonts as this may distract the reader from your message. And stick with standard fonts. Though it may be tempting to use a creative font recommended by your designer, keep in mind what displays well on your screen may not display well on a potential donor’s screen. If they don’t have that font, their computer will select one to substitute. This could make your e-mail look bad, or could even render it unintelligible. Stay with safe fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman, Georgia, Verdana and Tahoma.

14. Add Text Content (aka Story)

First, you want to sound human. Authentic. Personal. People tell each other stories; they don’t relate a lot of facts and figures.

Your story should lay out a clear, specific problem and a believable solution. They must relate to each other, and the reader must be able to visualize how they can help. There should be urgency so the reader knows why they should act right now.

EXAMPLE: Terry’s problem will likely affect 40% of the people you love. That’s how many people will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point in their life. You can bring these numbers down by helping fund this new clinical study. The sooner we start, the more lives we’ll save.

Here’s a surprise. Using text to tell the story may work a LOT better than video. When you stop to consider this, it makes a lot of sense. Because human beings communicate with each other a lot more in writing than in video. The latter seems a bit “canned,” rather than genuine. In Cut Through the Clutter [a free e-Book] the folks at NextAfter report results from thousands of year-end email experiments. There’s one that blew me away. If you’re planning to use a video, this is a must read.

In this experiment, we wondered if copy could do a better job than a video of helping the donor understand the value of giving to this organization. The original page had a video. The treatment page took a transcription of it and put it as text on the page instead.

Key Takeaway: Communicating the value proposition through text increased donation conversion by 560%. That means that text was much more effective than the video at showing why someone should give.

If you have a fancy year-end video, test using the transcript to create more value proposition copy on your page. You can save your video for nurturing content like blog posts, articles, and social media.

15. Call to Action (CTA)

The Call to Action highlights the action you want the reader to take. Be really clear about this, and avoid multiple calls to action. Want them to give? Say so. Want them to attend an event? Sign a petition? Make a pledge? Say so. If you offer too many choices, folks are likely to choose none. It’s called “analysis paralysis.” [Learn more about the famous jam study here].

Since it’s the end of the year, you’re likely wanting people to make a philanthropic investment. Make this CTA stand out by using a BIG donate button, in a color that contrasts with the rest of your design. And use color psychology to inform your choices. Generally, orange and green perform best– but not if these are your corporate colors.

Also, instead of simply saying “donate,” research shows you’re better off using the word “support” followed by the name of your cause or your specific campaign purpose. In fact, it can increase your donation rate by 16% per page view. Of course, the best way to tell what word converts best for your organization is to try an A/B test.

16. Add Signature

People give to people, so don’t omit a signature. It’s best, just like a letter, if it’s in blue ink. And it should be legible so it doesn’t stop people dead in their tracks trying to decipher it. People read through emails very quickly, and anything that causes them to pause could derail you. Print the signer’s name underneath as well.

17. Add P.S.

The P.S. is one of your most valuable pieces of real estate. Once people open your email they tend to read the salutation first, and then the P.S. per Professor Siegfried Vögele’s eye motion studies. Put your most important message here. Think: What’s the most important thing I have to say?

The Right Frequency and Timing

18. Send More Emails than You think You Should

One of the take-aways from the aforementioned Cut Through the Clutter [a free e-Book] is that few organizations are sending a lot of emails during the critical year-end December fundraising season. The average number sent is six, and only 17% send more than 10 emails. But guess what? Retailers send a lot of emails. Other nonprofits send a lot of emails. People get so many emails at this time of year, it’s really a crap shoot as to whether yours will be seen on any given day. Don’t rely on one or two emails to get the job done.

19. Experiment with Day of Week and Time of Day

There’s really no one right time to send your email. Which is another great argument for sending many emails, and trying different times. Fewer emails are sent on weekends, so sending one then may increase your chances it will be seen. The same is true for early mornings (before 7:00 a.m.) and evenings.

20. Maximize Mailings December 31st

Did you know 790% is the average percentage of additional revenue generated on December 31st compared to Giving Tuesday? (This data, again, comes from NextAfter).What are you planning for that date?

The Right Donation Landing Page

Landing pages deserve their own dedicated treatment, but they’re included here because a poorly designed or generic landing page can kill your donation – despite the fact you’ve followed every guideline up to this point. A few important tips follow.

21. Omit Extraneous Navigation Links

Those links at the top of your menu that are ubiquitous throughout your site will actually do you harm here. All these do are encourage folks to click away from your donation page. You don’t want anything on this page that distracts people from their mission to donate!

22. Link your Donate Button to a Campaign Branded Landing Page

Generic appeals that go to generic action buttons simply won’t generate the return on engagement that specifically targeted campaigns will.

23. Reassure Donors Your Site is Secure

When folks get to your Donation Landing Page, be sure there’s a visual padlock icon to demonstrate your site is secure (NextAfter found simply adding a padlock, even on a page that was otherwise secure, increased conversion by 14.4%).

24. Keep it Short and Sweet

Don’t ask for too much information. One study by Unbounce found reducing required form fields from 11 to 4 resulted in a 120% increase in conversions. Don’t ask for stuff you don’t need and/or won’t use. You can find other things that depress conversions here, including use of the word “Submit” in lieu of “Click Here” or “Go.”

25. Don’t Take Donors to a Whole New Universe

For best results, your donation page should match both (1) your organization’s overall branding, and (2) the look and feel of the campaign that brought your donor to this page. This reinforces your organization’s identity, and reassures the donor they’ve landed in the right place and their gift will be used for the purpose they intend.

Summary: A Formula for Successful Fundraising Emails

1. Begin with a good email list.

You’ll get nowhere if you don’t have enough people who care about your cause to whom you can send you appeal.

2. Segment your list to target your appeal.

The more you tailor your content to your audience, the more likely it will be that your email gets opened and acted on. Use similar characteristics, such as interests, how donors were acquired, giving history and demographics, and role/connection with your organization.

3. Get clarity on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Readers should be able to understand the focus of your message in seconds. What’s your SMIT (Single Most Important Thing) to tell? This SMIT should inform your design and content.

4. Figure out why your reader should care.

Make the message in the body of your email relevant. Tell a story with which your reader can empathize. Include a problem and a relatable solution. Write a few sentences to elaborate on the problem. Explain why they matter to your reader. Exclude any information that doesn’t help your reader take the action you want them to take.

5. Determine the best way to get your reader involved.

Invite your reader to take part in solving the problem. Tell readers specifically what step they should take. Offer the opportunity for your donor to become the hero. This offer becomes your singular call to action: reunite a toddler with her mom… save a veteran from being evicted… feed a hungry child… keep a senior safe at home… support emerging playwrights… save the rainforest… give clean water to a village…bring inner city kids to the museum… end sexual slavery… .

6. Go through the 25 steps of the formula outlined above.

Without a plan, it’s unlikely you’ll maximize your chances for success. Make sure you have one and that you work it. As management guru Peter Drucker says: The best plan is only good intentions unless it degenerates into work.

7. Plan ahead to measure – and use – your results. 

If you’ve never measured before, now’s the time to start so you can create a benchmark for future campaigns. Don’t just do something, hope for the best, and then leave it at that – without ever finding out if the best ever happened. Your campaign reporting provides a lot of valuable data. Are you learning from every campaign? Here are tips on what to measure.

The Art & Science of Digital Donor Retention

How to Write a Fundraising Plan in 2 Steps!

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