Imagine you’re on the subway on your way to work. You open your email app and see a nonprofit organization (whose newsletter you subscribed to some months ago) sent you an email. You open the email and you’re immediately struck with a block of text, an image of a sad orphan, and a sentence saying “You buy an almond milk latte every day, yet this child has had nothing to eat for days.” How would you feel? Chances are you’d feel overwhelmed, blamed, and overall not good.
Asking for donations in a way that actually results in donations takes skill, creativity, and practice. The difference between someone donating and not can be as subtle as one misplaced word. This can make writing donation appeals and fundraising emails seem daunting. But don't fret, we’re here to help. We’ve compiled this guide and filled it to the brim with useful and actionable tips to get you writing wildly successful donation appeals.
What are Donation Appeals?
Donation appeals are a tool nonprofit organizations use to entice prospective donors to give. Most of the time, these include a written ask for support. Donation appeals can appear in the form of emails, letters, event invitations, on websites and social media, on flyers, and more. Nonprofits can send appeals to individuals, but also local, national, and international small, medium, and large businesses. In this article, we will focus on donation appeals addressed to individuals in the form of fundraising emails. In a nutshell, donation appeals are meant to inform your prospective donors about your work/project/campaign and ultimately encourage donations.
Getting Started With Donation Appeals: Remember Why People Give
In a study referenced in Psychology Today, 85% of respondents said the reason they gave was simply that someone asked them. Yet that doesn’t solve the question of how donors choose the cause they will support when appealed to lots of nonprofits. To effectively communicate to your target audience, you’ll need to understand what compels them to invest their attention, what evokes emotion, and what propels them to act. If you’re going to raise funds to make a difference, you have to base your strategy on the science of what makes people give.
The science behind why people give is unclear. Today we’re aware of some of the internal motivators that drive and influence giving -- as supported by behavioral, cognitive, and social science. Joan Mount in ‘Why Donors Give’ (1996), identified these internal motivators as follows:
- Joy of Giving
- Public Recognition
- Tax Incentive
- Helping the Needy
In her models, she used the following variables:
- Self Interest
- Past Behavior
Research suggests that tying generosity to a person’s identity may increase giving. People are more willing to give when they see generosity as part of who they are.
In large charitable giving field experiments run by the American Red Cross, appeals that prime an individual’s identity as a previous donor to the charity or as a member of a local community generate more donations. The primes are more effective when they highlight a facet of the potential donor’s identity that we hypothesize to be more relevant to his sense of self. 'Identity in Charitable Giving by' Judd B. Kessler and Katherine L. Milkman
In your donation appeal, try to link the donation with a positive identity for the donor – such as “helper” or “generous person”. In the The Science of What Makes People Care, Ann Christiano & Annie Neimand stipulate that research from multiple disciplines tells us that people engage and consume information that affirms their identities and aligns with their deeply held values and worldview, and avoid or reject information that challenges or threatens them. They highlight that when messages are framed in a way that connects to their deeply held beliefs i.e. their identity, people are more open to changing their stance or taking action.
Joy of Giving
Donors also give because it feels good. Industry experts and academics point out that deriving pleasure from the ability to give to causes that one believes in is one of the highest motivators that powers giving. Some have called this phenomenon the "helper's high" or "warm glow." Donating affects two brain "reward" systems working together: the midbrain VTA, which also is stimulated by food, sex, drugs and money; as well as the subgenual area, which is stimulated when humans see babies and romantic partners.
Science Daily reports on a series of experiments conducted by researchers O'Brien and Kassirer in which they note that when people focus on an outcome, such as getting paid, they can easily compare outcomes, which diminishes their sensitivity to each experience. When people focus on an action, such as donating to a charity, they may focus less on comparison and instead experience each act of giving as a unique happiness-inducing event. 'The Giving Way to Happiness' (US, 2015): Book Excerpt
To use this donor motivation to your benefit, reduce the delay between the donation and the positive feelings giving produces. For example, show donors the effect of their gift straight away (photos or videos of beneficiaries) and/or include an estimate of what a donor saved on taxes.
