Writing a Great Fundraising Email

In this article:

  1. Before you begin
  2. Sending an email step-by-step
  3. Content: Building your story
  4. Structure: The anatomy of your emails
  5. Making the hard ask
  6. Subject lines: The most important test you’ll run
  7. Email schedule: How often should you send?
  8. Asking for recurring contributions
  9. Quick takeaways

Before you begin

Here’s the bottom line: A great fundraising email tells a compelling story that drives readers to take action. Your best tool is going to be great writing!

You’ve probably heard a lot of rules of thumb — use a one word subject line, add a big button, keep your email copy short, etc. But the truth is there aren’t any hard and fast rules, just general guidelines. Your task is figuring out what works best for your unique email list of supporters! Keep in mind that how your list responds to your emails can change over time, too, so always test new messaging and tactics!

If you have questions about testing for your large list, or figuring out the right move for your small list, get in touch with us by emailing support@actblue.com! We’d love to work with you to set up a great program.

Sending an email step-by-step

1. Your email content: First, you’ll need to tackle the actual writing of the email. You can either designate this to one person on your team, or have multiple people come up with drafts that you can combine or use separately for copy tests. You’ll often see a large difference in donation rates between one email pitch and another. And most importantly, make sure to have your work proofread by a colleague (twice!).

2. Who you’re sending to: While you work on the email content, pull a list of your supporters from your database so you can send your email to them. Be thoughtful about how folks have interacted with you in the past — for example, you probably don’t want to send a fundraising ask to folks with active monthly contributions unless it’s crunch time.

3. Testing: If you’re running a copy test or subject line test, you’ll need to break your list down into randomized groups and then send different copy or subject lines to each group. To figure out the size of group you need for a statistically significant test, read this!

4. Proofing: Once your emails and groups are all set, you should send yourself and team members proof emails for a last check before sending your email to supporters. Check for grammar, double check that all of your links lead to your contribution form, and make sure the linked forms contain the correct refcodes (if you’re using them). Having multiple sets of eyes for this step helps!

5. Send: When you feel super confident, hit the send button and watch the donations come in on your ActBlue Dashboard!

6. Rapid response: It’s important to work out your rapid response system in advance and hold people to their role. Make sure you have each and every step to sending an email at your campaign or organization documented, and that everyone on your team has access to your guide. This way, when a news story involving your group comes your way, you’re prepared to send an email response. Reducing the number of people who need to sign off on every message will make it possible for your team to send out emails as quickly as possible, allowing you to capitalize on a relevant moment.

Content: Building your story

Donors are motivated to give when your content makes them feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves — not an ATM. Your job is to tell your campaign or organization’s story to supporters in a way that makes them want to own a piece of your movement by donating.

Using theory of change: People want to be part of a solution, so make sure your emails follow a strong theory of change. Your content should clearly outline the problem and what the supporter can do about it (donate!). The reader should know why you’re sending an email and why their support matters right now. Avoid getting caught up in “This is our mission; here’s why you should care” — instead, aim for “This is our mission; here’s why you should act.”

Building horizontal relationships: Studies show that donors are motivated to give twice as much when asked by a peer, so craft messaging that builds a horizontal relationship with your supporters! Instead of saying “We have the solution, chip in,” we can say “We can work together to…” or “We can’t do this without you.” Establishing a horizontal relationship in your ask builds mutual respect and accountability. Your supporters are part of your community, and they’re also part of the solution.

Using the right voice: Your emails should be conversational and fit in with your other external communications. They should not be super formal or a research paper!

Giving relevant content: Email is a two-way street, so make sure your content is relevant to your supporters. Ask yourself: Is your content a delight to read? Will your average supporter find it important? Would your family or friends donate to that email?

Be intentional about inclusion: Make sure your email is friendly and accessible to all of your supporters. Use inclusive and empowering messaging and email design as a way of respecting everyone on your email list.

Structure: The anatomy of your emails

Remember that you’re competing for attention in the inbox with other organizations, friends, and family, so readability is key. Here’s a template with the most important parts of an email:

1. Subject Line: The subject line should capture the tone, emotion, and urgency of your copy. Finish the body of your email before you craft the subject line.

2. Hook: The first couple sentences of your email should draw your supporters in. This is where you introduce your moment (the catalyst behind the email).

3. Explainer: Now that you have grabbed your supporters’ attention, it’s time to explain why you are writing this email. Why is this moment important to them, why is it important to your campaign/organization, and what work needs to be done?

4. Ask: Now that supporters know your moment and why you are writing this email, it is time to make the ask. You only have about 11 seconds to capture your supporters’ attention and move them all the way to the ask, so use that time wisely. While writing your ask, keep in mind the theory of change and building a horizontal relationship. Provide your supporters a solution they can be a part of and make sure they know you can’t do this without them!

