As the end of the year approaches, the pressure is on to convince potential donors that your nonprofit deserves their attention. You know that email marketing is one of the best ways to reach out to this target audience, but so does every other nonprofit.
You’ve probably noticed that the number of emails you receive from nonprofits tend to ramp up around November. A study for the Huffington Post found that December 31 was the busiest email day of the season for nonprofits with #GivingTuesday trailing not far behind. So how can you ensure that the eyes of potential donors are on your organization’s message? Start with a great subject line.
As a window into the message your recipient is about to receive, the subject line is an extremely important element of an email. In fact, 47 percent of email recipients open an email based solely on its subject line. Alternatively, 69 percent of email recipients flag an email as spam based on the subject line. So, what does this mean? Subject lines can make or break your email campaign.
With the average person receiving more than 120 emails per day, it’s easy for your message to get buried in a cluttered inbox. To make sure your email gets read rather than ignored, marked as spam, or tossed in the trash, compelling fundraiser email subject lines are an absolute must.
Fundraising Email Subject Line Best Practices
Dialing in on an effective subject line that prompts your donors to want to read more takes work. An effective subject line needs to be creative, informative and intriguing, without coming on too strong. We’ve rounded up some general guidelines to keep top of mind as you spin up different subject lines:
1. Make It Short
Keeping your email subject lines short and limiting the total number of characters ensures that your subject line displays properly across all devices. With the majority of people viewing their emails on mobile devices, this decreases the odds of having the subject line truncated.
If you’re wondering what the ideal length of a subject line is, the answer varies depending on who you ask. While MailChimp recommends no more than 60 characters (or 9 words), Hubspot recommends less than 50 characters, and Constant Contact dials it down to 40 characters (4-7 words). There’s no exact formula and what works for you will likely fall somewhere in between.
2. Add Personalization
We can’t emphasize recognizing our donors enough! One of the easiest ways to do this and make them feel valued is by personalizing the communication you send them. For example, our brains are hardwired to involuntarily respond to seeing or hearing our own names. When you personalize your subject lines with your donor’s first name, it instantly makes your email so much more personal and boosts the chances of it being opened by 22%!
Additionally, if you have access to other information about your donor (such as location, interests, etc.), you can incorporate this into your subject line to really get their attention.
3. Limit Punctuation
While question marks and exclamations can convey friendliness and excitement, excessive punctuation can trigger spam filters. To ensure that your email reaches your recipient’s inbox, avoid using more than 3 punctuation marks in your subject line.
4. Mind Your Capitalization
Another way to get caught in your recipient’s spam filter is by overusing capitalization. Rather than capitalizing the first letter of every word, try capitalizing less than half of all words, relative to the length of the subject line.
Also, you definitely want to avoid using all caps altogether. You may think you sound excited but it comes off like you’re screaming at someone.
5. Begin With Action-Oriented Verbs
Using action verbs at the beginning of your fundraiser email subject lines sets the expectation upfront for the recipient of what to expect from the body of your email and lets them know what action you want them to take. Some examples of powerful action verbs include:
6. Avoid Jargon And Cliches
If your email subject line includes industry-specific jargon and cliches (“Help us move the needle”, “Close the feedback loop today”, etc.), it won’t translate very well to your reader. Since it sounds a bit disingenuous, it’s best to remove or replace them with more accessible language.
7. Be Judicious About Emojis
Using emojis in email subject lines is a hotly debated topic. While some people argue that your donor’s eye may be drawn to a subject line with an emoji, others contest that there’s little to indicate that emojis actually increase open rates.
Still, emojis convey a sense of friendliness – and you never know – they may resonate with your audience or appropriately emphasize a word (i.e. “Help us reach our fundraising target 🎯”). To pull relevant emojis into your subject line, copy and paste from sites such as Get Emoji. It’s up to you to find the right balance of when and how to include emojis in your subject lines – overusing them can make your email look like spam so definitely do so in moderation.
8. Don’t Guess – Test Your Fundraiser Email Subject Lines
Testing your fundraiser email subject lines can help you learn what gets the best response from your audience. It’ll help you increase your open and click-through rates, which in turn will increase your bottom line.
Luckily, there’s a whole suite of online tools available to help you check the effectiveness of your email subject lines. All you have to do is paste in your subject lines to get an instant analysis! While there’s always premium and paid options available, we’ve gathered a handful of free tools to get your started:
- Email Subject Line Grade by Net Atlantic evaluates the overall clickability of your subject line based on copy, character count, word count, and word mixture and balance by providing a numerical score out of 100. This tool also offers suggestions on how to improve.
- SubjectLine.com is similar by testing the overall effectiveness of your copy. You’ll get an overall score for your subject line along with what you did well and where you fell short (i.e. “No capitalization detected = -12 pts”, “Short subject lines stand out = +5 pts”).