A significant portion of donations comes from impulse donors. Impulse donors respond quickly to appeals that provide fast and easy emotional satisfaction. They are usually reacting to an appeal rather than carefully considering their options or evaluating the recipient of their donation. To capitalize on impulse giving, make it exceptionally easy for prospective donors to give money (for example, via simple donation forms, text, Apple Pay, Facebook, or other tools) and ask them for small amounts of money. With impulse giving, the intention to give emerges suddenly. Therefore, the less friction between the impulse and the action, the more likely a person is to follow through.
Humans are inherently social. We’re largely influenced by our perceptions of what our peers are doing -- whether it’s our friends or those we deem similar to us. There are many ways to work with this internal motivator to raise more funds. For example, you could support live donation events or otherwise indicate that others are giving to your cause.
For example, some nonprofits feature comments from donors and fundraisers about what giving back meant to them. It’s a reminder to the audience that other people have already taken action and that they can do so too.
Donors identify and sympathize more with beneficiaries they perceive to be similar to themselves. Research shows that even when people are split into groups randomly, they still feel connected and loyal to their in-group. To capitalize on this, provide a few details that show the common ground between the beneficiary and the donor. This is likely to increase a prospective donor’s motivation to help. If you have already segmented donors in the past, it may be worthwhile to create specific appeals for each segment featuring a beneficiary that a particular segment can easily relate to.
Steps in Writing a Great Fundraising Email
1. Plan and Prepare
Preparation is crucial to success. As is knowing your donors. Writing great fundraising appeals starts well before you actually start writing them. If you’re a new nonprofit, make sure you research your audience first. By researching your audience, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of their needs and motivations, so you’ll be able to customize your ask and your strategy accordingly. If you’re an established nonprofit with an existing donorbase, decide which segment of the audience the ask will be addressed to. If you haven’t segmented your audience yet, now could be a good time to do that.
To raise more funds, donor segmentation is key. It ensures your donors get communications that are relevant to them (based on their history and experiences with your nonprofit organization). To go the extra mile, if you have sufficient resources to do so, create target audience personas. Audience personas use the data from your whole target audience to create specific (fictional) people to represent what you know about each of your main audiences. Donor segmentation helps you send customized donation appeals -- seeing that sending a one-size-fits-all donation appeal is a wasted effort. Major donors, mid-level donors, smaller donors, one-time donors, recurring donors, etc. should all be communicated to differently.
Pro tip: Spend some time cleaning up your email list. Remove donors who are inactive and email addresses that frequently bounce. Low open rates, unsubscribes, and bounced emails can affect your campaign’s results.
2. Craft a Powerful Subject Line
Most of us are bombarded with emails and appeals on the daily. Sometimes, we even receive dozens of emails in an hour. This is why it’s important to craft a compelling subject line. Crafting a powerful subject line decreases the chances that your email will be moved to the trash bin without getting read. Hubspot found that 35% of email recipients open an email based solely on the subject line.
- Keep your subject line short but informative—the ideal length is fewer than 65 characters. Long subject lines often get shortened on small devices.
- Pique interest so people want to learn more, but avoid sounding spammy. Don’t use all-caps and excessive punctuation.
- Create a sense of urgency using words such as “urgent”, “now” and “important”.
- Avoid vague subject lines that don’t explain what the email is about.
- Be direct with your audience. If you want them to give, tell them so. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a misleading subject line that doesn’t correspond to the content of the email.
- Don’t be afraid of sprinkling a bit of creativity in there so as to intrigue your readers to open the email!
3. Personalize the Appeal
As mentioned in Step #1, segmentation and personalization are key to successful fundraising. Personalization can also help you maintain high open rates and lead to better and more meaningful donor engagement. Start by including the donor’s name in the salutation (Dear ‘X’), but also experiment with including the donor’s name once or twice in the body of the appeal. For example, start an ask sentence or thank you sentence with the donor’s first name.
Another way in which you can personalize your appeal is to segment your email lists and then draft multiple appeals based on segment characteristics and donor motives (mentioned in the sections above). For example, a donor who has been donating to your organization for years should receive a different email than a first-time donor. If emailing donors that have been giving for years -- remind them when and how much they last gave. By doing this, you show that you know and appreciate how they have been helping.
