Fundraising is hard.

And while online fundraising lowers the barriers to fundraising, it doesn’t necessarily make fundraising any easier, so fundraisers and marketers – like you and me – search for secrets to success, rules to follow, and strategies to copy that can make fundraising and email fundraising just a bit easier. Well, I have some good news, that’s what this post is about: how you can raise more money online.

Here’s a general rule to online fundraising:

Sending more (quality) emails to more (qualified) people leads to more revenue for your cause

So working backward, to raise more money (why you’re reading this) you have to get more people to send emails to and then send them more emails.

Now time for some bad news: it still takes work.

Back to good news… this post/guide will map out some research-backed tips and ideas for email fundraising today, challenge some assumptions and other current best practices, and give you some frameworks, tools, and tips so you can chart your own path to fundraising and email fundraising success.

The Ultimate Guide to Email Fundraising

Table of Contents

Yes, this post has a table of contents. Get over it.


Introduction to Email Fundraising

Before we get into the getting, sending, and optimizing, the first question is: why should you care about email fundraising in the first place?

I mean, email inboxes are crowded, competitive, and chaotic!

Brady’s Inbox

Well, you should care because when it comes to online fundraising email is valuable. Like… very valuable.

Both in terms of average gift size:

Email often has the largest average gift when it comes to online channels.

And in terms of volume:

Email is often one of the top one or two sources of online revenue.

The most recent M + R Benchmarks report found that 26% of all online revenue came from emails. The same report found that for every 1,000 emails that were sent, small organizations (fewer than 100,000 emails on your list) raised $106.

Email is valuable.

And email is still growing in prominence for online fundraising! Dunham + Company found that the percentage of donors motivated to give online by an email jumped 40% since 2014 (and over 366% since 2010):

We shouldn’t just trust survey data however but the 2017 M + R Benchmarks study saw email fundraising grow by 15%:

Email is growing.

So email is valuable and is growing in value when it comes to online fundraising.

Finally, this guide/post won’t discuss mobile-specific strategies but operates under the assumption that email is mobile. That’s because it is. Over half of all emails nowadays are opened on a mobile phone:

Litmus’ 2016 State of Email

And that’s a trend that won’t reverse anytime soon. The growth of email on mobile is one of the biggest factors for mobile giving also continuing to grow with Blackbaud reporting that 17% of all online donations in 2016 came from a mobile phone:

Email is mobile.

Alright, email is valuable (and growing) and inherently mobile. Let’s look at a few key metrics and benchmarks that we’ll reference as we get into the getting, sending, and optimizing of emails for email fundraising.

Metrics & Benchmarks

Here are some of the key metrics you’ll see:

  • Open Rate – Opens/Sent
  • Click Through Rate (CTR) – Clicks/Sent
  • Response Rate – Conversions/Sent
  • List Size – Total Subscribers
  • Churn Rate – Became unreachable/Was reachable

M + R has a good glossary with more on these metrics (and other ones) here.

And here are the 2017 study benchmarks from M + R:

Keep in mind these are from large organizations – even their ‘small’ is pretty big – so the ‘rate’ stats (open & CTR) should be higher for much smaller organizations and the ‘gross’ stats (subscribers & sent) should be lower. You can see all the benchmarks, and benchmark yourself, via M + R here but few key points here:

  • 87% of people won’t open your email
  • 99.62% of people won’t click your fundraising email
  • 99.95% of people won’t donate from your fundraising email

One big aha moment I had was when I heard NextAfter talk about the marketing funnel being upside down for charities and nonprofits. People don’t naturally fall ‘down’ to make a donation but we have to work harder and pull them up throughout the process. This is by stating and confirming value throughout and eliminating as many barriers and friction points as we can. More on that later but keep this in mind as we go.

Alright, a quick recap:

Let’s get started with…

Getting Emails

Before you can send emails to people for engagement and fundraising, you need some people (and emails) to engage with so you need to focus on email acquisition.

3 Steps to Getting More Emails

  1. Creating an offer or a value proposition
  2. Presenting and promoting the offer or value proposition
  3. Continuing the engagement post conversion

1. Creating an offer or value proposition

So you have an email list, so what? Who doesn’t? Why should someone give you their email? What can they expect to get when they do? What value do they get in this?

These are all fundamental questions you need to be answering when it comes to email signups but here’s the one main question you have to answer:

If I am your ideal donor, why should I give my email to you, rather than some organization, or not at all.