- Email Subject Line Tester by mailmeteor tests email subject lines and provides a score based on length, frequency of punctuation, presence of emojis, and spam words to make sure your email will be well-received. To knock your subject line out of the park, Mailmeteor will also provide a list of alternative subject lines based on the one you entered.
- Refine: The Free Subject Line Tester from Moosend tests your subject lines based on your selected industry and number of subscribers. This tool predicts whether your open rate is above or below your industry’s average and it provides recommendations to improve. For example, “How many lives can you save with $25?” puts your open rate at 0.28% above the charity industry’s average given 10,000 subscribers. To improve this, Moosend suggests things such as making the message more relevant through personalization (i.e. “John, how many lives can you save with $25?”) or adding a splash of color with an emoji (i.e. “👉 How many lives can you save with $25?”).
- TestSubject from Zurb checks to see how your sender’s name, email subject line, and preheader text looks on popular mobile devices.
9. Avoid Spam Words
To improve deliverability, avoid using promotional words (i.e. “limited time”, “free”, etc.) and phrases (i.e. “will not believe your eyes”, “For just $XXX”, etc.) as it’s a surefire way to get your email routed to spam. For a comprehensive list of spam words, we recommend bookmarking and referring to resources like Hubspot’s ultimate list of 394 email spam trigger words when you’re crafting your next subject line. Alternatively, you can validate your email subject lines for spam before you hit send by using the following free online tools:
- Spam Check by Postmark is a lightweight JSON API that processes the quality of your emails by issuing a spam score.
- Spam Word Checker by mailmeteor allows you to copy and paste an email message or subject line to highlight and remove spam words. This tool provides an overall score by checking against a list of 750+ words that pressure recipients, are ethically or legally questionable, exaggerate, are related to money, and don’t feel natural.
9. The Sender Matters
An email subject line is accompanied by a sender’s email address. No one likes talking to a robot and emails from unfamiliar addresses can throw a red flag, so ditch the generic organization email (i.e. info@ABC.org, no-reply@ABC.org) in lieu of a specific person. If your email comes from someone your donor knows and trusts, they’re much more likely to open it.
Fundraiser Email Subject Lines to Get You Started
Not looking to reinvent the wheel? Consider this list of year-end subject line concepts when constructing your December email campaign.
Pose A Question
Give your reader something to think about before they open the message by posing a question in the subject line. Questions lead to answers. When you lead with a question, your recipient is provoked to open the message to learn more.
Make your question relevant and thought-provoking to ensure your reader is intrigued. The following subject lines will force your potential donors to consider the answer to your question, thus increasing your open rates.
- Can you help me out?
- “First name,” I have a question.
- Will you help “beneficiary’s name”?
- “First name,” can I have a moment?
- When was the last time you made someone smile?
- Don’t think you have enough to make a difference?
- How many lives can you save with $50?
- How will you change the world today?
- Have you ever wondered when X?
Giving is the reason for the season, which makes the end of the year the most popular time for charitable donations. When sending out your last appeal of the year, consider using a subject line that reminds readers of the giving season to give them an incentive to open your message.
Make the most of the holiday spirit by emphasizing the good your organization is doing. Use your subject line to remind potential donors that their gift can make a difference, especially during the holidays.
- Did you forget someone on your holiday list?
- Last-minute gift ideas
- The best gift
- ____ reasons to give
- Make 2022 the best year yet for ____
- We have a gift for you
- Make a gift, change a life
- Think outside the box this holiday
- Be a hero like “donor name”
- Be a hero for ______
- Help “organization name” deliver hope this season
- Don’t wish you had done more this year
- One click can change lives
- Join us in the _____ challenge
- What we need next year
- ________’s story is so inspiring
- Give the gift that keeps on giving
Create A Sense Of Urgency
Making your message seem urgent is a proven method to compel readers to act. In fact, subject lines with a sense of urgency have a 22% higher open rate. No one likes missing out so when potential donors feel that a deadline is looming, they’re more likely to make a quick decision to give.
Incorporate words that imply urgency such as “now”, “alert”, “breaking”, and “important”. If you’re counting down to a deadline, use words like “days” or “hours”.
- Don’t let this year pass you by
- Campaign update: still ______ from our goal
- Every gift doubled – make twice the impact
- We’re so close!
- We’re counting down! X days left to help.
- Time is running out
- Hours left to give in 2022
- It’s never too late to make a difference
- It’s not too late to help
- Join us today
- We’re almost out of time
- Help us reach our goal before midnight
- End 2022 on a positive note
- Time is almost up to make your tax-deductible gift
- Re: Your tax-deductible gift
- The last day to give
- Double your impact – one day left
- Urgent: tax deadline approaching
- 1 day left; 5 reasons to give
- Make an impact with your IRA
- Less than 5 hours left to double your gift
It’s important to remember that you don’t want to overuse this method. Continuously pushing back deadlines or issuing daily urgent call-to-actions can get stale fast.