Furthermore, a recent study suggested that tailoring donation appeals across the socioeconomic spectrum could also increase the chances of fundraising success. The study found that wealthier individuals were more willing to give and give more when the appeal emphasized personal agency and the pursuit of individual goals:
- "You=Life Saver, Like the sound of that?"
- "Sometimes, one person needs to come forward and take individual action. This is one of those times."
Less wealthy individuals, on the other hand, were more likely to give in response to appeals that highlighted communion and the pursuit of shared goals:
- "Let’s save a life together"
- "Sometimes, one community needs to come forward and support a common goal."
Pro tip: Consider including other personalization elements/salutations relevant to your nonprofit (e.g. "Inshallah," "Shalom," "Comrade.")
4. Thank the Donor
Particularly if they are already a supporter of your work, it’s important to already thank your readers for their support of your organization. A simple, "You’ve been a big part of why our organization has been able to do X over the years. We can’t thank you enough for your support as a donor" lets your donor know that you appreciate their past commitments. Below are some effective creative ways to say 'thank you' to your donors:
- Get your nonprofit leader to record a short video.
- Send out handwritten notes.
- Highlight a short story from a beneficiary the donor’s gift helped (maybe even a note/video from the beneficiary, if possible).
- Organize a donor appreciation event.
- Shout out your donors on social media (with permission).
- Send out meaningful and relevant gifts.
- Profile your donors on your website or in your newsletter.
- Give them a call.
- Invite them to tour your offices or program sites.
5. Be Precise About the Words You Choose
Words matter in fundraising. The choice of the right word or the right example can be the difference between a donor who stops reading and a donor who takes action. Whether you’re crafting a letter to prospective donors, an Instagram post, or a fundraising event invitation, your wording impacts the outcome. Language is incredibly important when writing donation appeals. Use success language and positive statements in your email to reach your fundraising goals. Write with confidence!
Avoid negative phrases when soliciting donations. Instead of writing "Without your donation, we will not be able to shelter homeless people in San Francisco tonight," write "You can put an end to homelessness in San Francisco today by partnering with Nonprofit X." Use simple but strategic wording when asking for donations. Show consequences of 'not donating.'
There are also some words that have been shown to increase donations. Here are two of them:
- "You" – Many fundraising experts suggest using the "You test." Look at your donation appeal and then circle each "you" —you, your, yours, etc. The "you" language should be more prevalent than the "us" language—we, our, us, etc. Using "you" ensures you stay donor-centric, making your donors feel valued and appreciated. Using "you" makes the donor the hero, rather than your organization.
For example, change things like, "Our 1 Family 1 Computer program allowed Lana to get a new laptop and get caught up with her schoolwork" to "You helped provide Lana with a laptop, and now she’s caught up with her schoolwork!"
- "Because" – People like to know why they’re being asked to do something. By using "because," you ensure that this need is immediately satisfied.
For example, replace phrases like “We need your money to build wells” with "We need your money to build wells because water is running out for 25 families in Yemen" for a truly impactful donation appeal.
In an experiment at Indiana University, fundraisers found that using one of these five words when making an ask increased the average gift from $83 to $100 (but only among women!):
The Curtis Group Consultancy also suggests to focus on the end recipient:
- OK: "Your gift will help The Autism Center"
- BETTER: "Your gift will help fight autism"
- BEST: "Your gift will help children with autism"
6. Use a Compelling Photo
Visual content is incredibly powerful. No wonder we say 'a picture is worth a thousand words!' To create a truly powerful donation appeal, combine it with a compelling photo. Take some time to choose the right one — it’s one of the first things donors will see when they open your email! Photos that usually perform the best are those of people. Feature a central figure that’s looking directly at the camera. This would ideally be a photo of the beneficiary the story in the appeal is about. Use photos of a single person and not a group. The photo should reinforce a positive emotion and help donors visualize the impact they’ll have by donating. When it comes to donating, there is a strong connection between generosity and positive emotion.
