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Writing (and Testing) Great Nonprofit Emails

Michelle Stockwell

Crafting smart and effective emails can be challenging. Every list is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing effective emails.

Luckily, there are a few tried-and-true principles to guide your writing. Once you've got something drafted, take the time to test your emails. Test everything from messaging to subject lines. Knowing your list well will empower you to be a  more effective communicator and fundraiser.

Writing Effective Emails

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Set your intention. Before you write your email, set your primary intention. Do you want to raise money? Do you want people to take action? Or do you want to share a story? That intention will help keep your email focused.

One Email = One  Idea. Your subscribers don’t want a detailed summary of your work, but they may be motivated to donate when they read about your plan to serve a new segment of your community. If you're not sure how to structure this, try including three supporting points before you make your big ask. Pick one idea for your email and stick with it. 

Start with a theory of change.  Present a problem, a solution, and a helpful action that the supporter can take. Keep in mind that the solution should be realistic and match the scale of the problem. Show them what you can achieve with their help and you’ll earn their donations, their volunteer time, and their trust.

It can be great to talk about what you’ve already accomplished, but it’s even more motivating to share how their actions or donations can help build on your existing momentum to help you achieve even bigger goals.

Speak to the heart. We’re driven to act by our values and by our emotions. Hearing statistics about the harmful effects of a policy may rally people to oppose it, but consider showing your audience how the policy affects other people’s lives instead.

Tell the story of the family that might lose healthcare coverage when they need it the most. Or share a story about how working parents will be impacted by the loss of after-school services.

Not all appeals have to be negative. You can also motivate your audience by telling the story of a student who was able to go onto college with your organization's assistance.

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Be Authentic. Write each email like a personal letter to your supporter. If you are channeling the voice of your executive director, a staffer, or a community advocate; it is important to write like they speak, but a little more clearly.

If you’re struggling to capture the voice of your executive director, get a recording of them talking about why they’re drawn to their work. Or record staffers talking about what motivates them day-to-day. You can always refer back to these recordings when you are trying to convey the voice of your nonprofit. Being authentic will build trust with your supporters. 

Move your subscribers up the ladder of engagement. The ladder of engagement isn’t just for community organizers. After your supporters take the desired action, you should be prepared with a next step that invites them to deepen their involvement.

If they take an action, consider asking them to make a donation. If they make a contribution, consider asking them to attend your next volunteer event. EveryAction’s targeted email tools make setting up an engaging thank you sequence very easy.

Consider including simple graphics. Simple infographics or gifs are a great way capture the attention of your audience and engage visual thinkers. The trick with graphic emails is breaking up the images into sections. Smaller images files will load more quickly than one large image.

If you want to include photos, limit yourself to one or two that help tell your story. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram are great for sharing more photos of your work. 

Center Your Supporters. Rather than centering your organization or staff in every email, talk about how your supporters are affecting change. You literally can’t afford to exist without them, so make sure they know how much you value their contributions.

Test Everything

Photo by Mia Baker on UnsplashTesting early and often is essential to the success of your email program. Every list is unique and knowing yours will empower you to be a more effective digital communicator and fundraiser.

Some lists will respond really well to emails packed with graphics, while others will prefer simple plain text emails. You may have a good sense of what works for your list, but running tests allows you to ensure that your email program is fully-optimized.

Testing Your Emails

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Test one variable at a time. This is simple. If you want to know what the best subject line is, the only thing that should change between Test Email A and Test Email B is the subject line. If the copy differs from email A to B, you will not be able to tell what made the successful email stand out.

With our digital tools you can run A-J tests (meaning you can test up to 10 different subject lines, etc.), so you can run the tests that you need to optimize your programs and ultimately, raise more money.

Select your test audience. Send both emails to a subset of your full list. Be sure to exclude supporters who have their donation information saved with FastAction (one-click donations). These supporters are most likely to give, so you want to send them the most effective email possible.

Measure success carefully. When deciding which email to share with your full list, it can be tempting to select the email with the most opens. This is a good metric if your goal is to share a note with your supporters, but if your goal is to raise money, be sure to send the email that resulted in the most supporters making contributions or in the largest amount raised.

Keep testing. Once you get a result, you shouldn’t assume that it will always hold true for your list. People may have responded to the novelty of a new button, but still respond better to a donation link overall. Keep testing so that you can better engage your supporters and raise more money. 


Want to take a deeper dive? Sign up for our free email fundraising course, which covers everything from list-building to rapid-response. 

Topics: email, fundraising, nonprofit tools