Fundraising Fundamentals: Crafting the Perfect Donor Email

by Paul Diaz, Vice President Policy, Public Interest Registry

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. said, “Think of giving not as a duty but as a privilege.” But how do you encourage people to embrace that privilege and give to your mission? Crafting the perfect donor email is a key part of your fundraising toolkit, but it can be downright tricky to get your message across, especially when email inboxes are more crowded than ever today. Here are some simple tips to help you craft an email that gets noticed—and gets results:

Analyze Your Base

First, make sure you know who you can and cannot email.  There are legal regulations for privacy and spam, among other things, that organizations need to review  before it can put together an email campaign.  Put yourself in your donors’ shoes: they can’t support everyone. And according to the Harvard Business Review, the average professional receives 120 email messages per day! To ensure that yours makes the cut, pay attention to who will receive your message and make sure it’s relevant. As Gerard Tonti writes for America’s Charities,  it’s not generally feasible to send each donor an individualized message so understanding how often groups of your donors give and to what campaigns, etc. you can craft appropriate messages. “When you don’t segment your donors, you risk losing them,” says Tonti. 

So take the time to organize your donor database, then you’ll be  ready to move forward with creating content that really speaks to your audience. 

Accentuate the Positive

Your successes show your work is worthy of support. You can share them by telling your organization’s story succinctly and engagingly. According to Megan Donahue in her piece on, email is a particularly good medium for this. “You can write stories, share pictures, or embed videos in a message you deliver straight to your supporters’ inboxes.” However, Donahue warns, while you may be working to right a wrong or improve the lives of people who are suffering, keep your messages uplifting. “Make sure the stories you tell are positive and inspiring. If you’re sending consistently negative messaging, people will not be excited to open your emails.” 

Embrace Your Ambassadors

Volunteer testimonials or quotes from beneficiaries really bring home your messaging and show the impact of your mission, just make sure you have appropriate consents to use their names, photos, and quotes! Stories Worth Telling explains that “the most compelling, effective stories have a single character as their focal point.” Consider this single-character strategy to highlight a person who’s benefited from your work or someone, such as a donor or volunteer, who has been touched by the generosity of others. You can also invite a board member or local leader closely connected to your cause to write the email appeal (with editing from you, as needed) and share it with your donors.

Underscore the Urgency

When it comes to donor solicitation, we’ve written before about the importance of creating urgency. It’s important to communicate not only why your audience should give but why they should give now. The pandemic has been a study in urgency for non-profits. According to this piece by Kelly Wilson in Global Giving, “Because so much has changed, so must your fundraising strategy. … This crisis is the moment to show how you’re listening to your community. ” Pandemic or not, explaining what is new or challenging—and why support is needed more than ever—is a critical part of creating a compelling donor email.  

Make it Easy

Consider using direct donate links compatible with payment and immediate transfer apps. Presenting a single call to action or funding needed via email can be a good practice, but that call to action can be supported in a variety of ways. Including more than one donation option (for example a one-time gift and an ongoing monthly donation) is a great idea. Just be sure to keep categories and corresponding donate buttons clear. Including a deadline can also motivate donors and help support the sense of urgency you’ve created.

P.S.: Even if you’ve written the best email this side of the universe, odds are most people won’t read the whole thing. Studies show, however, they will read a “P.S.” Nonprofit Education Manager Abby Jarvis of QGIV says that all appeals should include one. Plus, a P.S. can be a great method to draw donors to the most important element of your email—the call to action. If they see nothing else, they will see that. 

P.P.S.: As Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Your donor email can help make someone’s life a life of giving—and, in turn, make the lives of others more meaningful, healthy, and happy!

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