Pro tip: You might be tempted to choose high-quality stock photos, but got the extra mile to use real images instead. Real images will convey a sense of authenticity which will help build a connection with the reader.
7. Use the Power of Storytelling
Storytelling is a powerful fundraising tool. It’s key to helping your audience empathize and connect with those you’re seeking to help. It also evokes emotion—and emotion moves to action. And action is what you want! Most experts agree that for something to be called a story it has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end; a main character, a plot with a twist and a resolution.
When applied to nonprofit fundraising, three key elements stand out: character, plot, and resolution.
- When it comes to 'character,' it’s ideal to feature a single, main character in your donation appeal. Research found evidence supporting the "identifiable victim effect," the observation that people are more willing to provide aid to a single individual with a name and a face than to an anonymous victim or a vague group of victims. This also helps avoid something called psychic numbing - a phenomenon where potential donors are overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of people presented as needing help, leaving them feeling emotionally uninvested and powerless to make an impact.
- Generally, a ‘plot’ is something that introduces a problem that needs resolution. In a fundraising appeal, the plot is clear: someone has a need, but they can’t meet that need.
- Resolution is achieved through donations. One powerful way to present resolution is to paint a picture of how the plot concludes in two scenarios—one where the donor gives and one where they don’t. In your donation appeal, it’s important to highlight how your prospective donor could make a difference to a specific person/animal. Frame your solicitations in a positive light. This will help foster a sense of connection between the prospective donor and the ‘main character’ in your donation appeal.
Pro tip: Don’t get caught up in sharing your beneficiaries complete life stories; just concentrate on the connections that make them feel human. Make the story concise—ideally condensed to around 3 to 6 sentences. Make it too long, and the reader will likely tune out.
8. Make the Ask, and Make it Early On
You want to lay it on the line and call a spade a spade. You’re sending a fundraising email, so you should ask for a donation without beating around the bush too much. Make your ask within the first two paragraphs of your donation appeal. The earlier the better - don’t wait until the end of the appeal to do so. Getting to the point will be very appreciated by readers that already have competing demands on their time. (Of course, the ask should still be tactful!)
Furthermore, most of us skip around when we read (often not reading the whole text), so by making the ask in the first two paragraphs – you increase the chances of your call to action getting read. When making the ask, make it as easy as possible for the donor to say “yes.” Always ask donors to do a small thing instead of asking them to do a big thing. For example, instead of writing “Please help all the elephants in Wildlife Sanctuary to have sufficient food,” write “Please help one elephant in Wildlife Sanctuary get sufficient food for the next month.”
Pro tip: A study found that a way to get even more people to give is to allow them to pledge to give but tell them that they can cancel their pledge at any point. Somehow, having an easy out made people less likely to reverse their decision to give.
9. Provide Relevant Context
Making the ask matters, but the ask shouldn’t stand alone. Providing context and explanation for your appeal is crucial if you want to motivate your readers to give. For example, include information about the new campaign that your nonprofit organization is attempting to complete to fund a new program, but add that you still need a certain amount of money to reach your goals. At this point, it’s not necessary to go into detail about your nonprofit, your values, your mission, or your history. Donors don’t need a thorough background of your nonprofit at this moment. Be straightforward and only include the minimum information that is going to encourage readers to give.
If appealing to individual donors, try not to focus too much on statistics when providing context. This can foster a less emotional, and more analytical mindset among prospective donors – when giving is, for many, mostly an emotional decision.
If you’re addressing your donation appeal to organizational donors (i.e. governments, foundations, grant-giving groups) or a specific sub-group of individual donors, statistics could be a good addition. This is why knowing your target audience is key to writing successful fundraising appeals. When you know your audience, you can effectively discern and decide whether or not (and how much) detail/statistics/background information to include.
