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Secret Cold Email Strategies To Reach Prospective Funders

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Shhh… Press your ear a little closer to this blog post. I’m about to tell you the ABSOLUTE BIGGEST SECRET to finding prospective funders.

Are you ready for it?

Because it’s BIG.

By letting you in on this secret, I’m giving you a HUGE competitive advantage.

People who know this secret raise money.

People who don’t know this secret leave money on the table.

When I tell you, it may seem obvious to you at first blush.

But, guess what? Many, many, many people don’t really believe this secret is true.

They certainly don’t act like they believe it’s true.

In fact, folks often act as if money will come raining down from the sky despite their failure to take this secret to heart.

It’s nice to hope for rain in the face of a draught.

But it’s not a winning strategy.

Strategy is a careful plan or method, as a behavior.

Hoping is merely a mental activity. If it’s not translated into ACTION, it goes nowhere.

And this brings me to the secret.

You’re Never Going to Get What You Don’t Ask For

Before you roll your eyes, think about that for a minute.

It’s actually pretty profound. And it applies to just about everything in life.

TRUE STORY ABOUT ASKING vs. NOT ASKING: At one organization where I worked for over a decade, my boss would routinely chide me for being so ‘rude’ and ‘ungrateful’ as to ask for a raise at my annual review: “You’re the only one who asks me for a raise. I’m very generous; everyone else just takes what they’re given.” Guess what? This was just blowing off steam. I did a good job. My boss knew it. Secretly, I think the fact I asked was grudgingly admired. After all, don’t you want a fundraiser who asks?! Everyone else did receive raises, but I received much larger raises. Many of them probably could have too. If they’d only asked.

Don’t worry asking may be seen as offensive or impolite.  

There are more offensive things. Like not raising the money you need to help those who rely on you. Instead consider this: what’s the alternative to not asking?

Hockey great Wayne Gretsky is quoted as saying “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

The rest of this article is dedicated to helping you take your very best shot – particularly with potential major donor prospects.

Could you use some wins in that area?

First Commit to Getting in the Game

If you’re not asking, and I mean seriously and fearlessly asking, you should be on the bench. Because if you’re on the court, and not being strategic and tactically aggressive, you’re just taking up space. Passivity won’t move your team toward the goal.

So… what’s it going to be for you this year and moving forward?

Are you a player or a bystander?

I don’t necessarily mean asking for money yet. After all, this is an article about cold email. Why? Sometimes you want to ask for a smaller commitment first.

Little wins lead to bigger wins.

You can’t win the World Series without playing a bunch of other games first. In fact, research by Robert Cialdini shows humans are wired to demonstrate consistent commitments. This principle of influence is also called “foot in the door,” because if you can get someone committed even at an entry-level you’re more likely to get them to recommit at progressively higher levels. This is why if you can get a prospect to agree to sign a petition… attend an event… join you for virtual coffee… return your phone call… or respond to your email, text, or social media message … you’re on your way to the next, hopefully larger, commitment.

If you’re committed to being a real fundraising player, read on.

Step Up to the Plate

Today I’ll cover how to reach prospective major gift funders you don’t know very well at this point. They can be individuals, foundation donors, or businesses.

Think of it as if you were a batter facing a pitcher for the first time. You’re not sure how to read this player, though you may have some clues. Perhaps you’ve studied videos. Or you’ve gleaned intelligence from others, directly or indirectly.

Even though you don’t know this pitcher (like you may not really know many of your major donor prospects), it’s well worth investing your time in making your best approach. Maybe you’ll get a hit. And, if not this time, you’ll know more for next time.

Okay, enough analogy. Back to your prospective funders.

Are you willing to ask for what you want?  

Generally, the first thing you want is just to get on your prospect’s radar. Hopefully, you’ve got some sort of link to them, perhaps through a board member, another staff person, a donor, or just someone in the community who suggested they might have an interest in your mission. Or maybe they’ve been a volunteer or client, an alum or patient, a visitor or member, or have otherwise been involved with you in some capacity.

If you don’t have a real link, perhaps you can manufacture one.

Let’s consider what you can do — via something as simple as email — to attract new major gifts, grants, and sponsorships.

Cold Emailing Gets a Bad Rap

Just because the gift is major does not mean your investment needs to be major as well. In fact, quite the contrary. So whatever your size, don’t shy away from major gift fundraising. I’m not suggesting you don’t need to spend money to make money. You do. But major gift fundraising is the most cost-effective strategy available to you. And a simple email can be more powerful than you might image.

