Imagine you’re a busy donor checking your email on the way to lunch. You’ve just gotten out of a difficult meeting at work, and your personal inbox is crowded with promotional messages from brands you don’t remember signing up to receive emails from. You see a message from your favorite nonprofit and glance at the subject line, “There’s still time to give your gift!” You delete the message without opening it and move on with your day.

Seem realistic? It’s true that your email subject line is often the only part of the email your donors see — 64% of people decide to open or delete emails based on their subject lines.

Fortunately, subject lines can also work in your favor. If your nonprofit is worried about receiving silence from donors and you want to get more supporters’ attention, this guide can help. We’ll explore four tips you can use to improve the quality of your nonprofit’s subject lines and provide examples to get inspired by.

Stay clear and concise.

Your email subject line will be much more effective if you know exactly what you want your email to accomplish and can communicate that clearly. Start by defining your goal for each email so you can write subject lines that get right to the point and hold recipients’ attention.

For example, say that your goal for an email is to acquire new donors from your pool of past event attendees. You might write a subject line that reads “Liked our event? Learn more about supporting our mission!” This subject line quickly communicates that you’d like recipients to consider supporting your nonprofit in more ways than one.

In terms of length, experts recommend keeping your email subject lines limited to 9 words and a total of 60 characters.

Personalize, personalize, personalize.

Another way to capture and retain supporters’ attention with your subject lines is to make them feel personal. “Jamie, the campaign you supported surpassed its goal!” is much more compelling than a generic subject line like “See the results of our fall fundraising campaign” because it’s relevant to the individual recipient.

The easiest way to personalize both your email content and subject lines is to segment the contacts in your database. Segmenting donors by donation level is a good starting point (i.e., major donors, mid-level donors, recurring donors, and minor donors). However, the more granular and specific you can get, the better.

For instance, you might also segment supporters based on their:

  • Charitable interests, based on the initiatives they’ve donated to or shown interest in along with their stated interests.
  • Donation history, such as the type of campaigns they’ve donated to and their giving methods.
  • Past involvement, including whether they’ve attended fundraising events, volunteered, or participated in your advocacy initiatives.
  • Location, so you can send emails about relevant events and volunteer opportunities in their area.

Make sure that the subject lines you write are hyper-relevant to the supporters in each segment. Additionally, use your fundraising software or email marketing tools to auto-populate email subject lines with each supporter’s first name to address them directly.

Incorporate words that stand out.

To inspire more people to read your emails, put plenty of thought into how to make your marketing stand out with attention-grabbing subject lines. This can be as simple as incorporating certain words or framing your subject lines in specific ways to draw recipients in.

Try to include words that stand out to donors because of their:

  • Emotional resonance: Use words that evoke positive emotions like empowerment and hope, such as “together” or “thrive.” Pair these with the names and stories of beneficiaries to evoke feelings of connection along with an emotional response. You might use the line, “Together, we can make a difference for children in need,” for example.
  • Ability to pique recipients’ curiosity: Curiosity is a powerful motivator — simply framing your email subject line as a question can lead to 50% higher open rates. You might also incorporate words that evoke curiosity on their own, like “explore” or “discover.”
  • Compelling data: Including statistics, numbers, and other data that speaks to your nonprofit’s impact or the importance of a certain appeal is bound to make your subject lines stand out. For instance, you might write a subject line about legacy giving that reads, “One legacy gift funded 200 scholarships! Explore the story.

To gauge the impact of using certain words in your subject lines, compare the open and click-through rates (CTR) of different emails. For instance, you might compare the CTR of three emails that included the word “legacy” with a group of emails without any attention-grabbing words.

Keep it genuine.

Your nonprofit relies on lasting relationships with donors, and the best way to cultivate and maintain donor relationships is to be honest and transparent with them about your nonprofit’s work. This sentiment extends to your email subject lines — the more genuine you can make them, the more recipients will trust the email and want to read its contents.

You can imbue your email subject lines with honesty and genuine care by using the following tips:

  • Avoid false urgency. Urgency can be effective for time-sensitive appeals for occasions like GivingTuesday or the last day of a fundraising campaign, but it isn’t always necessary. To keep recipients engaged and avoid burning them out, save urgent subject lines for when you really need them.
  • Prioritize your nonprofit’s community impact. Even when you’re trying to build relationships with donors or thank them for their support, bring the focus back to the impact that your nonprofit and supporters make together. A subject line like “Thank you for saving Jasper the bulldog’s life ♥️” acknowledges the donor while centering the impact their support has made on beneficiaries.
  • Tell true stories. Storytelling is a powerful tool for engaging supporters, and you can pull recipients into your stories right from the subject line. For example, the subject line “Dante’s story of resilience & how you can help others” piques recipients’ interest and immediately connects them to your nonprofit’s work in a genuine way.

Remember that no matter what your goal for an individual email is, relationship-building is always a secondary goal. Stay genuine and write warm, community-focused subject lines to ensure that your emails contribute to positive supporter relationships.

Examples of compelling email subject lines.

Using the tactics discussed above, we’ve compiled a short list of compelling email subject line examples you can use to inspire your own subject lines:

  • Fundraising appeal: Daisy, your donations power political change. Join the fight
  • Thank-you emailEloise, the coral reefs you helped rebuild thank you!
  • Event invitation: Change lives with your bids at our June auction
  • Survey or feedback request: How was your donation experience? Let us know!
  • New donor welcome email: Welcome to the fight for LGBTQ rights, Diego
  • Follow-up email: Imani, we still need petition signatures. Will you sign?

These are not the only kinds of emails your nonprofit will send, so take the time to brainstorm a variety of potential email goals now and exercise your subject line-writing muscles. Then, bring your ideas to your team to discuss how you can use these tips to improve your organization’s email marketing strategy for the long term.


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