Make It Intriguing
Intriguing subject lines work to arouse your reader’s curiosity and pique their interest. Since the ultimate goal of a subject line is to convince your potential donor to open the email, the mystery surrounding your intriguing intro should give your recipients a reason to read on.
The sense of mystery surrounding the following subject lines will provide enough intrigue to convince potential donors to open your message.
- Important news
- Let’s do it!
- Re: Your gift to “organization name”
- “First name” – review your donation
- I have a job for you
- Your donation status
- As you requested
- “First name,” I have great news
- Don’t open this email
- You won’t believe this
- Following up
- FW: thought you’d want to see this
- “First name,” this it it
- Are you ready?
- Here’s what you missed…
Laughter is the best medicine and injecting humor into your fundraiser email subject lines is a great way to stand out in a crowded inbox. By making your recipient laugh or smile, you’re establishing a positive climate and increasing the chances they’ll engage with your content.
As another option, you can always use puns. If you appreciate a good pun, other people will too. Not only is it clever and catchy, but you have the chance to get creative and make it relevant by aligning your email subject lines to your nonprofit’s cause. For example, if your organization focuses on hunger and food insecurity, you may consider “Help take a bite out of hunger”.
If you’re unsure of how your humor (or puns) will vibe with your donors, get a second opinion from your staff.
Say Thank You
Use your end-of year email to say thank you to donors or wish them a happy new year. Thank you messages not only demonstrate gratitude to current donors, but also remind potential donors that your nonprofit is always in need of further support.
The following subject lines give your organization a chance to demonstrate your gratitude and make your donors the star of your year-end campaign.
- Holiday greetings from “organization name”
- Help us celebrate the New Year
- It’s been a great year at “organization name”
- We wanted to say thank you
- Happy New Year!
- Thinking of you this holiday season
- We’re so thankful for you this year
- We couldn’t do it without you
- We’re thankful for YOU this season
- Cheers to you!
- Watch the incredible things we’ve done this year
A/B Test Your Fundraiser Email Subject Lines
We mentioned the value of testing your subject lines earlier and included some free tools to double check your work. But here’s another way to determine which subject lines your donors find the most engaging – with a real audience!
You could try performing an A/B test, also known as a split test. A/B testing is the process of sending two versions of an email to two similar but separate audiences. There’s many elements worth testing but since the first thing your recipients see is the subject line, it needs to be the most impactful part of your email.
A/B Testing In Action
If you’re wondering whether a dynamic subject line personalized with your donor’s name (“Bob, can I have a moment?”) will result in better open and click-through rates compared to a general subject line (“Can I have a moment?”), you can use A/B testing to try them both out. For the sake of this example, let’s say that the personalized subject line is the original version (the control) and the general subject line is the other version (the variation). You would send the control to a subset of your donors and the variation to another subset. Once you’ve determined the winning version, use that email subject line across your entire audience.
Remember, small tweaks can make a big difference. Here’s some subject line components to experiment with using A/B testing:
- Personalization (with your donor’s name)
- Asking a question vs making a statement
- Character count & length
- Sentence case and capitalization
- Adding emojis vs using plain text
Pro Tip: These days, email service providers (such as MailChimp, Constant Contact, and ActiveCampaign) offer built-in A/B testing although their features vary.
Study Your Competitors
Another way to improve your fundraiser email subject lines is to check out the competition! Subscribe to orgs with a similar focus to your cause. If you come across email subject lines that draw you in, save them somewhere and make a note of why you liked them. What enticed you to open it? You can always draw on these later for inspiration when you’re crafting your own.
On the flip side, you’ll also want to take note of which of your competitor’s emails ended up in spam or ended up being trashed. See if you can spot commonalities within these emails as this will be what you’re going to want to avoid.
The Bottom Line
You should know your potential donors better than anyone else. When constructing your year-end fundraiser email subject lines, put yourself in their shoes. Consider the language and appeal that you believe will spark action among your target audience and apply those concepts to your organization’s message.
Email subject lines are an important piece to your overall email marketing strategy. If you like this article, you may also like:
- 5 Tips To Writing Fundraising Email Appeals That Inspire Action
- 9 Ideas for a Compelling Year End Fundraising Email 
- The Complete Email Marketing Guide For Nonprofits
- 12 Email Fundraising Best Practices To Drive High Response Rates
- Fundraising Email Lessons From charity:water, St. Jude’s, and Red Cross
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2017 and was updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness in October 2022.
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