Before we talk about using email to attract major donors, think about some of the strategies you might use to:

  • Apply for a job
  • Seek admission for yourself or your kids to a school
  • Persuade a conference to select you as a speaker
  • Ask a publication to accept your article
  • Ask a gallery to display your artwork
  • Find investors to begin a new business venture
  • Seek out a fulfilling new volunteer opportunity

Whatever you seek, chances are your initial outreach will be an email message. You might try a phone call too, but it’s likely you’ll send an email immediately before or after.

With your email, you want to accomplish two basic things:

  1. Describe who you are in a way it is easily discernible what you offer is a good match for what they need.
  2. Describe why you are excited about them, in particular, as a good fit.

And you want to accomplish these two things with directness and brevity. If you’re quick, authentic, and to the point, there’s no reason for anyone to fear the process. Not you, and not your recipient.

Don’t Be Afraid of Cold Emails

A successful cold email makes an instant match between the sender and the recipient. And matchmaking is at the heart of all good fundraising. There’s something one party has that the other values, and vice-versa.

NOTE: you can also accomplish this value exchange objective through social media messaging if you don’t have an email and/or happen to know your recipient’s preferences in terms of communication mediums.

Let’s look at two examples. They both happen to have been sent via LinkedIn (which can be a terrific medium for reaching out to working professionals, and may also be an easier contact to research than finding a correct email address), but could easily be sent using direct email too.

EXAMPLE 1: LinkedIn message to apply for a job

I happened on this in an article posted on Business Insider. Kathryn Minshew, co-founder and CEO of careers advice and job listings site The Muse, received an intriguing LinkedIn message from a stranger named Elliot Bell. She wasn’t looking to hire a head of marketing at the time. Until the message from Bell changed her mind. Here’s what he wrote:

Hi Kathryn,

While slightly out of place, I attended the Women 2.0 conference yesterday with EatDrinnkJobs and had the chance to see you pitch. I was blown away by your, your team and most of all, your company.

I spent six years at, working closely with amazing leaders like Jason Finger (who you know well). I see such amazing potential in your company, and I would love to be a part of it in any way. My primary experience is in marketing, with a lot of experience marketing to the same corporations and users you seem to be attracting. I’d love to tell you more about how my skill set could help you all reach and exceed your current growth goals.

Congrats on all your current success. Again, I’d love to find a time to chat more about the company and tell you how I could help.



Fast forward to the result: Minshew hired Elliot as director of marketing; he worked there four years!

EXAMPLE 2: LinkedIn message to set up a major gift prospect meeting

Some months after beginning a job as director of development with a local food bank, I learned there was an annual ‘turkey drive’ campaign run in collaboration with local synagogues, churches, and mosques. I perused the list of donors and came upon the name of someone known to be a generous philanthropist. I also knew a few other things about him, including the fact he was active on LinkedIn. I decided to reach out. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Martin**,

I’m not sure if we’ve met personally, but you and I attend the same congregation and I know you are very close with our senior rabbi. Both of you, I know, share a commitment to feeding the hungry.

I recently began work with the Food Bank, and I see you’ve been a supporter generally and also through the Congregation’s annual turkey drive. I’m awed by your community philanthropy, and want you to know your support really means a lot!

I know this comes somewhat out of the blue, but I wonder if you’d like to have a personal meeting with our Executive Director and talk about specific ways we might partner. We also have tons of volunteer opportunities that may be of interest to your employees.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read and consider this message. And for all you do for our community.

Sincere regards,


** Not the recipient’s real name.

Fast forward to the result: Martin sent me a message back within 24 hours. He thanked me for reaching out, told me he was thrilled to be a supporter, and was a big fan of our work. He also mentioned he’d look forward to meeting me at a congregational event at some point. I messaged him right back and asked for permission to have the E.D. give him a call. He messaged back “sure.” The ED called and ended up leaving a message. Nothing happened for several weeks. Then Martin made a turkey drive gift that was bigger than the previous year’s gift, though not anywhere near his philanthropic capacity. I thought that was that. After all, it had been a stab in the dark. Well, not completely in the dark because I knew a thing or two about him and what floated his boat philanthropically. Three weeks later, out of the blue, we received a six-figure check!

You won’t always hit a home run. But if you don’t pick up a bat and attempt to hit the ball you’ll never even get to first base.

Let’s break down why these messages, cold though they were, were successful.

