Getting Started with Email Fundraising

Email fundraising is a technique that’s within the reach of the smallest organization.  This article walks you through the basics: how to design a campaign, write emails, build an email list, select software to send email and take online donations, and measure the results.

Email is an effective way to communicate with donors, and to raise money without substantially raising your overhead. While it isn’t likely to replace direct mail fundraising in your communications mix, emails allow you to inexpensively provide reasons and reminders to give, right when they can be most effective. Some donors are more likely to read and act on an email. And it’s not particularly complicated to do.

Almost every organization should consider email fundraising. Here’s how to get started.

Define Your Strategy and Story

  • Formulate a plan. Before launching your campaign, take the time to formulate a plan. A well thought-out strategy will help make your campaign mission compelling enough to appeal to the target audience.
  • Start by defining your campaign goals. How much do you hope to raise? Think through what’s actually possible, as it’s discouraging to everyone – including donors – to set unrealistic goals. Identify and list actual donors you think you can count on to give, estimate how much they might give, and use that as the base for your campaign. While you’re likely to get new donors, it’s impractical to expect the vast majority to be new ones.
  • Consider the appropriate length for your campaign. Every campaign should have an end date – that final push as you near the end. “Only one day left to hit our goal!” can generate useful momentum, and spur supporters to donate. Most campaigns span at least a few weeks, while some span months or more.
  • Create your team. The right staff members or volunteers are also important in the effectiveness of the campaign. Who will write the emails? Who needs to review them before they go out? Who’s making sure they’re coordinated with your organization’s other communications and campaigns?
  • Craft a message that gets results. Most importantly, develop a compelling message to inspire people to donate. Tell supporters a story – not just about why it’s important to support your organization, but specifically what their donations will support. Is it a scholarship fund to help more people take advantage of your programs? A new piece of equipment? When possible, put names or faces to the people the campaign will help, or paint a vivid picture of what the hoped-for results will look like. The more specific your request, and the more it resonates with your target audience, the more likely your supporters are to donate.


Design Your Flow of Emails

For instance, you might design a campaign with four emails. The first frames your request, while the second provides a different perspective, like supporting quotes, or a client’s story. The third might encourage people to donate at the last minute with a simple, poignant quote. Use the fourth email to thank people for their support. For a more robust campaign, consider adding additional emails such as a progress report, a seasonal greeting card, or a request for recipients to forward your message or tell a friend about your campaign.

It’s worth considering how your email fundraising will work alongside your other communications. Don’t think of email as an alternative to direct mail or a website – email campaigns can be effective companion pieces to existing direct fundraising appeals.

Evaluate whether your emails will coincide with a direct mail solicitation or fill an open slot in your direct mail schedule.

Remember, different types of communications don’t exist in separate bubbles. Use them to support each other by directing attention to an upcoming letter or email, or use both to direct potential donors to your website.

Build an Email List

The best email fundraising campaign is useless if you don’t have anyone to send it to. Plus, data shows that on average, email campaigns receive a .5 percent to 2 percent donation rate from each email – clearly, a successful campaign relies on reaching as many committed supporters as you can. If you’re trying to build a list in a hurry, recruit your current supporters to your email list – for instance, by sending a postcard to everyone on your direct mail list asking them to subscribe to your email list.

Another option is to find email addresses for your current support list through an “email address appending” service. You send your direct mail list to the vendor, who fleshes it out with email addresses. Vendors like FreshAddress or Tower Data charge per name (around $.20 to $.60 with a minimum order required), with a success rate of 10 to 20 percent.

Online resources can also encourage people to sign up or pledge and pass the word on to others. You might create compelling information that’s useful to your potential audience, and then ask them to sign up to learn more, or to hear about new resources. Or create a campaign – for example, asking people to not drive their cars one day each week – and get participants to sign a pledge, with their email address, committing to it.

Keep in mind that bigger is not always better. Make sure the people on your email list want to receive information from your organization. If you’re emailing people who did not sign up, you run the risk of alienating people from your cause instead of increasing your donation revenue. Worse, you can run afoul of the law.

The national CAN-SPAM Act says you may only email people with whom you have pre-existing relationships.

Pulling lists of email addresses from the Web, or from other people’s events, is a bad way to start a campaign.

Write Effective Emails

When composing emails, details are critical. Think of a subject line that will entice readers. They should be intriguing and motivating. A simple “Help support our organization” might not get the same response as a “Help us raise $10,000 by midnight tonight!”

List the name of both an individual and the name of the organization as the sender in order to encourage the most people to open the email. Choose a strong advocate for your cause. Just as you would highlight an important supporter as an event attendee, or leadership in a campaign, use name recognition to help drive your email’s success.

