Writing a Compelling Fundraising Email

Storytelling, Call to Action, Subject Line, Thank You


Tell a story

We’re all busy; things pile up and other projects may take precedence over writing a fundraising email, especially when writing a fundraising email isn’t something that necessarily falls within our wheelhouse. It’s easy to give in to the temptation of taking last year’s campaign email, editing it with new up-to-date information or statistics, and sending it off.  It worked last year, why wouldn’t it work again? That might be compelling to your loyal donors who gave last year and are already planning to give again this year, but it will never grow your campaign performance year over year. A compelling fundraising email tells the reader a story while showing the impact that your organization has.

The story you’re telling should focus on one specific program or one focus area of your congregation, and it should be speaking directly to the donor:

  • Why should the donor care?
  • How is the donor affected?
  • How will the donor’s gift make an impact on the organization?

The value proposition of a fundraising appeal is one thing I always keep at the forefront of my mind. I learned this from our partners at NextAfter and it essentially boils down to making sure the story you’re telling answers the question: “Why should I give to you over a similar organization, or not at all?”  Your constituents are busy and their inboxes are flooded. If they took the time to open your email, make sure the content focuses on the value their gift will have on the community or congregation. They want to know the impact your organization makes with the power of their generosity. By focusing on the Value Proposition for the donor, you keep them engaged and reading—or at least skimming long enough to understand more about the impact your organization will have with their help. 

The “You Test”

I mentioned earlier that your story should speak directly to the donor. Appeals perform better when they are donor focused. So when you’re finished with your first draft, read it aloud, and give it the “You Test.”  It’s important to look at how many times your message uses the word “You” or “your.” Tom Ahern teaches that one of the most important practices in fundraising marketing and appeals is the use of the word “you” to pull the donor directly into the appeal. The word “you” can be one of the single-most profit-generating words in appeals, because it keeps the user reading.  Each time it comes up, the reader pays a little more attention because the reader feels like they’ve been personally addressed. 

A compelling call to action 

Each story you tell a donor needs to have a clear, concise call to action (CTA). The CTA needs to offer a solution to the problems posed in your story, and create a sense of urgency. 

A compelling CTA:

  • is the most important part of your email 
  • directs the donor to click through to your donation page 
  • secures a gift 
  • can be as simple as changing the donate button (or hyperlink) to read “Help us restock the food shelf for those in need now!” instead of “Click Here to Donate.”

The all-important subject line

Almost every email user checks their inbox at least once per day, with over 3.5 million emails being sent per second, and more than 85% of those emails being spam—that’s a lot of noise to cut through.  Gone are the days of a “clean inbox,” getting your unread email count down to zero, or treating your inbox like a “to-do” list (and if you still implement these tactics successfully, I’d love to know your secret!).  

Anecdotally, I believe that most people use their inbox like a triage: ignore the junk, skim the less important emails, and respond to what needs to be addressed. As fundraisers and marketers, we need to adjust our strategies so our message stands out in the crowd. The subject line is one of the best ways to do so.

A subject line should grab the reader’s attention and stress urgency. It’s okay to push the envelope a little bit to accomplish this, or create a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), but only to a point.  Recently, we launched a 5-email high-urgency recurring giving campaign in an effort to increase our monthly donors (an important source of regular, sustained support for the organization). One of the emails in the middle of the campaign had the subject line, “Please Reply.” The subject line worked, it caught the readers eye and increased open rates (27% open rate for that email compared to 24% for the campaign overall). But we also pushed the envelope too far and started turning potential donors away. Many of our constituents followed through and replied to my email, but no gifts were made, it just opened up a “can of worms” for responses that we had to spend more time than I’d like to admit following up on. 

Track. Analyze. Adjust. 

The job’s not complete when you hit send. At the very minimum, track how an email performed in terms of open rate, click through rate, number of donors secured, and amount of dollars the email generated to truly know if your email was compelling enough or not. Try a new tactic, figure out if it worked for your constituents or not, and then adjust.  There’s always a new tactic, story to tell, or strategy to implement in email fundraising, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for your congregation or organization. 

It’s surprising how many times I hear, “this isn’t the type of content that our users want to see,” but often there’s never any actual data to back up that claim. You’ll never know what works and what doesn’t unless you try it, analyze if it worked or not, and adjust your efforts going forward accordingly. Remember, you’re leaving money on the table by not trying new ideas.  

Say thank you

Finally, you can write the most compelling email your organization has ever seen, but if you don’t follow-up in a timely manner to thank those that answered your Call to Action and made a gift—it was all for nothing. Make sure that whether the donor gave $5 or $50,000, they understand what that gift meant to you, and the impact it had on your organization. 

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Upcoming Live Workshop


Coaching and Leading in the Digital Age with Ryan Panzer