Nonprofit Fundraising Emails: How to Make Them Profitable

Use these tips to maximize your nonprofit's email response rate

Remember the early excitement over how email would offer nonprofits a cheap, easy way to reach millions of potential donors? That didn’t exactly pan out. In fact, due to spam considerations, the primary thing your nonprofit should be using email for is communication with existing members and donors, not finding new ones.

Used well, regular emails can foster an ongoing sense of connection to your organization among its members and lead to steady or increased support. Used badly, however, your emails will either join the scads of other ones going unread in every recipient’s inbox – or worse yet, turn off the very supporters you hoped to attract.

Here are a few guidelines to remember when sending messages from your nonprofit via email:

  • Confine emailings to existing supporters who have either expressed an interest in receiving email communications ("opted in") or who are given a chance, in every message, to opt out. (And make sure to process opt-out requests immediately.) As you collect email addresses from supporters, let them know your policy on sharing that address with others. The policy most likely to please your supporters is to never rent out your email lists unless you’ve gotten people’s advance permission.
  • Personalize the “sender.” Readers are much more likely to open an email that comes from, “Joe Goodguy, Fix Everything Foundation” than the name of the organization alone. That sense of personal communication should be carried throughout the message. Use different staff names for different types of messages or different segments of donors, as appropriate. Even better is if you can incorporate the sender’s photo and a graphic of his or her signature into the message.
  • Make subject lines brief and catchy, yet specific and clear. Even existing supporters have to be convinced to open a message. A bland heading like “News From Our Nonprofit” can turn off the many people who’ve had enough doses of reality for one day. An overly general title like “What’s New” may sound like spam. Create interest or excitement with something like “Otter Born in Captivity,” or “Invitation to KidsOrg’s 10th Anniversary.”
  • Don't get caught in a spam filter. First, be careful about subject line words or phrases that might trigger content filters. These are set to prescreen the spammers’ latest favorite words or tricks. Though these are ever changing, sure-fire trouble words are any that sound remotely suggestive, strings of capital letters or punctuation marks, mentions of debt, baldness, or popular health remedies, and even the words “free,” “limited time,” or “opportunity.” Second, try to avoid volume filters—that is, filters that interpret all messages sent to large numbers of people as spam. Talk to your email provider to make sure it has negotiated an exemption for your organization with major Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
  • If a particular message is likely to resonate with a wide audience (for example, a development that impacts a popular national park), encourage recipients to forward it to friends. But be sure to date the message, and to tell people about any deadlines for action. You don’t want your email to bounce around the Web for years.
  • Include enough information within the message that someone who has never heard of your organization will see who you are and understand what you do. Remember, your email may be forwarded beyond your immediate supporters. And it never hurts to remind donors exactly what their contributions are funding.
  • Don’t let informality turn to sloppiness. Typos look just as bad in an email as in a letter. And, IMHO (in my humble opinion), there’s no need to use smiley faces or cutesy abbreviations.
  • Keep messages short and readable. A few paragraphs, with lots of bullet points, is plenty. If you have the capacity to put the message in HTML format, great. If not, make sure to use a large font, put spaces between paragraphs, and review the text from the viewpoint of someone who will open it and give it a few seconds’ quick scanning.
  • Be ready for two-way communication. Your readers are only a click away from the “reply” button. They may have questions or concerns, or wish to respond to your requests for information or help. The speed of email creates an expectation that someone at the other end will answer right away. Make sure you’ve got someone lined up—if not with a full answer, then at least with a note saying “Thank you for your [comments, concerns, or offer]. I’ll look into this and get back to you within the week.”
  • Encourage readers to click through to your website or Facebook page. While your email message should be interesting on its own, it can also legitimately act as a “teaser,” compelling people to go to your website to learn more.
  • Don't send emails encouraging donations unless your website is equipped to handle credit card transactions. If you have to add to potential donors’ workloads by asking them to write a check and put it in the mail, you’ll irritate the very ones who are most accustomed to doing things at the speed of email.

For more information on this and other aspects of communicating with donors, see Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).

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