So with that question in mind, here are…

4 Ways to Answer the Email Signup Value Proposition Question
  1. Appeal. Why would I want to signup? Do I like it?
  2. Exclusivity. How is this different than any other organization? Can I get this anywhere else?
  3. Credibility. Why should I trust you? Do I believe you?
  4. Clarity. What will I get when I signup? Do I understand you?

1. Appeal. Why would I want to signup? Do I like it?

One of the easier ones, why would someone want to sign up for your emails in the first place? Regular stories? Are you offering them something if they do sign up — like an eBook, special access, or possibly even a physical item?

Here’s a simple example from charity: water:

Nothing too crazy but they point out the impact, highlight stories, and give you a sense of how pretty their emails are or will be.

2. Exclusivity. How is this different than any other organization? Can I get this anywhere else?

This one may be a bit trickier but think about what makes you and your emails unique compared to others. Is it your level of detail? Topics covered? Personalization? Who they come from? Design? There could be any number of reasons why your emails are unique so think about adding that to your sign up copy.

Here’s an example from Run for Water:

Focusing on the running and races aspect, what makes Run for Water unique, compared to the more general cause lead to 28% more email signups.

3. Credibility. Why should I trust you? Do I believe you?

This can be things like if your page and form are safe and secure if you are complying with SPAM laws and how you treat their email/info, or testimonials from other people on your organization and emails.

Here’s an example from Hillsdale College:

In this test, just by using the student testimonial as opposed to a description of the classes being offered led to an email sign up increase of 20.5%.

4. Clarity. What will I get when I signup? Do I understand you?

Slightly different from ‘appeal’, this is less about why they should like it and more about what they get and making that easily understood.

Here’s an example from Bucker:

In this experiment, by being more clear, short, and direct with what someone gets or is doing when they sign up for email, they were able to get 80.5% more email signups.

Don’t forget… having some answer to the value proposition question is better than having no answer at all. So be sure to start with one of the four ways (or a combination) and test what works best.

2. Presenting and promoting the offer or value proposition

Alright, you have a value proposition, but where do you put it and how do people find it? You’ll want to drive people from ads, social media, etc. to a landing page and your website.

Landing Page

This is where you point people or people find from your website (more on that next). You want to share your value proposition and have a nice form for them to complete. Here’s an example from First United:

Now, is that the best landing page for email signups? No! Based on vast research and experiments on email landing pages from NextAfter here are 13 ways you can improve your nonprofit landing page:

They key takeaway’s from those tips are to show value, only add things (images, videos, testimonials, etc.) that further add value, and remove anything else from the equation.

So, using those tips here’s how the First United landing page could be improved:

Website & Navigation

But what about people who came to your site for some other reason? You can do some simple things to make it easier for people interested in signing up to learn more and sign up within your website template and navigation.

Here’s an example from First United’s website:

Again, nothing too crazy but the email signup is at the top of each page and it’s featured in the footer. Having some calls to action to signup for email on pages where that makes more sense than another call to action (donate, volunteer, etc.) is also a good idea.


Ah, pop-ups. You may hate pop-ups but they work and as long as you are showing and offering value they shouldn’t be (too) annoying to readers.

Let’s take a look at an experiment where no special offer was tested against an in-line offer (in the copy) and a pop-up:

And here were the results:

The in-line offer increased email sign ups 350%. Again, some offer is better than no offer. But having that offer as a pop-up, increased email signups 470%!

Having an offer, and even having it on your page or within your website is key, but visitors have to see and engage with your offer in order to qualify it and take action from it and pop-ups do a good job here.

Key Tool Alert

I’m a fan of Sumo’s tools and pop up tools in particular. Easy to use, integrates with MailChimp and many other email programs, and you can even split test your versions to see which pop-ups and offers work best.

3. Continuing the engagement post conversion

Alright, you’ve presented your offer and someone has signed up to get your emails. Job done right? Wrong! You’ve still got some work to do.

Thank You or Confirmation Page

This is the page that they should get directed to immediately after signing up for email. This page should confirm their action and the value proposition and point them towards more information they’d like or actions they could take.

Here’s an example from First United’s site:

Soft Ask for Next Action or Donation

As humans, once we take an action we’re actually more likely to take another action on a similar path so offering other actions, like make a donation, is a great thing to offer. Having a soft call to action to donate after an email signup can convert anywhere from 0.5% to 5% of folks!

