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How to Write Nonprofit Emails That Actually Convert

December 16, 2016
7 minutes

How to Build a Kickass Email Fundraising Program That Actually Converts

If you haven’t tried email fundraising yet, you need to seriously consider it. Email fundraising doesn't have to be intimidating! With today's email integrations and automations, you can get your nonprofit up and running with a fully functional email program faster than you’d ever thought possible.

So, why bother sending fundraising emails?

Email is a beyond-powerful fundraising and marketing channel. With an average ROI of 4200%, you can be confident that every dollar you spend on email marketing is well spent. After all, it means that another $42 is likely coming back your way.

Additionally, many email service providers (ESPs) will donate their services for smaller nonprofits or nonprofits with smaller email lists. This allows you to focus expenses on other aspects of an event where email marketing no longer is a financial constraint to the campaign.

They are also quick to deliver results after sending. Most popular email marketing services are simple to use and are quite intuitive. They provide professionally designed templates with drag and drop features to make editing and formatting a cinch. 

Finally, nonprofit emails are quite versatile. Aside from fundraising, they’re the perfect tool to inform your supporters, mobilize volunteers, advertise events, and increase brand awareness.

At this point, you’re probably sold, right? And you’re likely asking yourself “...but what does an email fundraising program for a nonprofit like ours need to include?”

Fear not—we’ve compiled this handy-dandy guide to all things email fundraising.  

All about your nonprofit's email list

Having an email list is important because, simply put, if you don’t have a list, you don’t have anyone to email. Your email list is the collection of email addresses you’ve gained over time. Typically, you’d pull this list from your supporter and donor CRM.

The beginning: Building your email list.

If you haven’t started compiling an email list yet, no worries! First, put a newsletter signup form on your website in an easily visible location. Then, check out these tactics to set up and maintain a healthy nonprofit email marketing list. Next, consider a lead magnet. A lead magnet is something downloadable from your website: a fact sheet, brochure, annual report, or shiny PDF that you can offer the public in exchange for their email address. Once they download the resource, you’ll have their email address and a friendly new subscriber to your emails!

If you have created an email list, it’s time to get it into the best shape of its life. 

Clean up your email list

Here’s a hard and fast fact of fundraising life—every year your email list has churn. You know we hate to be the bearer of bad news, but people unsubscribe, and a portion of subscribers will become inactive (say it ain't so!). List churn can affect your open rates, click-through rates, and most importantly, your donation rates. If people aren't opening your emails, you're missing a huge opportunity to increase your online giving when it's time to send those oh-so-important fundraising appeals.

The biggest reason why list churn is a major fundraising problem is that most organizations aren’t even aware of it, let alone taking action to offset it. Sometimes you really don't know what you don't know. And if you're a smaller nonprofit, your marketing team is most likely small and mighty, if you have one at all.

As always, we've got your back and won't let list churn be the bane of your email fundraising existence! Here are four best practices you can do to keep your nonprofit email marketing list in tip-top shape to offset that pesky churn. Want more delightful digital details? Here's even more tactics to set up a dope nonprofit email list.

Identify the inactive segments

The first thing you’ll want to do is identify inactive segments on your email list. Some email service providers may have a function to segment or tag these subscribers. If yours doesn't, pull a report to see which subscribers haven't opened an email from you in the last 6 months. Once you have this segment available, tag them in your email marketing platform as “inactive”. Once you have your list of inactives, remove them from your main email list, driving an instantly positive impact on your email list health and open rate. And all is not lost with your inactives either...

Create a strategy to encourage re-engagement

Every organization with an email list is dealing with a segment of inactive subscribers, but very few have a strategy to re-engage these subscribers. This could be as simple as sending the segment a targeted email that is designed to get them to take action. You might link to an interesting article relating to your mission or fun updates about the goings-on at your nonprofit. You can even test the email content over several months to optimize your re-engagement email. 