6 Cold Email Strategies to Reach Prospective Funders

1. Include something personal.

You don’t have much time to grab attention. Being personal will generally accomplish this.

  • Elliot wrote he’d seen Kathryn speak at a conference.
  • I wrote that Martin and I were both members of the same congregation.

2. Include something complimentary.

Flattery will get you everywhere, as it is said. We all like to hear nice things about ourselves.

  • Elliot told Kathryn she and her team blew him away with their pitch.
  • I told Martin I was awed by his community philanthropy.

3. Clarify why you are excited to work with them specifically.

This is another aspect of being personal. You want to partner with this individual, foundation, or company because you’ve done your research and know it’s a good match for both of you.

  • Elliot told Kathryn he saw amazing potential in her company and wanted to be a part of it.
  • I told Martin I knew his values were a match with the values my nonprofit enacted, due to his demonstrated commitment to feeding the hungry.

4. Include brief background information so the recipient can see the fit.

Incorporate something into the message that warms it up a bit so it’s no longer really cold.

  • Elliot included two sentences about his background, just enough information that Kathryn could see if he’d be a fit for her company.
  • I let Martin know we both belonged to the same congregation, so he knew a little bit about how our values might align.

5. Name drop, appropriately, if you can.

Don’t be obnoxious about this. But do a little bit of homework and see if you can figure out who the email recipient respects. When you can add in a bit of ‘social proof,’ it helps as a decision-making shortcut and makes it easier for the recipient to see you as someone other than a spammer or sleazy salesperson.

  • Elliot mentioned the name of a mutual connection, so Kathryn could ask that connection about him.
  • I mentioned the senior rabbi, so Martin could ask him about me.

6. Make a specific, reasonable ask.

Don’t ask for the sun, moon, and stars right off the bat. That’s obnoxious. But also don’t fail to ask. There’s got to be a purpose to your message or you’re just wasting the reader’s time.

  • Elliot made a simple request rather than asking for a big-time commitment, like a 30-minute phone call tomorrow.
  • I asked for unassuming consideration of a meeting sometime in the future.

How to Win at Cold Email Messaging

Begin by reframing this strategy for yourself. Don’t think of it as an imposition. Think of it as something the recipient may be delighted to receive. You are offering someone an opportunity. It just may be the opportunity they’ve been looking for. You’re offering, perhaps, a solution to a problem they didn’t fully realize they had. Or if they did realize it, they had no idea where to look for the answer. Or they had no time to look for the answer. Your outreach may just be perceived as a wonderful gift!

Also, be honest about the worst-case scenario when you send a cold email. Maybe they simply won’t see it. Maybe they won’t read it. Maybe they’ll reject your offer.  In all these cases, you’re no worse off than you were before.

A Few Extra Tips to Boost Success

It’s good to be realistic. That means embracing the fact people are busy. Your email needs to stand out, create a great first impression, and be super easy to read and digest. WayUp CEO Liz Wessel suggests 3 steps for crafting the perfect cold email:

1. Craft a catchy subject line.

Did you know you can test your subject line before you send it? Co-Schedule has built upon research done in the 60s and 70s by government researchers studying the roots of languages. They’ve found emotional language creates a higher response. Use their Email Subject Line Tester to measure the emotion quotient you’ve wrapped into your headline. Honestly, I spend as much time writing my subject lines as the entire body of the email. Because if the email doesn’t get opened, what does it matter what’s inside?

2. Consider brevity the soul of wit.

Keep your wits about you to come across as intelligent and respectful. Don’t waste your reader’s time. Say exactly what you want to say; nothing more. Anything extraneous will take away from your most important point.

3. It’s okay to add some humor.

I would rephrase this to say it’s okay to add something authentically you. If you’re not funny, don’t go there. Plus humor can be misinterpreted, especially via the written word as it has no tone of voice. But adding in something to make the reader smile is a great idea.  In fact, I recommend you smile while writing your message; it somehow comes across. Try it!

Now you know the secrets to cold email success. Use them to attract gifts that will have a positive impact on your bottom line – possibly sooner than you may think.

Are you ready to give your donors the content they deserve? Here’s a Donor-Centered Content Marketing worksheet you can use as a template to enhance your donor communication efforts.

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  • Elizabeth

    Great article! I'm curious: what were the subject lines you used for each of these messages? You hear a lot about how important the subject is for getting people to actually open the email. What do you include in yours? Thank you!
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