Here’s an example from a Seva Canada pop up:

And that should point to a donation page and, ideally, one that is built for people who just signed up for email from your offer. It can be as simple as having a headline, in the Seva example, like, “Thanks for staying connected.” before moving into the donation value proposition question, amount, and form.

NextAfter calls these donation pages ‘instant donation’ pages and they are one of the three main types of pages (as well as general and campaign) and you can read more about all three here.

Key Resource Alert

NextAfter has created a course for Facebook advertising called Turning Facebook Likes Into Donors and it’s full of tips, tools, and resources for creating an offer or value proposition, promoting it, and continuing the engagement when it comes to landing pages, donation pages, and ads.

Welcome Series

Now you need to ‘welcome’ these folks to your email list and at the very least confirm their signup, thank them, and give them a sense of what to expect from you and your emails.

Here’s an example from iTeams Canada:

You can’t read the copy here but those four emails all go out within 30 days and share stories, allow people to customize their country updates, talks about getting involved, and shares about the monthly giving program.

The welcome series is hugely important as people just took an action so they are more connected to you and open to information. It’s like just meeting someone and wanting to make a good impression. And yet here’s what NextAfter found in their Online Scorecard that tracked online donation and email sign-ups to over 130 organizations:

88% of organizations weren’t using a welcome series. But it gets worse:

A just over a third of organizations didn’t even send one email in the first 30 days. And less than half sent more than 1 email. With tools today, like MailChimp and Campaign Monitor, creating and running a simple welcome series is easy and should be required.

Sending (Fundraising) Emails

Now you’ve got some signups and you’re welcoming them to your list well, it’s time to keep engaging with emails. There are many types of emails you can, and should send, but this post/guide will focus on fundraising focused emails.

Value Proposition or Offer

We’ll revisit that core value proposition question but this time instead of answering it for an email sign up, you’ll need to answer it for a donation. It would then look like this:

If I am your ideal donor, why should I give to you, as rather than some other organization, or not at all.

A few key points here:

  • It’s answered for your ideal donor. Not just any donor or anyone, so this assumes you have identified your ideal donor
  • It’s not just about giving to you, it’s about comparison to other organizations and, in today’s world, even for profit ‘competitors’ like TOMS Shoes or similar
  • It’s also about communicating the value of giving because people really don’t have to give their money away and get ‘nothing’ back, you have to earn their donation

So with that in mind, you can answer that question using these four main ways:

  1. Appeal. Why would I want to donate? Do I like it?
  2. Exclusivity. How is this different than any other organization? Can I get this anywhere else?
  3. Credibility. Why should I trust you? Do I believe you?
  4. Clarity. What will my donation? Do I understand you?

1. Appeal. Why would I want to donate? Do I like it?

For a lot of organizations, there are two levels to the ‘appeal’. The first level is pretty basic and is pretty easy for people to ‘like’. Most nonprofits exist to help people in some way so, again, generally, your mission and work is fairly easy to get behind. The next level though is thinking specifically about your ideal donor and what it is about you that most appeals to them.

Here’s an example from Hillsdale College:

Some keywords and messages from that page/copy show values they can identify with like:

  • Tax deduction is a good financial move
  • Strategic investment is a smart donation
  • Future of America is both about long-term and the geographic area and ideal your donation is working towards
  • No money from the government further connects Hillsdale from other colleges who get government funding but also plays to their base who are (probably) more for smaller government and value independence, and freedom

Again, to best position your offer you have to know your ideal donor so you can speak more specifically to them.

2. Exclusivity. How is this different than any other organization? Can I get this anywhere else?

This one can be trickier to figure out as there really is a lot of overlap with organizations in terms of what you do and who you serve. But your values or faith perspective could be unique, geography, history, model (careful not to over explain…), or funding model could all be unique.

Here’s an example from charity: water:

Regardless of if you agree with the 100% model and offer, and while it is becoming more common, it is quite unique to charity: water and is a reason why a donor would give to them compared to some other water charity or not at all.

3. Credibility. Why should I trust you? Do I believe you?

This should be an easier one to answer as pretty much anything better than ‘because I said so’ is good. It can be donor testimonials, social proof numbers, third-party trust marks, or sites/places where you’ve been mentioned.

