5 Ways to Make Your Email Fundraising Appeals Sound More Human

If you’re a nonprofit, chances are you are sending an email fundraising appeal this month. And maybe next month. And definitely the next month. Email, for most nonprofits, is the single largest source of online fundraising revenue. And technology advances have allowed marketers and fundraisers to send emails to hundreds of people at once for extremely low cost, which is a fantastic efficiency.

But along the way, we’ve forgotten something. 


We’ve forgotten the principle that people give to people. We’ve forgotten that email is a two-way medium. And we’ve forgotten that fundraising is not about programs, it’s about relationships.

Email marketing at its worst allows us to “blast” hundreds of thousands of people until they either decide to give in and donate or mercifully unsubscribe. But email marketing at its best allows us to scale 1:1 relationships more efficiently than ever, using the medium to create valuable connections with our donors.

5 Principles of Humanized Email Fundraising


We’ve been calling this “humanized” email fundraising. In this post, I’ll share 5 principles of “humanized” email fundraising that will help you increase donor conversion, average gift, and lifetime value with your donors. These are not “best practices”, but rather guidelines based on scientific research that have proven to affect response.


Principle #1: People have a first and last name.

Organizations don’t send emails. People send emails. So why do so many organizations put their company name as the sender? Giving people a personal connection to your organization has shown to increase open and click-through rates, even affecting donation rates when matched with the right value proposition.

Here’s an experiment from the Texas State Historical Association. They sent a series of emails during their calendar year-end campaign from the CEO, Brian Bollinger. Since he was new to the role, they had added the name of the organization after his name in the sender line. But we hypothesized that removing this would increase the perception of familiarity and increase open and click-through rate. In addition, the subject line of the control email was complex and somewhat organizational-centric. Together with the TSHA team, we devised a treatment that sounded more like something a human would write. You can see the control and treatment below:


When we A/B tested the two against each other, the treatment produced significant lifts in both subject lines and open rate.


It’s important to remember that your emails are likely surrounded by emails that are actually sent one-to-one from other people. Research suggests that personal senders and subject lines with a personal tone can increase engagement, which is the first of several necessary steps to getting a gift.


Principle #2: People naturally build trust with recipients through the sender, subject line, and preview text.

As email marketing has become more popular and widespread, consumers have become better and better at weeding out marketing emails from personal emails. Since time is our donors’ most valuable, non-renewable resource, they must optimize their own inboxes. And if your fundraising email doesn’t pass their “sniff test”, they won’t even open it. That’s why the sender, subject line, and preview text are so important: they might be our only shot at interacting with the prospective donor.

Check out this experiment from Americans for Prosperity. Their president, Tim Phillips, was the sender on the email. But the subject line sounded grandiose and possibly hyperbolic. In addition, it was so long that it got cut off in many email inboxes. Additionally, the preview text picked up some “alt text” from the images in the email, and obscured the personalization that they were employing in the body of the email. We created a treatment that employed a simple, “humanized” subject line and cleaned up the preview text. You can see both versions below:


The treatment version produced a significant lift in open rate.


It’s very important to remember the context in which your reader sees your email. If you tip them off that it’s a marketing email of any sort, they may skip it entirely.

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Principle #3: People don’t use email templates.

When you sit down to write an email, it’s usually a simple process: you open your email application, hit “compose” type a recipient, subject line, body copy, and hit send. You don’t fire up an email template, change colors and design, fill in various content blocks and add a physical signature. So why do we do that with our email fundraising appeals?

CaringBridge sent a heavily branded and templated email fundraising appeal from their CEO. We hypothesized that stripping away the templated elements would increase the likelihood that the reader would take action. So we created a version that looked more like a personal email and ran an A/B test to determine a result. See both treatments below:


The treatment produced a significant lift in click-through rate, which led to more gifts.


Why? Because people read and process emails differently when they believe it was actually written to them.


Principle #4: People talk conversationally.

Sometimes when we go to write fundraising copy, we shift our voice to some sort of all-knowing “voice of God”. Maybe it sounds more like “marketing” in our heads. That’s not necessarily a good thing. People don’t talk like marketers, they talk like people. So why do we assume that they want to hear a different tone from us?

Our friends at Jews for Jesus were sending an email appeal, and they decided to create a treatment that combined all of the previous principles: a personal subject line, personal-style email design, and a conversational tone.

You can see the two treatments below:


The personal subject line, design, and copy produced massive lifts across the board, which led to a massive lift in revenue from the appeal. They’ve been applying these principles month-over-month and have seen triple-digit growth year-over-year.


This experiment shows the compounding power of optimizing email appeals. It’s a good reminder that when we can get more people to open, more people to click. And those people who click have been motivated to give by the copy, so we’ll see transformative effects on our revenue results. But this experiment also produced a response that led to our fifth principle…


Principle #5: People reply to emails.


When people really believe your communications are real, they’ll do what they do with other emails — they reply. Is this a bad thing? Let me answer that with another question: do you want real relationships with your donors?

Many organizations still stiff-arm their recipients by putting “do not reply” in the sender email. Might as well be honest, right? But replies can facilitate personal relationships, which can facilitate deeper connections and higher lifetime value. Be prepared to handle replies…and answer them promptly. Because then, you will have truly achieved “humanized” email fundraising.

email fundraising

Jeff Giddens

Jeff Giddens is obsessed with optimizing online fundraising through rigorous testing and innovation. He’s helped clients like Hillsdale College, Feed the Children, Prison Fellowship International, Hoover Institution, Dallas Theological Seminary, and CaringBridge find innovative ways to acquire more names, donors, and dollars. Jeff began his career in alumni fundraising for a family business before transitioning into the broadcast media world to lead digital marketing for Mark Cuban’s television network AXS TV. He then returned to fundraising, working within and alongside nonprofit organizations before joining NextAfter in January of 2014. A Tennessee native, Jeff has a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Abilene Christian University. He and his family live in the Lake Highlands area of Dallas, Texas.

November 7, 2016

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