Pro-tip: At this point, you don't have much to lose, so why not use this as an opportunity to get wildly creative to see if you can get people re-engaged? Create an ED polar plunge challenge. Lure them back with photos of your office pets and create a poll for them to rate the cutest. What's the worst that could happen? And if all efforts fail, you just may have to take the “L.” If after sending re-engagement emails a subscriber still hasn't opened, wipe your hands clean and remove them from your list completely. Determine what metric you'll use to remove folks and use that for the duration of your campaign. It's always sad to lose a contact, but your list will be so much healthier without the weight of inactives.

BONUS Pro Tip: Try another method of communication with your inactive contacts: text messaging, social media, a third-party survey, or targeted ads.


An illustration of a computer screen with an email subscription field being filled out.


Communicate consistently

Email people on a regular basis. Yep, no more sending out one-off emails every six months. We know it's not rocket science, but consistency is one the biggest marketing challenges for organizations. Not being in the habit of interacting with your subscribers puts them at risk of becoming inactive or (gasp) unsubscribing completely.

Regular communication is not only important for your email list health, but it's important for donor retention. The emails your donors receive between strategic fundraising appeals makes a huge difference. Commit to a regular email marketing schedule by choosing a frequency that feels sustainable, whether that be daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly, and stick to that. Your regular communications warm your subscribers up for your bigger appeals. Getting a surprise ask from an org you haven't heard from in ages is the worst, so warm up those subscribers so they're not left in the cold!

Build your nonprofit's email list for long-term sustainability

Always think about ways to grow your nonprofit's email list. Why grow your email list if your nonprofit has an engaged list already? To grow your donations, increase awareness of your cause, celebrate your impact, and better your nonprofit's email sending reputation, to name a few reasons.

Test and experiment different list building tactics such as:

  • A pop-up box on your website newsletter sign-ups
  • An opt-in form in the sidebar or footer of your website
  • Social media promotion for email sign-ups
  • A peer-to-peer fundraising campaign
  • Social and Google ads
  • Collecting contacts at events via giveaways

Fair warning about email lists: while we think marketing emails are very excellent (just look at our newsletter!), there are both written laws and unwritten rules in place regarding use and security of personal data. These laws and rules affect what you can do with email addresses, including whether you can send marketing emails. GDPR covers digital privacy regulations in Europe, CCPA covers the same in California, and CASL covers spam and electronic threats in Canada. Read up on them if you're in the mood to be confused. We can't offer advice on compliance, but we can tell you that reputable ESPs like MailChimp and Constant Contact know what they're doing, so tap into their expertise. And most importantly, don't buy or sell email lists!


Email marketing and fundraising can be a beast, but with the right tactics, you can easily manage and engage your subscriber list. 

Email list experiments for your nonprofit to try

Cleaning up your nonprofit's email list is a great start, but if you really want the best results, you need to put that list to the test to see what’s truly possible. How do you do that? Run some simple email experiments to touch donors' hearts—and pocketbooks.

Experiment #1: Turn up the frequency

The top mistake we see nonprofits make with their email list is sending too infrequently. It may seem counterintuitive, but sending high-quality emails with greater frequency will encourage more people to stay engaged, which will translate into a bigger audience for fundraising emails.

So, how often should you send emails? At least once a week. For the sake of your experiment, try sending more emails than you normally would for a whole month. If you normally send one email a month, try sending one a week. If you normally send an email a week, send two emails a week. Just see what happens. 

There's a caveat, though: All testing in moderation. Don't assume that if once-a-week emails double your funds, then twice-a-week emails will quadruple it.

Experiment #2: Ask for the next gift sooner

The rules of direct mail fundraising do not apply to email fundraising. Spacing out asks by months is not a good strategy. In fact, asking sooner will keep your donors engaged, leading to a higher portion of your list engaged. If you need a baseline for this experiment, start by diving into your nonprofit CRM for data that shows frequency of giving by email. Next, decide on a time frame you’ll test to get a subsequent gift sooner.

