12 Best Practices to Help You Write Successful Email Appeals

, Featured Intermediate

By Jeremy Reis

Email appeals are a vital tool in any fundraiser’s toolkit. They provide an easy and affordable way to reach large numbers of supporters with your message. But writing great email appeals is not always easy. What I’ve learned in the last 14 years of nonprofit email marketing is that you can follow simple tips to improve your emails! Here are 12 best practices to help you write great email appeals that will engage and inspire your supporters.

1. Keep your subject lines short, sweet, and to the point.

The goal of your email subject line is to get recipients to open your email. You want your subject line to be short, sweet, and to the point so that recipients know what they’re going to get when they open your email.

Your subject line is the first—and sometimes only—thing your supporters will see. So make sure it’s clear, concise, and entices them to open your email. Avoid using jargon or overly long sentences. And most importantly, make sure it’s relevant to the rest of your email content. Your subject line is your first opportunity to make a good impression on the reader. Make sure it’s catchy and gets straight to the point.

Adding a sense of urgency to your subject lines can also be effective in getting people to open and click through on your emails. Try something like “act now” or “time is running out.”

2. Personalize your email whenever possible.

Your supporters are more likely to read and engage with an email that feels like it’s been written just for them. So, whenever possible, personalize your email content with the supporter’s name or other information you have about them. You can also segment your email list so that you’re sending different types of content to different groups of people. This ensures that everyone is receiving information that is relevant to them.

Adding someone’s name to an email subject line can go a long way towards getting them to open it. If you have the resources, consider using targeted segmentation in your subject lines so that they feel even more personalized to each reader.

3. Get straight to the point.

No one likes to read long emails—least of all busy people who are trying to juggle a million things at once. So get straight to the point in your email appeals and dispense with the fluff. Be clear about what you’re asking for and why it matters. The easier you make it for someone to understand your request, the more likely they are to take action on it.

4. Make it visually compelling.

We all know how important first impressions are. The same goes for email marketing—you only have a split second to capture someone’s attention. So, how do you make sure your emails stand out in a crowded inbox? By making them visually appealing, of course!

A boring, generic template is not going to cut it. Your template should be reflective of your brand and easy on the eyes. People should be able to quickly scan your email and understand what it’s about. Bright colors and bold fonts can help make your email pop, but use them sparingly. You don’t want to comes across as too ‘sales-y.’

Whitespace is your friend! Don’t cram everything into one tiny little space. That’s just going to make people’s eyes glaze over and they’ll likely miss important information. Use margins and line spacing to break up your text and make it easy to read.

Another way to make your emails more visually appealing is to keep your paragraphs short. Ideally, each paragraph should be no more than three or four sentences long—any longer and you risk losing your readers’ attention. In addition to making your emails more visually appealing, short paragraphs also make them easier to read and understand.

While it may be tempting to get creative with fonts, resist the urge to go overboard. Too many font variations can actually be quite off-putting for readers. Stick to two or three different fonts at most—one for headlines and one or two for body copy—and use them consistently throughout your email for best results.

5. Write in a conversational tone.

No one likes feeling like they’re being talked down to or lectured. Write in a conversational tone that engages the reader and makes them feel like you’re talking to them directly.

Use contractions. Writing in complete sentences with perfect grammar can come across as stiff and formal. Using contractions (i.e., can’t, don’t, won’t) will make your emails sound more natural and conversational.

Be personal. Add a dash of personality by sharing something about yourself or your organization that you think will resonate with the donor. This will help you build a rapport and establish trust more quickly.

Write like you speak. Imagine you’re having a conversation with the reader, and transcribe what you would say out loud onto the page. Avoid using big words just for the sake of it—keep it simple!

6. Use active voice.

Passive voice can make your emails sound weak or unengaging. Use active voice whenever possible to give your emails more “punch.”

Active voice sounds more direct than passive voice and conveys confidence without being aggressive. For example, “I’m excited to share our latest project with you” sounds better than “I wanted to share our latest project with you.”

7. Be specific about what you need.

It’s so important to be specific about how donations will be used when you’re asking for them. Being specific will not only help donors understand how their money will be used, but it will also build trust between you and the donor and make them more likely to give again in the future. Here’s how to do it.