In the body of your email, tell your story succinctly. One compelling example can be more effective than a lot of facts and figures. Make it as personal as possible. Use the recipients’ names when you can, and sign the email as humanly as possible – with a name, and a scanned signature if possible.

Avoid stilted language in favor of a personal tone. The email should read like you wrote it to a friend. Remember, good emails are generally shorter, more personal and informal than standard direct mail letters, so recycling direct mail won’t work without revisions.

Finally, remember to make your ask! Include three different types of asks in an email – one in the body of the email, one as a closing P.S., and with a “Donate” button. Make the click obvious and easy. Remove any doubt with a large “Donate Now” button or callout with no links to other pages. Use bold text to highlight action steps and pertinent information, but avoid underline or colored fonts for emphasis, as your reader may confuse them for additional (broken) links.

Choose a Broadcast Email Tool

A number of useful and affordable broadcast email packages can make it relatively easy to email hundreds, thousands or even millions of people at once. These tools help you format attractive emails, including graphical formats or images, and manage your list of email addresses. They also let recipients subscribe and unsubscribe by themselves, and help get your mail into inboxes rather than spam filters. These tools will also provide reports on how many people opened and clicked through on each email, so you can measure effectiveness.

If you’re emailing more than a dozen or so people at a time, use software designed specifically for mass email like Vertical Response or Network for Good’s Email Now. Both offer feature-rich, affordable options. A number of donor management and online integrated systems provide useful broadcast email functionality, as well. For more on broadcast email tools, see Idealware’s “Few Good Broadcast Email Tools” article.

Choose a Donation Tool

Many donors who receive fundraising requests by email expect to be able to donate online. Luckily, a number of tools make accepting online payments easy. Most online donation tools work the same way. A “donate” button on your website links to a donation form where donors enter contact and credit card information. The tool verifies the credit card, charges it securely and ensures that the donor’s money reaches your organization. Online reporting tools let you see what’s been donated and export the information to another database.

A number of packages, including Network for Good’s Basic Donate Now, charge no fees except for a percentage of each donation. Organizations who expect lots of donations should consider tools like Click & Pledge, AuctionPay, GiftTool or Network for Good’s Custom Donate Now. Online integrated tools that allow you to take donations, send emails and manage constituent data all in one place can also be excellent options.

Measure Your Success

You’ve begun your first email fundraising campaign. How’s it going? Donation results and email metrics provided through your broadcast email tool help you understand the progress of your campaign and how to improve it. Open rates, which measure how many recipients “opened” your email, track how effectively your subject line and other header information encouraged people to open your email. A standard open rate is 15 to 25 percent. If you want to boost your numbers, try making your subject line more evocative, consider your email volume, and look at the time and day of the week your emails are being sent.

Click-through rates show how effectively your email copy inspired people to donate. On average, between 1 percent and 10 percent of recipients will click through a link. To raise this rate, try making your subject line clearer. Perhaps people were expecting one thing from your subject line but found a different letter in the email body. Make sure your “Donate Now” link is obvious. Finally, re-read your copy asking for support. Is it clear, concise and compelling?

Keep an eye on your unsubscribe rate to determine if you’re sending out too many emails. Expect an unsubscribe rate of 0.3 percent to 1 percent for each email. To decrease your unsubscribe rate, try providing more value in your emails, email on a predictable schedule and reduce your overall volume.

Perhaps most important of all, your conversion rate helps you track how many people actually donated. A rate between .5 percent and 2 percent for a fundraising appeal, and 3 percent to 15 percent for action appeals, means your emails performed to average. To increase your conversion rate, provide a compelling reason for readers to act, and optimize your landing page so readers who click through can easily donate or follow the next steps.

Evaluating your emails and adjusting them as necessary can help you fine tune your campaigns. Find out what’s working, and do more of it. Remember to be bold, adventurous and passionate about your cause, keep it compelling and personal, and people will respond.

Wrapping it Up

Congratulations! You’ve got all the knowledge and tools you need to mount your first email fundraising campaign. The 2008 election showed email campaigns have the potential to bring in large numbers of supporters, many of whom were not reached by other, more traditional efforts. By applying a little forethought and adopting the same techniques, your organization can do the same.

For More Information

Recording: Getting Started with Email Fundraising
We'll walk through what you'll need to know to design your own email fundraising campaign.

A Few Good Broadcast Email Tools
We talked to eleven nonprofit technology experts to find out what eNewsletter tools have worked well for them.

The Basics of Email Metrics: Are Your Campaigns Working?

We explain how to use basic email metrics to understand how your constituents are reacting to your emails.


Andrea Berry is an independent fundraising consultant focusing on helping nonprofits build and expand their fundraising capacity, she can be reached at



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