Here’s an example from Watsi:

Again, something that helps build trust and credibility is better than nothing!

4. Clarity. What will my donation? Do I understand you?

I think this is the biggest area of opportunity and need. Most people should ‘like’ giving to your organization (some more than others) and how you are different isn’t always easy. But everyone should trust you and they should be able to easily understand what problem you solve, how, and the role that they play in that.

That’s all in your control with your messaging and is really all donors want to know: how will my donation make a difference and how do I know?

For example, what do you think this organization does:

It’s not immediately clear is it? That woman could be a scientist, teacher, or farmer. The geography could be anywhere really. And ‘Invest in Sustainable Change’ sounds neat but doesn’t really say anything that is too clear (let alone unique).

This organization is actually one of my favourite organizations doing amazing work in education in Rwanda by focusing on and investing in teachers (as opposed to schools and buildings). My wife and I have supported this organization for years so when I see this I fill in the gaps and know what they do, but to someone new, it’s really hard to know what they do.

We do this all the time in our copy, landing pages, design, and messages. If you have information, you fill in the gaps and it makes sense. But if you don’t, then it doesn’t.

Here’s a good example from New Story:

Still not perfect but you know it’s about building homes, which cost $6,000, they have a 100% model, and with the ‘hire local’ language you can assume it’s not North America and it hints at their model.

Be specific. Be clear. Be tangible.

The Email Itself

Those examples above were from landing pages (easier to share and show) but you’ll want to package up that offer and message in your email throughout the main 10 elements of a fundraising email (taken from NextAfter’s blog post here) which are…

10 Elements of a Fundraising Email

  1. Sender
  2. Reply Email
  3. Send Time
  4. Subject Line
  5. Preview Text
  6. Design
  7. Copy Length
  8. Tone
  9. Images
  10. Call-to-Action

We can split those 10 elements into two groups: things people see before they open and things they see after.

Things they see before opening:Here is NextAfter’s description of these 5 elements:

Element 1 – The Sender

Senders have a huge impact on the trust that’s built with a donor. Sometimes that trust is measured through email performance metrics like open rate, click-through rate, or donor-response rate. Other times, we might measure that trust with the amount of replies we get from an email. Ultimately, we’re building trust through our communications.Element 1 - The Sender

Element 2 – Reply Email

The reply email can help build or break trust. If the reply appears to be to a real person, that builds trust in the mind of the recipient that this an email they might want to open. If it’s a “Do Not Reply” email, you’re essentially saying, “We don’t want to hear from you.”Element 2 - Reply Email

Element 3 – Send Time

Although many people claim to know the perfect send time, your donors will tell you when they actually open your email. We want to make sure we place our emails in front of them at the right time.Element 3 - Send Time

Element 4 – Subject Line

Depending on where a person opens your email appeal, this is one of the first elements seen. In the following blog posts, we’re going to look at research we’ve done on subject lines that may cause you to second guess some of the standard best practices.Element 4 - Subject Line

Element 5 – Preview Text

Thankfully, many email providers today allow you to dictate this element. If you don’t set this area of the email, it usually will grab the first part of your email to preview. This could be good or bad. Preview text gives the recipient a hint as to what your email is going to be about.Element 5 - Preview Text

Things they see after opening:

Here is NextAfter’s description of these next 5 elements:

Element 6 – Design

Design sparks some interesting, lively conversations in regards to email. Design, or creativity, is often subjective. But there are hard and fast ramifications for design, and we’ll explore those in the following chapters. But as a starting note, sometimes the “best” design can actually be a distraction that is hurting the performance of your email appeal.

Element 6 - Design

Element 7 – Copy Length

When we write an email appeal, should it look like a direct mail letter, or is it better to keep it short and sweet? The only way to really know which is more effective for your donors is to test it. The right length of copy can change from organization to organization, and from appeal to appeal.

Element 7 - Copy Length

Element 8 – Tone

How do we write our emails? Sometimes, it’s not about how long it takes you to say something, or how it looks, but it’s how you’re actually saying it. Notice the difference between these two examples below. It’s important to evaluate how we’re talking with our donors, and how it affects their trust of our organization and our senders.

