Non-Profit Email Marketing: How To Write Emails That Get Supporters To Take Action

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Email is still one of the most effective ways of reaching people who have expressed an interest in supporting your cause. It’s direct, personal, and can quickly drive a response – whether your goal is donations, volunteer recruitment or asking supporters to spread the word.

But there’s a problem. According to a 2012 study by eNonprofit, email lists are shrinking because the average unsubscribe rate is higher than the rate of new signups. Even more worryingly – response rates also dropped by over 20% for non-profit email lists.

The cause of this drop is up for debate. But, in my opinion, it’s at least partly down to the email strategies used by many non-profits.

Here are five mistakes I see many non-profits make in their email campaigns:

  1. Infrequent and irregular emails.
  2. Boring content that doesn’t stir up an emotional response.
  3. Only emailing when they want something.
  4. Lack of proper segmentation.
  5. Not asking for action.

In this post, I’m going to focus on mistakes #2 and #5 – but I’ll address the others in a future article (you can sign up to my RSS feed to make sure you don’t miss future articles).

Know the Difference Between Newsletters and Action Emails

Let’s kick things off by discussing the foundation of most non-profit email campaigns:

The newsletter.

There’s nothing wrong with newsletters. In fact, I recommend every non-profit emails a newsletter on a consistent schedule with interesting content.

But newsletters are terrible for generating a response.

If you wait until your monthly newsletter to try and increase donations, and then hide the donate section under three article leads, don’t be surprised if you get a poor response.     

Instead, you should use action emails when you have a specific goal.

I’m going to teach you exactly how to write these emails later. But here’s a quick overview of what an action email contains:

  • Clear and simple design.
  • One desired action.
  • Click-enticing subject line.
  • Scannable content that generates an emotional response.
  • Clear call-to-action.

This will make more sense later (I’ve also provided some great examples at the end).

But before you start writing, it’s important to know WHY you’re writing.

Pick a Goal for Your Email

Before you start any marketing email, you must know the goal of the email.

Every promotional email has two primary goals: 1) to be opened and 2) to persuade readers to take action. But the type of action can vary. For example, you may want to:

  • Convert potential supporters into first-time donators.
  • Generate repeat donations.
  • Ask readers to register for a separate email list.
  • Ask readers to tell a friend about your mission.
  • Notify supporters of an interesting new case study or blog post.
  • Inform readers of future events.
  • Recruit volunteers.

The first step when writing a promotional email is decide the exact action you want a reader to take. In fact, I often write the call-to-action first, so that everything else in the email leads to it as a natural conclusion.

And, at the risk of repeating myself: each email should have one goal only.

People hate making decisions. When you ask for action, the reader has to decide whether to comply. Asking for more than one action multiplies the number of required decisions – which is almost always going to hurt conversion rates.

Does that make sense?

Now, once you know the goal of your email, it’s time to get writing.

How to Write an Effective Charity or Non-Profit Email

Simple Design

Email design is a complex topic that’s beyond the scope of this article. Fortunately, promotional emails don’t need a flashy or complicated layout.

In fact, promotional emails should have a clear and simple design (see the examples below). I recommend a basic banner with your non-profit’s name/logo, a headline and one or two pictures (maximum). You may also want to use a bright button for the call-to-action.

Text should be easy to read on all devices. So make sure you test your email on phones, tablets and desktops before sending it to your list.

Subject Line

Your subject line has one goal: to get a reader to open your email with enough desire to read the first sentence.

That’s it.

Of course, writing great subject lines is easier said than done. And it’s really an art more than a science.

But there are a few formats that work well for non-profit emails:

  • Topical. If the email is related to a recent or upcoming event that your subscribers are likely to have heard about, mentioning it in the subject is an easy way to draw eyeballs.
  • Curiosity. In a curiosity subject line, you don’t give away everything. Instead, just mention enough to make people want to open the email (without being deceptive, of course).
  • Benefit. This is harder for non-profits, but if you can include a benefit for the reader to open the email – even if it’s just entertainment or a great story – your open rates will increase.

There are a few things you shouldn’t do in a subject line, too.

Firstly, avoid excessive use of personalisation. It’s OK to include the first name in the subject line occasionally (personalised emails have been proven to increase open rates by 22.2%), but if you do it in every email it loses its effect.

Secondly, avoid dates, sender info or “editions.” The subject line is short – and you need to maximise your “impact per word.” These extras just take up space without achieving anything.

