How to Write Emails That Your Donors Will Actually Open

Emily Friedrichs
August 26, 2021

Your donors’ inboxes are constantly filling with messages from individuals, businesses, news outlets, and more. Yet when done right, email is the most reliable funding stream for any nonprofit. Learning how to optimize an email that your donor is actually going to open, read, and respond to is crucial to your organization’s success.

Here are 8 secrets to creating a successful nonprofit email marketing strategy and writing emails that more donors will open.

1. Write Like a Person, Not an Organization

Donors want relationships. While it’s true that trust can be built with an organization, humans are hardwired to connect more deeply with real individuals than theoretical persons. The more organization-centric an email is, the less that sense of connection is fed.

Your email’s tone and story must be believable, but they can also be relatable. Experiment with what is personable and also professional. Just please don’t take liberties with excessive exclamation marks.

2. Attractiveness Matters

Don’t pretend that your organization saves money by using outdated or boring email templates. Outdated designs can make your organization seem fledgling and won’t excite your audience. When it comes to your online presence, a small investment in a fresh, branded email template will quickly pay off in increased engagement.

A good rule of thumb for design is that your emails should be 60% images and 40% text. Remember that any information provided by images must also be available as text, both because so many email providers won't download images and in order to meet web accessibility guidelines.

For ideas on how to design an effective nonprofit email template for your nonprofit, look to these 7 Newsletter Design Tips, which cover the basics of visual hierarchies, eye-movement patterns, negative space, and first-person CTAs.

13 Ways Nonprofits Can Build an Email List Download Button

3. Write a Catchy Subject Line

People receive more emails in their inboxes than they have time for. This is what makes the subject line so important; it may be the only part that a potential donor is going to read.

Subject lines also set the tone for how a donor interprets the rest of your communication. The best subject lines are direct, short, relatable, and customized for your specific audience. As you write, use the "5 mental levers" to pique interest. They are:

  • Mystery. Never give away the whole email in the subject line; otherwise, why does the recipient even need to open it?
  • Utility. Focus on an immediate value for the reader; without a sense of relevance, your message will likely end up in the trash.
  • Recency. Use words that indicate time sensitivity so that your recipients open your message now rather than kicking it down their to-do lists.
  • Personalization. Try using words like "you" or including recipients’ names to let them know that the email is specifically meant for them.
  • Authenticity. Make sure that your email comes across as genuine and not opportunistic. If you use the 5 mental levers, your subject line is guaranteed to be impactful.

4. Check for Added Value

Subject lines really matter. But beyond them, focus on creating something of value for your audience. And no, the value can’t be “updates from our nonprofit” or “an opportunity to help.” Really think like your recipient: Am I excited to attend your programming? Do I feel good after reading this email because I know that my contribution is having a real impact?

And speaking of value, there is nothing more valuable than time. If your organization sends epic newsletters, make them a better experience for readers by including a quick summary and lots of snippets, like this template:

Optimize your emails with summaries and eye-catching graphics.

In the end, you could have the most exciting subject lines in the world, but if the recipient doesn’t get value from reading the content, they won’t keep opening your emails.

5. Put Your Email Signature to Work

Having an email signature is like handing a person a business card every time you email them. It’s a way to make it easy for the recipient to contact you back via their preferred channel and shows your professionalism. It’s also an underused opportunity to highlight upcoming events, specific campaigns, and your organization's personality.

There are several free tools for generating professional-looking signatures in a snap. Experiment with including different links you want to highlight in your email signature, and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised.  


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6. Use the RFM Matrix

Segmentation is a powerful strategy for all your email campaigns. Segmented emails have higher open rates as well as higher click-through rates than non-segmented emails. Segmenting your disengaged donors helps you to deliver more relevant emails, which improves your funding chances.

The RFM matrix considers the recency, frequency, and monetary values for each client, or in the case of nonprofits, each donor. Recency is determined by how long it has been since they donated. Frequency is how often they donate, and monetary value is how much they donate. Each segment should have slightly different messaging. For example, you might send a “What you’ve been missing” email to lapsed donors, a peer-to-peer campaign to recurring donors, and an event sponsorship email to major donors.

Boost your email’s click-through rate by paying attention to your audience.

7. Test for Your Own Audience, Not the Market's Audience

The only way you'll know if your donor emails are working is if you track results, but wait 72 hours before you judge a campaign’s KPIs.

All email marketing platforms will show open rates and click rates for emails, indicating how many opened your email and how many clicked a link within it. High open rates for nonprofit email are above 25% but depend on the context. High click-through rates are over 10%.

Now that we’ve given you stats, be prepared to ignore them. Your audience is uniquely yours. Be sure to test for your own audience, and to continue learning over time how you can optimize for your own success.

8. Save Your Reputation

Your sender reputation, that is. Your sender reputation is what email providers use to filter out spam as well as to sort content into different folders, such as promotions, social, etc. Worse even than the spam folder, a poor sender reputation can cause your emails to be rejected by the server entirely. Just the act of having contacts on your mailing list who don’t regularly open your emails will harm your sender reputation.  

In addition to writing engaging emails that your donors actually open and regularly cleaning your mailing list, you can improve your sender reputation by asking contacts to mark you as an approved sender. The easiest way to do this is to simply ask them to add you as a contact in the first email you send them.

Here’s a fun example from Dan & Louis-Xavier of Growth.Design:

Boost your email’s click-through rate by paying attention to your audience.

These steps might seem like additional administrative work, or not as important as your upcoming fundraising campaign, but small actions that protect your sender reputation can amount to a huge difference in your email engagement rates over a year or two. That will have real impact on your nonprofit email marketing strategy and your organization's bottom line.



Emily Friedrichs is the Communications and Partnerships Manager at Elevation, a nonprofit marketing and web agency that provides digital solutions that appeal to nonprofits’ unique service models. Emily’s commitment to social justice and service began in zir youth in New Hampshire and has stayed with zir across the globe decades later. Emily has been both volunteer and activist for organizations working on human rights, poverty elimination, non-violence, and cultural exchange. Ze has taught in underprivileged communities in New York and Buenos Aires. Ze is passionate about community-building and behavioral psychology, and excited to be working at their crossroads in nonprofit technology.




If you want to unlock more strategic fundraising tips, check out these additional resources:

  • Fundraising Strategies for Nonprofits. 26 of our best fundraising strategies in one easy-to-read list that you can start implementing right now!

  • Nonprofit KPIs. All the Nonprofit Key Performance Indicators your nonprofit needs to track with formulas for each and access to our downloadable calculator.

  • Looking for a Nonprofit CRM? Get the guide that helps you understand all the options available, the features that matter, and how to determine which constituent relationship management software is best for your organization.


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