Element 8 - Tone


Element 8 - Tone

Element 9 – Images

Are images helpful or hindering in emails? Should your entire email be an image? Maybe. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to test it. A lot of emails we receive in our aggregate donor inbox, and a lot of the examples you’ll see in future blog posts about email appeals, use images. But just because a lot of people use images in their emails, doesn’t mean that you should too. Sometimes images can reinforce your value proposition, and other times they can distract from the purpose of your email.Element 9 - Images

Element 9 - Images

Element 10 – Call-to-action

What are we asking people to do in our emails? With each type of email (like fundraising, advocacy, personal, etc.), the purpose changes, and this influences the final call-to-action. Usually, we’re asking the recipient to take some kind of action. Below are real calls-to-action we’ve seen.

Element 10 - Call to Action

(read that post from NextAfter in full here)

Each and every one of these elements can, and should, be tested at some point (more on that in the next section) but you can see and sort through NextAfter’s living laboratory for email experiments to see what has worked for others and ideas for your own tests.

Don’t Forget About Your Donation Page!

You’ve done so much good, hard work to get them all the way to a click to your donation page, don’t lose them now! The unfortunate reality is that we, nonprofits, have more room to grow here as evidenced by M + R’s Benchmarks:

This means that 98.8% of website visitors do not donate and 82% of people who visit a donation page — presumably because they are somewhat interested in giving — choose not to donate.

There are many things that come into why these conversion rates are so low but as it relates to email fundraising two main things:

  1. Lack of consistency between offer (in email) and messaging on landing page
  2. Too much ‘friction’ in the donation experience

1. Lack of consistency between offer (in email) and messaging on landing page

If you have a great offer that is clear and specific — say for a clean water project in Uganda — and delivered in email, you should reinforce that offer and message on your donation page. That’s offer consistency. If you just point people from a specific offer email to a general donation page, it could get confusing.

Donors may start asking ‘wait, what is it again that my donation will do’ or they may even start to trust you less as it could feel as though you sold them on one thing but then are asking for them to do something else.

The email and landing page should work together, reinforce the main value proposition, and together complete the donation.

Kind of like this:

2. Too much ‘friction’ in the donation experience

Friction is essentially the things standing in the way of your donor completing their donation and there are 7 main types:

  1. Field Number
  2. Error
  3. Decision
  4. Field Layout
  5. Registration
  6. Confusion
  7. Device

Or here’s a handy graphic with those 7 types of friction:

Your donation tool probably is responsible for a lot of those friction points (for better or worse) which is why choosing a great tool that’s good for your donors and their experience (not yours or what is cheapest) is so essential.

Key Resource Alert

NextAfter has compiled some of their donation page research for general, campaign, and instant donation pages where you can download see their recommendations for donation pages based on real-world experiments (see them all here).

Optimizing Emails

I mentioned testing your emails before — your donation and landing pages can and should be tested as well — which might sound intimidating but testing is quite easy if you know what to do.

Here are some ideas on what, and how, to test when it comes to email fundraising from NextAfter:

7 Strategies to Optimize Your Emails

  1. Test a different sender
  2. Measure every metric
  3. Test personalization in your emails
  4. Test copy length and its effect on conversion
  5. Test your images. Do they really help?
  6. Test your email template. Is it helping or hurting?
  7. Test a more personal tone in your emails

Of those, testing your designed template vs. a plain/simple template is a great one. Using a more personal tone in your email is good as well and figuring out which subject lines ‘work’ is always useful.

And here are some steps and advice on how to go about launching an experiment from NextAfter:

8 Steps to Launch An Experiment

  1. Identify the conversion goal
  2. Make sure you can measure your goal
  3. Craft your hypothesis
  4. Calculate your needed sample size
  5. Design your treatment
  6. Set up your experiment
  7. Validate your results
  8. Document your learning. Share your results.

The biggest thing here is making sure you are testing the right metric or conversion goal and that you can actually track it. If you can’t track donations with amounts by source, for example, it’s going to be hard to run good tests. Be sure to avoid vanity metric tests like opens or sometimes clicks when you are really focused on donations.


Did you really read this whole thing If so, thanks! If not, I hope you were able to find something of use as you go about getting, sending, and optimizing your emails. Below you’ll find a recording and slides from a presentation on this as well as some lists with more resources for you. Good luck!

Watch & Slides

You can watch a recorded presentation of this content from TechSoup Canada:

And here are the slides from that presentation:

More Resources. Yes, Even More Resources.


Landing & Donation Pages

Writing & Fundraising

Tools & Testing