5. Second Explainer and Ask: Give unconvinced supporters another opportunity to give. The second half of your email should have a slightly different approach from the first half, so you explain all angles and don’t bore the reader.

6. Thank You: Never forget to thank your supporters! They are what keep your campaign/organization running!

Blocks of text can be intimidating, so try and keep things short. Your first ask should come after the first couple of paragraphs — the earlier the better! If you wait any longer you might lose the reader’s interest, or you’ll risk donors having to scroll down on their email browser to see any type of action. Whether using ActBlue Express Lane or linking text, be sure to bold all of your donate links.

Don’t forget mobile! So far in the 2020 election cycle, over 50% of contributions on ActBlue have been made via a mobile device, so you’ll want to think mobile-first and test all emails on a variety of mobile devices before sending! Shorter paragraphs are especially important to mobile conversion rates. Long paragraphs of text reduce your email’s readability, especially on a mobile device.

Making the hard ask

You might feel uncomfortable asking for money, but asking is the only way you are going to get the contributions you need! When you ask small-dollar donors to chip in, it’s more than a transaction: You’re asking them to invest in important work and create a people-powered movement. Grassroots donors are often the people most affected by your work, so it’s important to invite them into your cause.

Be specific with dollar amounts: Folks want to get involved! Make it easy for your supporters to say yes to giving by providing them with a specific amount — also known as a hard ask. A specific dollar amount makes it easier for your donors to think about their finances and ultimately say yes without having to take the time to come up with a number on their own. You know what you need, so ask for it!

Yes: Can you give $50?
No: Can you chip in?

Be clear and active: Directly ask your supporters to donate and give them a reason to chip in! Let your theory of change shine in your donation ask and make it clear that their money will provide the solution to the problem.

Yes: It’s getting colder, which means flu season is right around the corner. With your help we can work to provide free flu shots all over the country. Can you chip in $10 to help your community stay flu-free this winter?
No: Flu season is coming. Chip in $10.

Ask early and often: Again, your first ask should come relatively early in your email, often after your second or third paragraph. You can then follow with another two or three paragraphs, ending with a second ask. Remember to keep these paragraphs relatively short, so that your email is easy to read.

Subject lines: The most important test you’ll run

In a world where people receive hundreds of emails a day, it’s important to craft and test your subject lines whenever possible. You need your supporters to open your email before they can take action, so you want to make sure you’re using the most effective subject lines possible.

When comparing subject line test results, you should always go with the subject line with the highest response rate rather than email open rate. For example, if you’re testing to see if a subject line increased donations or volunteer shifts, you should measure the number of contributions or number of sign-ups instead of open rate. Remember, the overall goal of a fundraising or organizing email is to invite your supporters to take some sort of action beyond opening.

Email schedule: How often should you send?

Your goal is to build a healthy grassroots supporter base, so you want to send good, consistent emails. Sending emails your subscribers want to receive at regular intervals (not constantly or all at once) will build up your sending reputation. And with a thoughtful balance of various types of emails, like fundraising, cultivation, and thank you emails, you can send frequent emails without increasing unsubscribe rates.

Your email schedule depends on your specific list and the size of your organization. For example, if your nonprofit is at the peak of giving season, you can send more frequently to meet year-end goals, but make sure that every email is important and unique.

Work backwards from your budget: How much do you need to raise, and how much do you typically receive from each fundraising email? For candidates, keep in mind that as you get closer to an election, you’ll usually raise more money per send.

Asking for recurring contributions

Recurring contributions are your secret weapon. They give you the power to budget ahead and sustain your work for the long term. But above all, monthly donations let you raise more money. You can reduce your workload significantly by asking your donors for recurring contributions. Check out the graph below:

 Line graph of dollars raised in months since initial fundraising ask with pink line trending upward past $5,000 and blue line plateauing at around $2,000.

The blue line represents an email send with a one-time ask, and the pink line represents an email with a recurring ask. After the initial send, the one-time ask brought in $1,770, and the recurring ask brought in $1,635 — not much of a difference at first. But five months later the recurring one had raised $5,900. This example illustrates how much money you can raise in the long term when you ask for recurring contributions, which takes the same amount of work as a one-time ask.

You can read further about recurring contributions and why they’re so important and impactful here.

Quick takeaways

  • Test your subject lines!
  • Keep your emails friendly
  • Start off with an engaging hook
  • Give people a reason to give
  • Make your ask direct and horizontal
  • Your first ask should come after the second or third paragraph
  • Bold each link to your form and try to make it stand out
  • Think mobile-first and make sure your emails look good on all devices
  • Don’t treat your list like an ATM