As an example, coming out of a campaign, you may want to pull a segment of your donors and send them a next ask within 1 to 3 weeks. Over time, evaluate the giving behavior of donors who gave again sooner versus those who did not.

Experiment #3: Test specific and higher ask amounts

We get it: you don’t want to overstep. But some donors will surprise you and rise to the challenge. Look at your data and identify a segment of donors that might be good candidates for an upgrade ask and put a compelling ask amount in front of them. Aim for a test segment of at least 200 donors. That minimum segment volume will be enough to give you useful information about the effectiveness of the test.

Experiment #4: Make it personal

Use personalization in the subject line, in the intro, and even in the images! For text-based personalization, use merge tags and pull in info like name, donation amount and date, the campaign that got donors to give, or any other information that doesn't seem creepy. A word of caution, though: be conscientious when it comes to honorifics—there are more than just Mr. and Ms. out there and that Dr. may not be a man. While communications are often addressed to Mr. and Mrs., the main donor of many households is the Mrs., so consider adjusting your salutation.

There really are endless experiments you can run on your email list. Subject lines, message testing, landing page tests and so much more. These tests have the power to truly inform your email fundraising strategy and take your results to the next level.

Create an email template

Okay, you’ve implemented the habits above, you’ve run your tests, and your email list is in tip-top shape with a small army of subscribers. The next item you can check off is an email template. Every email you send to your subscribers should be similar in design—and each email you send should definitely feature your nonprofit’s branding. That’s because consistent branding builds trust, and your audience's trust is critical to the long-term health of your nonprofit.

Conveniently for you, comprehensive email programs like Mailchimp and Constant Contact have templates ready for you to use. They make it easy for you to use your own logo and graphics in pre-designed, charmingly professional-looking templates, saving you time on email design. If you’re concerned about your lack of HTML knowledge, don’t be—not a single line of HTML needs to be written for you to customize a beautifully-designed email.

Oh yeah, they also integrate with Funraise, helping you save time and build consistency—a double win!

Automate your emails

You’ve designed your emails and compiled a list of lucky recipients. The next step in starting your email fundraising program is putting your email automations into place. That’s right, you can send targeted emails based on fundraising and donation activity automatically instead of digging through your donor data manually to decide who gets which email. We can’t overemphasize how much time this will save, not to mention brain cells.

Here are just three of the automations you should consider welcoming into your email fundraising program:

Abandoned Cart Automation

Imagine a donor starting to make a sizable donation via your website, putting all of their contact information in, and then getting pulled away by one of life’s literal surprises. We’re sure you know that happens all the time, but you can benefit from using an abandoned cart automation. When someone gets close to donating but doesn’t complete the form, an abandoned cart automation can email them a friendly reminder to finish up what they set out to do. That’s cha-ching for your and your nonprofit.

Account Expiration Alerts

If a donor has a credit card they’ve saved to their account with you that’s about to expire, email them a little nudge to remind them to update their credit card details ASAP. We’re sure they wouldn’t want their monthly donation to lapse!

Yearly Donation Summary

This one’s super helpful! Make it easy for your donors to gather their tax information by automatically sending tax donation summaries over email. Or even better, send out one email to remind donors they can use Funraise's Donor Portal app to access their donation information any time of the year.

Strategize for the long term

Once you have the basics in place, start thinking about your long-term email fundraising strategy. Do you have specific goals in place? Do you have someone to handle your email copy? Will you send out a bi-weekly newsletter or perhaps only send out emails for special events?

Think about how you want people to think about your nonprofit in one year, five years, 10 years. What impact are you expecting to have by then? Consider how email can help you in achieving those goals. These are the questions you should start thinking about. 

How to craft a winning fundraising email

A successful fundraising email is more than just a donation magnet, so don't stress over each word. You need a little bit of context, an ask for donations, and a call to action. When all else fails, sit down and just write from the heart. 

Start by filtering your database

By catering your email marketing campaign specifically to each particular segment in your database, you will have sent “bespoke” emails with a personal touch or connection to the individual donor segment.

