Tips and Tricks for Writing Great Nonprofit Holiday Donation Emails

When I go to a restaurant, I look over the menu, decide what I want based on the choices offered, and then I order something.

A few weeks ago, I went to lunch with a group, and my friend Irene was with us. She looked at the menu, but when it was her turn to order, she asked for a dish, but with the noodles from another dish, and one type of fruit instead of what came with it, and a grilled chicken breast with no sauce, and a half-glass of milk.

Well, substitutions are one thing, but plain chicken and milk weren’t even on the menu. I was shocked. But the waiter didn’t miss a beat; he wrote it all down and brought her exactly what she’d ordered.

I was astonished. I didn’t know you could even DO that! This stuck with me, and I tell this story because it’s like email marketing. You do NOT have to feel bad for asking for money. You are NOT being rude. Provided that your recipients have exhibited some interest in receiving mail from you, presumably they support you. Even if they can’t give right now, they won’t be angry at being asked.

You have to ask–that’s a given. But your success entirely hinges on the WAY you ask. If my friend Irene had been imperious and snobby and rudely commanded the waiter to bring her something special, well…she probably still would have gotten it, but there might have been a little something “extra” in her food, if you know what I mean!

Instead, she asked politely and with respect. The waiter was glad to bring her a meal that was to her specifications and resulted in her satisfaction.


This blog is all about how you can make that ASK the best you can. Remember–you are giving donors the opportunity to invest in your mission. The key is getting show them how to feel grateful and lucky at that opportunity, so they can’t WAIT for the PRIVILEGE of giving you more money in the future!


Ask for one thing, and one thing only. Be specific. If you have more than one “ask” or thing you need, do separate campaigns to recipients who will most likely respond to that ask.


For example, you have a few donors that you can ask for large sums of money at this time of year. For those individuals, is an email really the most appropriate format? Probably not. For the “big boys,” a personal visit or note is your best bet.

You might do a campaign targeting college students. We know college students aren’t typically wealthy, so including them in an email asking for $100 donations is a waste, because they are highly unlikely to give at this level, and thus won’t give anything.

If you target college students and young people with an email specifically written for them, asking for, say, a $20 donation, you’re likely to get quite a bit of conversion.* Even if you get ONE $20 donation from a targeted email, that’s better than 0 donations from this age group when they’re lumped in with everyone else.

You can see why targeting your emails to specific audiences is SO critical.


Here’s an exercise you can do. Make a list of ALL the different types of people on your email list whom you are going to ask for money in your holiday campaigns. I’ll help you get started:

  • Previous donors
  • people who have adopted cats from you
  • people who have adopted dogs from you (yes, split up the dog and cat people!)
  • college age/young adult volunteers
  • Corporate donors (either corporations, or people who give through company campaigns)
  • Middle-aged women (this is probably going to be your largest group)

Think about the different ways you would talk to each of these types of people if you were having coffee or lunch with them. It would be pretty different, wouldn’t it? So why are you sending them all the same blanket email?

Your answer is probably something like “Because I don’t have time to write 8 different emails,” or “I don’t know how to segment my list.”

If you haven’t segmented your list, you can start now (I’ll teach you how later this week). If you’re worried about writing different emails, well, if you could increase gifts by 50% or more, wouldn’t it be worth a little extra time??! The content can be mostly the same; you just vary certain parts.


I recommend a few components to every email.


Get a story from a volunteer or adopter that is in the demographic/age range of your target group. Get a photo (better yet, link it to a video!) of this person and the animal he/she adopted. Have them explain, in their own words, why they love your organization and the difference it’s made in their life.


It’s the holiday season. EVERYONE is asking for money. Why should they give to you? What have you done with their money in the past? What results have you accomplished in the past year? If you are writing to a list that you only reach out to once a year, tell them what you’ve done since you wrote last year at this same time.

3) featured animal. This should be a great animal that has a great story, and a great future because of your organization. Maybe a dog who had some health challenges and you were able to rehabilitate him. Maybe a litter of kittens who were found in the cold of winter and only survived because of your foster program. DO NOT use sad stories (unless they have happy endings!). People want to feel good, and feel that they are contributing to something good. People love reading these heartwarming stories, and the stories also further illustrate the difference you make in the lives of animals.