The first step is to identify the need that your fundraising email will address. Whether it’s a new roof for the local animal shelter or scholarships for students in need, donors need to know what their money will be used for. Be clear and concise about the need, and try to include specific dollar amounts if possible. For example, “Your donation of $20 will provide one week of food for a family of four.” Donors are far more likely to give when they know exactly how their money will be used.

Part of being specific is also being transparent about where donors’ money goes after they give it. According to a recent research study, an organization that provides software solutions for fundraisers, 80 percent of donors say they’re more likely to give again if they know how their donation was spent. So be sure to include information in your email about how donations were used in the past and how they’ll be used in the future. For example, “Your donation helped us purchase new uniforms for our basketball team. Now we’re raising money for a new gymnasium.” When donors know that their money is going towards a specific, tangible goal, they’re more likely to trust you and give again in the future.

8. Tell a story.

People are more likely to engage with an email that tells a story rather than one that just asks for money outright. Share a personal story or anecdote that is relevant to your cause; this will help forge an emotional connection with the reader and make them more likely to want to help out.

One of the best ways to engage potential donors is by sharing a relatable story that demonstrates the need for your organization’s services. Start by introducing the main character (or characters) and set the scene for what life is like for them before they ever heard of your organization. Then, introduce the problem that they’re facing and how the donor stepped in to help solve it. This type of email is especially effective if you can connect the story back to one of your organization’s core values.

A good story must have conflict. Without it, there’s no suspense and no reason for your readers to keep reading. When crafting your email, think about what obstacles your protagonist faced and how they overcame them. Did they have to fight their way out of poverty? Did they lose everything in a natural disaster? Whatever the case may be, make sure to include enough detail to help your donors understand what they went through.

Every good story needs protagonists—characters that readers can root for and identify with. In most cases, these will be the people or communities that your organization works with on a daily basis. When choosing who to focus on in your email, think about who would make the most compelling story. Once you’ve decided, be sure to include enough detail about them so that donors can understand their situation and feel invested in their outcome.

9. Proofread your email.

This one should go without saying, but always proofread your emails before hitting “send”! A few typos can make you seem inexperienced or unprofessional, so take the time to ensure everything looks good before hitting “send.”

10. Have a clear call-to-action.

What do you want the reader to do after reading your email? Make sure your call-to-action is clear, specific, and easily actionable so there’s no confusion about what you want from them.

Make your call-to-action clear. Instead of just asking for a donation, specify the amount that you would like donors to give. For example, “With your gift of $50, $125, or even $250, you’ll transform the lives of children in this community.”

Use strong language. Be direct in your CTA. Use language that compels donors to take action. For example, “Donate now to help children receive an education.”

Use attention-grabbing buttons. Buttons are a great way to make your CTA stand out from the rest of the email content. Use colors and/or wording that will grab the attention of your recipients and encourage them to click through.

11. Make giving easy.

Make sure it only takes a few clicks for donors to make their gift. Include a prominent donate button in your email, and link it directly to your donation page. On the landing page, include the giving form on the page. The more clicks you add in the process, the more friction you create for a donor to complete the giving process. At one nonprofit, moving from 5 different pages down to a single page checkout increased the conversion rate significantly.

12. Try sending a plain text email.

One often-overlooked aspect of email marketing is the importance of plain text emails.

While flashy images and HTML email templates can be eye-catching, they can also be a hindrance to your message getting through to your intended recipients. Many email providers have strict filters in place to prevent spam, and these filters can sometimes trap legitimate emails if they contain too many images or too much code. By contrast, plain text emails are much more likely to make it through these filters and into the inboxes of your intended recipients.

In addition to being more likely to get delivered, plain text emails can also be more effective in terms of engagement. Because they don’t include any distractions like images or HTML formatting, plain text emails force recipients to focus on the actual content of the message. As a result, nonprofit organizations that send plain text emails often see higher rates of engagement, with recipients taking action such as clicking through to a donation page or sharing the message with others.

For nonprofit organizations looking to reach their donors via email, plain text should be a key part of the equation. Not only are these messages more likely to be delivered, but they can also be more effective in terms of getting recipients to engage with the content.


By following these 12 best practices, you can write great email appeals that will engage and inspire your supporters. Just remember to keep things simple, personalize whenever possible, focus on what’s important, and use compelling stories and images to make your case. With a little practice, you’ll be writing magnetic email appeals that get results in no time!


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