The segments can be anything: for instance, size, age, last donation date, donation frequency etc. The goal is to send relevant content to a smaller segment of donors, preventing your donors from receiving emails where they feel your content is not relevant to them personally. Segmentation helps build trust with your donor pool and enables your nonprofit to use data to strategically grow new donations.

Choose a meaningful subject line

Great fundraising emails are only great when they get opened. This is why a killer subject line is critical to making your emails stand out in inboxes. A few tips for crafting a must-click subject line:

  • Keep it short: 4-15 characters is a good start.
  • Use time-sensitive words, such as “important” and “today.”
  • Make the subject line accurate to the email body – misleading or deceptive subject lines run the risk of your emails being downgraded automatically by email servers as well as being marked as SPAM.
  • Try posing a question. Want to know the answer? You have to open the email!
  • Try using the recipient’s name.
  • Include the sender's name in the email.
  • Lots of A/B testing helps as well as testing out different days or times of day.

Be mindful of formatting

Our attention spans keep getting shorter. Few of us have the time to read long emails, even if they are great. A well formatted email is easier to read, and thus more likely to be read.

  • Once again, short is good. Limit yourself to two or three paragraphs.
  • Ensure it looks great on mobile as well.
  • Make sure the email isn’t overcrowded.
  • Stick to one typeface.
  • Limit your email to three colors at most.
  • Use classic Big Bold Imagery to engage your recipient.
  • Always include your logo in the header and your organization's information in the footer, preferably next to a subscribe button.

Tell a compelling story

As we’ve discussed many times, humans are hardwired to respond to stories, and a good story is the foundation of a successful nonprofit email. Storytelling gives the recipient a glimpse into your world and explains why your mission is so important. And one more thing: while crafting your story, be sure to give one example of where or how the donation will impact your cause. Link the donation amount to specific results. For example, show them how their $50 donation will give a child school supplies for a whole school year.

Stick to a single call to action

When you send your email out, don’t confuse your readers by asking for donations, asking to sign up for regular newsletters, or urging them to read the latest blog. If the goal of your email is to raise funds, focus on that as your main goal. Be sure to state and include your call to action within the first two paragraphs. It is too easy for a reader to lose interest in the email and miss the call to action altogether if you wait until later on in the email. BAM! Here are three epic examples of emails with donation buttons.

Make donating easy 

Even with a well-crafted email and an inspiring call to action, it will amount to nothing if the process to donate suddenly becomes a complicated mess of clicks and confusion. Users will give up for good. Make use of an online donation software system that guides your donors toward a hassle-free experience.

Track your efforts

Lastly, if you can afford it (or if you a service is willing to donate their email analytics to your organization), tracking your emails will help when crafting future emails, based on what the data shows from past emails. Here are some KPIs (Key Performance Indicators; yep, we know our lingo!) to check:

  • Delivery rate: how many emails reached their destination?
  • Unsubscribe rate: how many people asked to be removed from regular emails?
  • Open rate: how many opened the email to read it (Note: Apple's Mail Privacy Protection policy will affect open rates effective fall 2021)?
  • Click-through rate: how many readers clicked the call to action button?
  • Email conversion rate: did the reader actually make a donation?

Final thoughts

Creating the perfect email fundraising strategy takes time, but we promise it’s worth it. Make your way through this guide to find what works best for you. Your nonprofit’s bottom line can only improve from having a solid email fundraising plan in place.

Email Fundraising: Key Takeaways

  • Email fundraising should be a key component of any nonprofit’s fundraising strategy.
  • A great email fundraising strategy starts with a healthy nonprofit email marketing list, so make sure yours is in the best shape of its life.
  • Keep in touch with your supporters by communicating regularly. 
  • Don’t make every email a donation ask!
  • Automate your emails to save time and sanity; segment your database to build trust and commitment.
  • The best fundraising emails have an eye-catching subject line, tell a compelling story, and make donating easy-peasy.
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