Best Practices for Top-Notch Emails

Wendy Bolm 01/26/2016

1. Use human-centered language.

Studies, like those conducted by Mary Immordino-Yang and Russell James show that human-centered language works. Storytelling is an important aspect of asking for donations, and avoiding industry jargon is an important aspect of getting your message across and conveying your needs. “Gift” works better than “donation.” Explain how tax deductions work in simple terms instead of legalese. Tell the individual stories of the people you've helped. Show what smaller, more manageable donations can help you achieve in concrete terms, whether it's $15 that will buy your organization three hammers or $500 that will provide a child with a week's worth of a much-needed therapy.

2.Keep your design simple.

A few years ago, the trend in email design was  tables. This allowed designers to create email newsletters that looked a lot like physical newsletters, with multiple columns, intricate borders, and a professional graphics layout. The problem with bulking up an email's design with tabled graphics and borders is that it is nearly impossible to ensure your emails are being viewed with their intended design intact across email clients.

Email Example without Images

Some of your supporters are never going to download the images you've spent so much time lovingly laying out. To them, your email might show as a grid of broken images with text interspersed throughout. Other common problems include gaps of white space showing up between table elements and gridded designs not lining up correctly. Most nonprofits don't have the time and resources to dedicate to extensively testing their email designs across email clients or cleaning up an email's HTML or CSS code when something goes wrong, so keeping to a simple, clean layout with minimal pictures and a standard font is the safest bet when sending emails out to your supporter base.

3. Assign every email a sender.

You want to create a human connection with your supporters, and sending emails from “” creates a barrier between your staff and your donors. Send out your President's Message from your president. Appeals can come from your executive director, your development director, board members; these messages should be strategically planned well before you send them out. A good email client is always going to allow you to set the “From” field on the email, even if it's set to someone other than the staff member logged into the system.

Sample CommitChange Email

4. Make sure someone on staff is reading and replying to every response.

When you send out an email, you're going to get responses back, whether they're a donation pledge or someone asking for your organization to respond to a support issue. Even if the email is ultimately going to get routed to another staff member or department, a personal message from the original “sender” goes a long way in building ties to an organization.

5. Identify your supporters.

Are your supporters your listeners? Viewers? The families of cancer survivors? Members of a fraternity? Who is more likely to donate? To volunteer? To share your message?

In the same way you tell your story to your supporters, someone on your team should know enough about your supporters to be able to tell their story to your staff.

Whether you call them case studies or user stories, it's a good idea to communicate information about your supporters at a personal level. Pick three or four examples and show your staff who an average supporter is, whether it's an 80-year-old grandmother or a 26-year-old young professional. Having a good idea of your different demographics is crucial when it's time to decide how you will speak to the people who matter most to your organization and what you'll say.

6. Segment your message.

Once you have a good idea of who your supporters are, appeal to them directly. Create specialized lists that target specific kinds of people. Your volunteers and board members don't have the same concerns when it comes to your organization. Scholarship recipients and state hospital chaplains don't need to read the same news. It's very hard to appeal to a college student and a retiree in the same way and successfully spur them both to donate. In a landscape where email addresses are inundated with newsletters and promotions, your supporters will appreciate always receiving correspondences that are on point with who they are and what they care about.

7. A/B test.

A/B testing is when you compare two design or messages to see which performs better with your audience. With emails, you should divide your lists into control groups and then make tweaks to your emails to see which approaches have the best response. Some nonprofits I've worked with have had reservations about A/B testing, thinking that sending out “test” messages is unprofessional or too clinical, but the information you gain is invaluable. You might change the word “Donate” to “Give” in an email headline or make subtle changes in a volunteer appeal to see how they affect your desired outcomes. By looking at open and clickthrough rates, you can then make decisions on how you will shape future communications.

8. Never, ever send an image as your entire message.

As a media specialist working with nonprofits, I had this issue for about ten years. Someone would design, or ask me to design, an invitation. Or a flyer for an event. Or a season's greeting. And then, they'd ask me to send out the image by itself.

Sure, the email has a subject line. However, a number of email clients auto-strip images from the emails that are delivered through them. In order to view an image, the recipient then has to opt-in by clicking a button or link.

Most people aren't going to get that far. They may love your organization and the work that you do, but if they don't even see a small preview snippet of what your email is about, they're not even going to open your email as they scan through the other 100+ messages they've received that day. Always make sure that compelling text makes up at least a part of every email you send out.