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Article first published December 2018, updated September 2019

The end of the year is quickly approaching and, for nonprofits, this means formulating email campaigns to meet year-end fundraising goals. But what good is an amazing email if no one opens it?

Carefully crafted nonprofit email subject lines are the most powerful tools in your arsenal to drive in those end-of-year donations.

Read on to discover how you can get them right.

How to write nonprofit email subject lines

According to a study, December 31st is the busiest day for nonprofit emails. In fact, the month of December, in general, is a busy month for nonprofit emails.

If you want to break through the noise, you’ll need to devote considerable time to drafting the perfect subject line. Thirty-five percent of people decide whether or not an email is worth their time based purely on the subject line.

You only have a few words to accomplish several goals: Inspire, intrigue, create urgency, and encourage action, so keep the following tips in mind.

Use action verbs.

If you can use an action verb as the first word in your email subject line, that’s perfect. If not, try to include at least one somewhere in the text. When it comes to nonprofit email subject lines, some powerful action verbs include:

  • Save
  • Help
  • Give
  • Change
  • Join

This email from Patagonia’s nonprofit is loaded with action verbs that inspire the reader to take action. Photos in the body are effective too, so long as they’re mobile responsive. Bringing these action verbs into the subject line tells your reader what you want from them and what they can expect from the rest of the email:

nonprofit email subject lines

Source: Really Good Emails

Get personal.

Personalizing your nonprofit email subject line boosts your open and click-through rates and will help you develop a relationship with your audience. According to research from Experian, this means at least 27% higher open rates and 11% higher click-through rates, along with six times higher transaction rates.

Create a subject line that includes the recipient’s first name and consider using the name of a specific person from your organization as the sender. This will make it feel like more of a one-on-one heartfelt conversation between two people rather than an organization reaching out to a non-specific person, asking for money.

Why would anyone want to donate to someone who can’t be bothered to remember their name? You know the value of connecting with your audience, and that principle applies in the email subject lines for your nonprofit the same as it does elsewhere in your organization.

Pose a question.

Using a question for your nonprofit email subject line gets your readers thinking and compels them to open the email to learn more. It’s the same strategy TV producers use to make sure you can’t miss that next episode: unanswered questions and cliffhangers.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • Can you help X?
  • Can we talk about X?
  • How will you change the world today?

This email from Charity: Water poses a question and tells readers an interesting story that also inspires them to donate.

nonprofit email subject lines

Source: Really Good Emails

Create urgency.

Donating to charity is something people always seem to put off indefinitely. It’s something we all think about doing, really want to do, and mean to do, but, for some reason, we put off following through with our intentions.

So how do you break that cycle? By creating urgency.

If you don’t set some kind of deadline, your readers might feel inspired to take action but might not follow through and actually donate.

An email saved for later is better than an email thrown in the trash, but it still doesn’t do much good for you or your organization. It certainly doesn’t help you meet your goals.

To create urgency, let readers know you’re matching donations until a specific, limited time. Set a deadline to reach a specific goal.

Spark emotion.

You need to tug on your readers’ heartstrings and spark some kind of emotion without sounding exploitative.

When it comes to nonprofit email subject lines, let your reader know right away who needs their help and what they need. Be as specific as possible.

Simply saying “We need your help now” or “Donate now” isn’t enough to draw an emotional connection between their donation and your hard work. Providing the human element that inspires your organization also tells your reader their donations go to good use.

Say thank you.

Too many nonprofits overlook the importance of building a relationship with their readers. You need their donations, but they want to feel like you actually care about them too.

Send out nonprofit email subject lines that thank readers for being a part of your team and helping out. It’s what you’d expect from a friend, so don’t be surprised that your subscribers want to hear your gratitude as well.

Another potent tactic is to send out follow-up emails with photos and updates of how their funds were used. If you have a small organization, you could even consider sending personalized photos for each donor.

This email from Human Needs Development contains a personalized message from the managing director, photos, and documents detailing exactly how the donor’s money was spent. It also reminds the reader that the need to save children in Yemen is ongoing and includes a link to continue donating.

nonprofit email subject lines

Source: Human Needs Development

The 13 best nonprofit email subject lines

These subject lines from nonprofits contain the winning formula for building a relationship with your readers and inspiring them to get (and stay) involved in your organization’s cause.

1. UNICEF: How many children will you save today?

This subject line doesn’t teeter on the fence with wishy-washy wording. Instead of asking whether or not you’ll save children, it asks how many children you’ll save.

2. MoveOn: Help victims of the Camp fire this Giving Tuesday

Starting out with an action verb is always a win for nonprofit email subject lines. Plus, this email capitalizes on the Giving Tuesday trend and addresses a timely and urgent need.

3. Human Needs Development: Here’s where we used your donations…

Nonprofit email marketing is about much more than merely asking for donations. If you really want to make a lasting impact and develop loyalty with your donors, earning their loyalty and recurring gifts, you need to build a relationship with your audience. Human Needs Development always sends a follow-up email with photos showing exactly how your donations are used.

4. Avaaz: 48 hours to save the bees

Give your readers a deadline to take action and they’ll feel more compelled to actually follow through. To top it off, this email subject line makes it feel like the fate of bees is in their hands. Though the situation might be bleak—there are only 48 hours to act—their donation can have a major impact.