Don’t forget to ask for what you need. Be specific. Ask for a specific amount. If you target your emails correctly, you won’t have to worry about “losing” money (for example, sending an “ask” for $20 to a person who might give you $1,000). In the ask, be HONEST. Be transparent. Tell them why you need money. Tell them it’s been a hard year, but keep it positive (no “poor us!”)–tell them that despite the rough economy, you’ve managed to increase donations by 10% and do x y and z for animals in your community. This ensures people you are being a good steward of their money.


Say what you will do with the donation you are asking for. “With the results of this campaign, we will build a new cat enclosure” or “we can vaccinate every animal on intake.” Tell them how it’s going to make a difference.


This is not the place to talk about your holiday hours, or the latest blog post, or your Facebook or Twitter page. Do not dilute the message of this email, which is to ask for money. Period. If you want to put your social media links and stuff like that, fine–but this is the one time you want to bury it at the bottom.


Don’t make people hunt around for where to click when they’re ready to donate. I actually received a real donation request from a nonprofit organization last week without a single link or button. This organization was asking me to take action, and then they did not give me any means to do it. I had to open my browser, go to their website, hunt around for their donation page…are you KIDDING me?! You think they’ll get many donations?

Donors have short attention spans and they are receiving MANY competing messages. Be concise, be respectful, and lead them to what you want them to do. Put easy-to-spot buttons and frequent links that take them directly to your donation page. If you are going to use the actual URL in the text of the email, make it something short and sweet, like, in case people have links disabled and they have to type it in.


It’s okay to use casual, friendly language. You are talking to people who, after all, are your friends! However, you can’t ignore or forget important things like “please” and “thank you” and a signature.


Your from field is very important, and what you put there will vary from organization to organization. If your Executive Director is a well-known person in your community, then you’ll get higher open rates if you put her name in the “from” field. If nobody knows who she is, then put the organization’s name in the from field.


If you can’t make fancy graphics, don’t worry. Don’t let that stop you from using email marketing. Make sure your logo (or at least the name of your organization) is in the top right, so it’s visible as soon as people open the email. (Trusted email is opened and read–everything else is trashed) You’ll want to keep the top left area for your greeting.

Use plenty of white space, and make sure your text is at a bare minimum. People will NOT read very much (I should take my own advice with this blog post, huh?). Think about what your email would look like with the images turned off–would people still “get” what you are saying? For design, less is more. Go for the lowest common denominator in this case.

Use short paragraphs, rather than long ones. They’re easier to read.

Proofread. Even if you have a Ph.D. in English grammar, you can make mistakes! Have at least one other person proofread your work. Nothing makes you look unprofessional faster than a misspelled word or incorrectly-placed apostrophe.

Be sparing with bold and italic text. Use it for only the most important phrases and calls to action. Stick with one font. Make sure your type is large enough. Middle-aged and older donors (your bread and butter) may be in the “I-can’t-really-see-but-I’m-certainly-not-old-enough-to-need-glasses” mentality; make sure those folks can easily read your message.


You’re going to need to send out more than one email, and it shouldn’t be the same every time. I’d recommend one email per week up to your deadline date. Ideally you should start in mid-November. It’s never too late, though!

When you send out multiple emails, don’t be afraid to tell people how the campaign is going. If you tell people “We’re 60% of the way to our goal! We only need $2,000 more to reach our holiday giving goal!” they are MORE likely to give. Even though it seems like they might think, “Oh, we’ll, they’ve got it handled…I don’t need to give.” They won’t think that.

People are motivated to do what others like ourselves do. If we see that many others are giving, we are going to be more likely to do the same. It’s been proven time and time again.

Even if you’ve already started your email campaign for this year, you can still put some of these techniques into practice. They WILL make a difference in your fundraising efforts.

What else? Have you tried something that works in your email campaigns? Please share your ideas (and any other questions) here. We can all benefit!

*(conversion means people doing what you want them to do. Your “conversion rate” that you hear so often just means the number of people who do what you want divided by the number of people you asked. If 3 people give and you asked 100 people, then your conversion rate is 3%)

Get in Touch!

I'm available via most social media, so drop me a line! I'll answer your questions and I really look forward to hearing from you and helping if I can!

, , , , , ,

One Response to Tips and Tricks for Writing Great Nonprofit Holiday Donation Emails