10. Describe the Impact of the Donation
Donors want to know that their donations are making an impact, as many studies have found. For example, one study found that, across three different experiments, adding tangible details about an organization’s work increased donations. The details increased the participants’ belief that their generosity could have an impact on a particular problem. The study hypothesizes that although the ultimate outcomes of a charitable contribution are often vague and unmotivating, detailed information gives donors tangible and compelling examples of the benefits (Cryder & Loewenstein, 2010; Rick & Loewenstein, 2008, in the context of intertemporal decision making). The study suggests that detailed information about interventions increases donors’ perception of impact, which subsequently increases generosity. Essentially, donors give to your nonprofit because they are passionate about your mission. But they stay with you when you prove yourself worthy of their trust and loyalty. To build donor commitment, good donor stewardship is key. Donor stewardship is impacted by your:
- History/relationship with the donor
- Proven track record to deliver
Essentially, donors who trust that you’re a good steward of their money are more likely to stay longer and give more.
11. Create an Effective Call to Action
Your ask is worded as a call to action. When writing your call to action, make it bold. In the email, highlight the ask itself. The call to action should be easy to see and clearly differentiated from the rest of the text. For example, you can make the font larger or make the button a different color (make sure the color is one that stands out). You can choose the wording (e.g. ‘donate’, ‘give today’, ‘support children in Kongo’, ‘help animals now’), but pay attention to which wording brings most results.
Pro tip: Consider using a fundraising thermometer in your donation appeal, especially if you’re closer to your goal. People feel a greater sense of accomplishment when they contribute at the end of a winning effort than when they contribute early on.
12. Send Donors to a Donation Page
Your fundraising email should lead your donors to somewhere where they can donate. Insert a link in the body of the email that leads recipients to the donation form on your website or place a “Donate Now” button somewhere visible. Make sure your donation page is branded, visually appealing, easy to navigate, and that it runs smoothly. Branded donation pages raise six times the amount that generic pages raise.
Pro tip: We already know people rely on cues from others to make decisions, and recent studies have revealed that social information can lead to higher donations. Evidence favors larger suggested giving levels to increase donations and their size. When choosing online suggested giving levels, give an option near your average donation size but be sure to present more generous suggestions as well.
13. Thank Again and Sign
Finish your donation appeal by thanking your recipient for considering a gift, and signing it. Don’t sign as ‘your organization’. Instead, choose an employee, board member, or executive director to represent the collective whole. This helps humanize your nonprofit and reinforces the personal connection between you and the reader. Thanking contributors is one of the simplest, most effective ways to express appreciation, and can encourage donors to give again. This can build confidence and momentum toward the next project, but it has also been shown to boost donations. Donor satisfaction is incredibly important; it’s a personal benefit for the donor that will likely result in higher or repeated donations for your organization.
14. Format and Tweak
It’s very wise to, once you’re done, spend a bit of additional time formatting and tweaking your donation appeal. Since almost no one thoroughly reads everything they receive, your donation appeal should be very easy to scan. To do so:
- Break up large paragraphs.
- Limit yourself to four short paragraphs.
- Use subheads and bolded text for easy reading.
- Leave plenty of white space in your email.
- Begin paragraphs with compelling or emotional words.
- Make your links and buttons larger so they’re easy to click on mobile.
- Resize your images for mobile devices.
If possible, use a staff member, another fundraiser, or board member as your email sender.
15. Send, Track, and Analyze
An important step that gets overlooked: tracking and analyzing. Once you send out your fundraising email, track its performance by looking at:
- Open rate. This measures the strength of your email subject line.
- Click-through rate. This measures the overall strength of the email -- how many people clicked on a button, image, or text link, you'll see it in a good click-through rate.
- Unsubscribe rate. A high unsubscribe rate could mean donors don’t find your communications relevant, interesting, or helpful.
Tracking the performance of your email will help you understand what works and what doesn’t. For example, your audience might not respond well to particular words, images, or format. By tracking the performance of your fundraising email, you will gather relevant data and information - that you need to keep continually adjusting your fundraising tactics and encouraging more donations.
Let’s Write a Wildly Successful Fundraising Email!
Giving is indeed at an intersection of the mind and the heart. How and why people give is affected by emotions, available information, and how the ‘ask’ is made. Successful donation appeals and fundraising emails are made up of many small things. The better you get at noticing and improving these subtle details, the more money you will raise. Writing successful donation appeals can seem daunting. Yet, by following just a handful of principles like these, you can learn the craft. Keep working on these principles until they become second nature!
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