5. Susan G. Koman: Holiday gift deadline is tomorrow

This email from Susan G. Koman sets a deadline directly in the subject and also takes advantage of holiday gift-giving to inspire those end-of-year gifts.

6. Middle East Children’s Alliance: Give 2,000 children in Gaza the gift of life – clean, safe drinking water

The specifics in this email subject line from Middle East Children’s Alliance really make it stand out: Give 2,000 children in Gaza safe drinking water. It’s simple, somewhat emotional, and starts with an action verb.

7. The Marine Mammal Center: A special gift to thank you for all you do

Who doesn’t want to feel appreciated? Who doesn’t love special gifts? Instead of asking for things in your nonprofit email subject lines, consider ways you can give back to your generous donors.

8. World Wildlife Foundation: Ready to change the future?

It’s always amazing to feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. This email from the World Wildlife Foundation immediately inspires readers to take action for the greater good.

It’s also an optimistic subject line, which will be refreshing for most of your subscribers. With all the need in the world, it’s easy for people to feel overwhelmed or feel as if there’s nothing they can do to help. An optimistic subject line like this one not only tells your reader their donation can have a powerful effect, but it might also make them feel more hopeful.

9. Charity: Water: You did it!

It’s crucial to build a relationship with your readers. Remind them of how their donations are used and make them feel appreciated for their efforts. It’s always good to remind them that their donations are actually making a difference to combat fatigue.

10. Oxfam: Before 2017 ends, change lives

This email from Oxfam is short but powerful. Despite its brevity, it still manages to knock off three bullet points: It provides a deadline, includes an action verb, and tugs the heartstrings a little bit.

11. International Rescue Committee: Match ends at midnight!

Everyone wants to stretch their dollar as far as possible, even when making donations. Not only does this email subject line from the International Rescue Committee set a deadline, but it lets readers know that their donations will be matched.

12. Give Blood: Do something amazing today

This email subject line from Give Blood manages to create urgency and inspire action without applying pressure or guilt.

13. SF Marin Food Bank: Help make it a special Thanksgiving for all

Starting out strong with an action verb like “help” tells readers exactly what you want them to do. Don’t ever leave them guessing, or they won’t do anything. Crafting a giving campaign around the holidays also provides a timely reminder to act fast, before the holiday has passed and it’s too late.

Bonus: How to A/B test subject lines for greater efficacy

Before sending off your great fundraising email, one important step you should never forget is to split test (also called A/B testing) your subject line. Remember, your fundraising email subject line is an important element in improving your open rates, so it’s important that you get it right.

What is A/B testing?

A/B testing simply means testing to see how different variations of certain elements in your email perform. In this case, you should test how different subject lines perform. To do this, create two different subject lines for the same email and send them to two equal samples of your email list.

A/B testing question-based vs. statement-based fundraising subject email lines.

Source: Share It

The point of the test is to see which subject line drives more opens. You can check out our Email Marketing Benchmark Report to see the average open rates in your industry.

Assuming that you’ve already crafted your subject lines, here’s a summarized version of how you can A/B test your subject lines:

1. Set the testing rules.

Lay down the rules that are going to govern your test, so as to limit the number of variables that can skew the results. For example:

  • Determine your sample size
  • Decide on the duration of the test

2. Select the elements to test.

Next, decide on the elements of your subject line that you’re going to test. A few examples include:

  • Name vs. no name
  • Number vs. no number
  • Question-based subject line vs. statement-based subject line
  • Emoji in subject line vs. no emoji

3. Run your test.

Once everything is in place, go ahead and run your test, send the email.

4. Analyze, interpret, adapt.

At the end of the set testing time, gather all the data, analyze it, and interpret it. Which subject line performed best? Use the winning subject line in the email that you send to the rest of your list.

What if both subject lines performed poorly?

That’s an indicator that you need to go back to the drawing board and improve your subject lines.

Tools to help you improve your subject line

To help improve your subject lines, try these two tools:

Advanced Marketing Institute’s Headline Analyzer

The Advanced Marketing Institute’s Headline Analyzer tool was designed to help in creating strong blog post headlines, but it also does a great job with email subject lines. AMI’s headline analyzer measures the emotional impact of a subject line, with high-scoring subject lines having a greater chance of increasing email open rates.

Creating fundraising email subject lines using the Advanced Marketing Institute’s Headline Analyzer tool.

Source: Advanced Marketing Institute

CoSchedule’s Email Subject Line Analyzer

Coshedule’s Email Subject Line Analyzer works a bit differently from the AMI headline analyzer. One of the biggest differences is that it also helps you optimize for length, an important aspect in email subject lines.

Using these tools, it becomes easier to create subject lines that your readers won’t be able to resist.

Creating fundraising email subject lines using CoSchedule.

Source: CoSchedule

Wrap up

The end of the year is a high-pressure time for nonprofits. You have goals to meet, and you don’t want anything to stand in your way of reaching them because you have a lot of people depending on you.

Spending plenty of time and careful consideration on your nonprofit email subject lines can make all the difference and help you stand out from the other nonprofits flooding everyone’s inboxes this holiday season.

The key is to inspire readers to click through and take action.
For more information on how you can nail your next nonprofit fundraising campaign, be sure to check out our nonprofit marketing guide.

This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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