Improve the ROI of Your Nonprofit Email with a Great Subject Line

Email Still Brings in More Donations than Social Media

Infographic about email and fundraising.
Screengrab from Salsa's infographic about email. See it in full here. Salsa

Email Still Kicking It

There have been dire warnings about the death of email because social media has quickly spread across all demographics.  

But, social media, although improving, is still a work in progress when it comes to  fundraising.  Whereas fundraising through email has proven itself.

Salsa, a fundraising consultancy, found that email has the best ROI of any marketing channel, bringing in $40 for every $1 spent.

Have you ever wondered why your email list is many times larger than your Facebook followers?

Don't feel alone; it's that way for everyone. In fact, if you have 1000 email subscribers, you're likely to have only 199 FB fans and 110 Twitter followers (per Salsa infographic).

But, are you converting your email subscribers to donors?  That 1000 person list only works if your subject line gets the click and people read what you have to say.

Four Essentials of Effective Email Subject Lines

There is no doubt that how you label your email to donors and supporters can make or break your communication. Want that email to be opened? Then pay most attention to the subject line.

  1. Make it short. "I can't thank you enough" was the topic of a thank you email from the Easter Seals. One year-end email simply said, "It’s Not Too Late to Help!" Research has found that a subject line with 29-39 characters gets the best click-through rate and that a 4-15 character line has the best open rate.
  1. Spell out an immediate benefit. Encourage the reader to open that email right then by including a time element. For instance, another end of year email said, " DEADLINE: Make your tax-deductible gift by midnight."
  2. Arouse curiosity. Another tactic learned from the thousands of political campaign emails I got recently (!) is to promise some useful information in the subject line. Most people respond to a question, the results of a poll, or the finale of a story begun in an earlier email. A Democratic email I got said, "We can flip the Senate!"  That was a promise I wanted to know more about.
  1. Provide a distinct value proposition. What benefit will the reader get by opening your email? Try this for a matching campaign: "Multiply your good – we’ll match your gift until Dec. 31." 

Sending a Newsletter by Email? 6 Tips for Getting That Subject Line Right

Elizabeth Nielsen, Senior Interactive Consultant at Convio, provided tips for subject lines for a nonprofit newsletter:

  1. Tell us what's inside, Nielsen says. Don't get cute, but rather pick your most compelling and valuable content for the subject line to capture the reader's interest in reading more.
  2. Be consistent. Use a subject line that includes a regular element so that the reader knows who sent this message. The element could be the newsletter's name, but then vary the rest of the subject line from issue to issue so that the reader will not get bored.
  3. Make it short. Remember that email platforms display subject lines differently and that we may have only 50-60 characters to work with. Take time to make those characters do their job.
  4. Drop the issue/volume numbers. These are irrelevant and take up valuable space.
  5. If your organization's name is in the "From" line, there is no reason to repeat it in your subject line. Likewise, don't bother with date references.
  1. Test. Use A/B tests to figure out what works and what doesn't.

One thing all the experts agree on is that you should avoid words such as "limited time," "free," "opportunity," and "only" in your subject line. Those are spam words and, if not deleted by spam filters, will inevitably turn off your potential readers. On the other hand, the words "thank you" excel at getting readers to open your message.

Writing that subject line turns out to be way too important to ignore or to dash off in just a moment. Take your time, try out various possibilities, follow the advice of the experts, and you may see your open rates and donations go up.