The exception is you are sending regular emails in sequence. Then including a brief identifier can be useful.

Lead and Body Copy

After the subject line, the first sentence is the most important part of your email. If your email has been opened, you’ve done just enough to get the reader’s attention for a few more seconds. Bore him or her in the first sentence, and your email will quickly end up in the “Deleted” folder.

There are many ways you can get attention. You can shock (especially with a recent topical event).  Or bring up strong emotions that you know your supporters are already feeling. But one of the best is to create an “open loop” for a story, which is then answered in the email.

Now, onto the body copy…

Once you’ve got the reader’s attention with the first sentence, the rest of the email needs to flow smoothly to the call-to-action, while building interest and desire to take the next step.

Here are some tips for doing that:

  • Your body copy should be written directly to the reader – as if you were writing to an individual. That means using second-person pronouns like “your” and “you,” while avoiding bland statements or talking about “our supporters.” Remember, your cause and mission are important to your subscribers, so make them feel like an integral part of your organisation.
  • People love stories. When someone starts an interesting story, we can’t help but listen – especially if the story stirs up an emotion. Make sure you tell stories that clearly show why someone should take action and how taking action will make a real difference.
  • Don’t overuse statistics. The occasional statistic can shock and backup the message of a story. But an email with a list of statistics is boring and is likely to be scanned rather than read.
  • Use short paragraphs, short sentences and clear language. If you can say something in fewer words – without losing meaning or power – then do so.

On a related note, try to keep your emails under 400 words. This can be tough – but most people won’t read an email from a non-profit that’s longer than this.

If you have a long story or case study to tell, I recommend creating a blog post and then using the email as a lead that gets people to click through to the article.

Call to Action

You’ve done the hard work. You’ve gained his or her attention with the subject, continued the thought in the lead copy, and got them to read the rest of the email…

But this is where many non-profit emails go wrong.

If you want someone to take action, you need to ask for it. You can’t expect it to just happen. People are busy – so unless you ask for action now, it’s probably never going to happen.

Your call-to-action should clearly state what’s going to happen next. A simple button that says “Donate Now” leaves no room for misinterpretation. Neither does a text link that says “continue reading blog post about X.”

Additionally, if you can tie your action into a specific result – such as HOW the donation will be used, or WHO will benefit from volunteering – you’re likely to see higher click-through rates.

So that’s the basics of how to craft an effective non-profit marketing email. Now let’s look at some examples…

Breakdowns of Interesting Charity Emails

(full credit to for these images – you can view many more on their site)

Christian Aid – Nepal Earthquake Appeal

Christian Aid - Nepal Donation Email

This email has one clear goal – get donations to support those affected by the earthquake in Nepal.

It’s a tightly written email that includes statistics, but also creates a vivid image of the issues caused by the earthquake. Phrases such as “hospitals are overflowing” and “thousands are homeless and sleeping outside” instantly summon mental images – which are then reinforced by the photo.

It’s also written directly to the reader, instead of generic “subscribers” or “supporters.”

Finally, the red “Donate Now” button stands out from the rest of the email and doesn’t force the reader to search for the next action.

American Red Cross – Content/Story Email

American Red Cross Email

The design of this email is simple and clear. Sentences such as “our volunteers and staff are on the scene right away, with water and snacks for hungry families,” create mental pictures that are much stronger than vague concepts.

While I like that it includes an emotional story – the first sentence, in particular, does a great job of getting attention and making the reader think “what happened next?” – I would prefer the email to only include one call-to-action.

In fact, I would move the second part of the email (after the clickable video) onto the landing page, and focus on the story and getting readers to click to the content. Then, on the landing page, the charity could ask for the donation.

Summary of How to Write an Attention-Grabbing Non-Profit Email

Hopefully you’ve started to get an idea of how to write a top-quality email for your non-profit. The techniques in this email take some practice, but can dramatically increase your response rates.

In summary, promotional emails should:

  • Have one goal only.
  • Have a clear and simple design that doesn’t get in the way of the message.
  • An interesting subject line that gets readers to open the email.
  • An intriguing lead that gets readers to continue to the CTA.
  • Interesting or valuable body copy.
  • A clear call-to-action.

If you have any questions – or just want to talk about your experience with non-profit emails – let me know in the comments below.

Are your promotional emails not pulling the donations or interest you think they should? I’m a direct response copywriter who specialises in email marketing. I can help your non-profit boost response rates from email campaigns using proven direct marketing techniques. Click here to contact me for a free consultation to see how I can help!


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