How to Write a Stellar Fundraising Email Subject Line

Melanie Balke
April 15, 2024

An effective subject line serves three purposes: It captures attention, informs readers, and invites engagement. Nonprofit email subject lines must serve an additional fourth purpose: to motivate readers. And it must all be done in just a few words.

It’s a daunting challenge, made all the more frightening by the nature of the email subject line. This is your first impression. It’s what readers see before anything else. If those email subject lines fail to capture a reader’s curiosity, you’re done. More importantly, the success of your fundraising campaigns is in jeopardy — and I’m not talking about “America’s favorite trivia show!”

So, what does it take to craft a great subject line?

Today, I’m dedicating an entire blog post to the art of the fundraising email subject line. These tips and tricks will help your fundraising campaigns thrive and increase your overall effectiveness. They’ll keep your audience engaged with your cause and your brand. So, don’t scroll away! Keep reading to lay the groundwork for a brighter future for your fundraising efforts.

3 Things to Know About Email Subject Lines

A coastal city skyline. "The Basics: Understanding Email Subject Lines."

I’ll start with the basics.

Subject lines fill the functional role of a preview. (“Preview text” exists and serves the formal role, but it’s not a universally utilized part of email code.) They’re your first impression and icebreaker. Every email platform captures and displays subject lines, dedicating the bulk of an inbox to displaying these witty one-liners.

More importantly, there are hard-coded limits and rules for email subject lines.

Spam filters will catch and discard anything that sounds too “spammy.” Likewise, potential donors may have negative reactions to overtly manipulative attention-grabbing subject lines.

Summarily, you must tailor your content to match the expectations and needs of your target audience.

1. Keep It Short

Short subject lines work best. Most marketers limit their subject lines to fifty characters or less. (That’s between six and ten words.)

There’s no technical limit to the length of a subject line. However, there’s only so much space in your inbox’s layout. Lengthy subject lines may work for inter-office communiqués, but they won’t help you reach your fundraising target. They may even trigger spam filters!

A Gmail inbox with a message from LEGO. The subject line reads, “Weekly Newsletter | Here's what's happening on LEGO Ideas!”

You can see why marketers keep email subject lines short. Lengthy content is automatically truncated, leaving readers confused and disinterested.

However, you must also consider your audience’s attention span. Most people spend a maximum of three seconds looking at a subject line. That’s just enough time to discern the sender and purpose of a fundraising email. It’s a hard truth, but it’s a necessity when browsing a crowded inbox.

2. Say What’s Important

Use your time wisely. Again, three seconds isn’t long! You must capture the recipient’s attention, inform them of important news, and evoke feelings of compassion in that limited time. Otherwise, you’ll see low open rates and poor conversions.

Borrow a page from the design department’s book. Frontload that content to invoke curiosity and create a sense of urgency. Use active language and reaffirm that each reader’s support matters. Remind the audience that your work has an impact.

This tiny tweak will make a difference. However, like most things in email marketing, you’ll likely need to fine-tune the specifics. Ideally, this trick should be paired with a split test and data analysis to maximize and increase open rates.

3. Watch Your Language

Finally, you must master the art of linguistic trickery.

Action-oriented verbs can dramatically improve campaign results. They help your content stand out and shine, especially compared to the passive content surrounding your fundraising campaigns.

Notably, this trick also works for call-to-action links. It creates a sense of urgency and affords special recognition to your cause, helping it rise above everything else in an inbox stuffed with promotional emails. Even without realizing it, the potential donor associates the phrase with immediate action.

At the same time, you want to avoid overly vague subject lines. Everyone is saying that “your support makes a difference.” At this point, those are hollow words. Similarly, nonprofit organizations everywhere tout their ability to “save lives” and “uplift others” with readers’ timely donations.

That generic language may create urgency, but it doesn’t give context. It doesn’t highlight the organization’s mission.

4 Strategies to Make Your Fundraising Email Subject Lines Truly Effective

A circuit board. "Must-Know Tips: How to Write the Best Subject Line."

Now, that extra purpose comes into play. You can’t write an effective fundraising email subject line using the same tactics as generic promotional content. (Technically, you can, but the results won’t be great!)

Crafting intriguing subject lines is not enough. You must capture attention and inspire action in one breath. You need something that inspires recipients to donate and act. You must create a sense of widespread change — a deep, resonant feeling of positivity. Every nonprofit is on a “life-changing mission”; your success depends on your ability to spark a recipient’s curiosity and secure the follow-through.

1. Don’t Be Afraid of the Personalized Subject Line

Personalization is critical.

A well-designed and personalized email campaign can emphasize the plight of your emotional appeal and inspire more donations. Addressing potential donors by name goes a long way toward capturing the reader’s interest and inspiring the average person to take action. Indeed, personalization is the backbone of modern digital marketing!

Examples of Personalized Fundraising Subject Lines

  • Every penny counts, [Name]
  • [Name], time is running out!
  • [Name], your donation helped a needy family
  • Shiloh wants to thank you for your support, [Name]
  • You’re invited, [Name]! Attend our fundraising events.

2. Personify Your Mission

However, I also want to address the importance of personification.

Your email recipients receive countless emails every day, and they’re inundated with different subject lines from an untold number of sources. Stand out by showing readers what their support means within the community.

“You make a difference” has become an empty platitude. It’s a soothing mantra to drown out the chaos of an increasingly unpredictable world. It no longer sparks curiosity; for some, it even inspires revulsion.

Saying something like, “Your donations made a difference to Little Cindy, changes the message. Now, the fundraising campaign is about a concrete goal. It’s about Little Cindy, who is happily living with a wonderful family thanks to your donations.

This tactic is nothing new. People have been crafting compelling tear-jerkers for decades, long before they were creating compelling subject lines. You see personification everywhere. Turn on the television or open YouTube, and you’ll be greeted by spokespeople for different charities. However, the strategy is often overlooked when organizations begin crafting email campaigns!

Examples of Personification in Your Fundraising Email Subject Lines

  • $10 fed Daniel and his family for a week
  • How your donations helped the Smith family
  • Hundreds of children need your help today
  • See how 25¢ brought Raj’s family joy this holiday season
  • Time is running out to rescue displaced families

A Quick Note: Personification can be general. You don’t need to fabricate heart-wrenching stories about Little Sally to evoke a sense of urgency. For many, simply mentioning a vulnerable population can boost open rates.

There’s a massive difference between saying, “thousands of people are starving,” and “thousands of children are starving.” They both say the same thing, but one has a more compelling emotional appeal.

3. Don’t Keep Your Hand Outstretched

Nobody likes a nag. Sometimes, an effective subject line does little more than deliver great news!

Leave room on your content calendar for gratitude and positive updates. Think of these emails as your “post-purchase” flow.

The world is already full of doom, gloom, and open palms. Eventually, recipients grow weary of that constant contact. The calls to “donate today” become a buzzing drone. This sense of fatigue is particularly felt during the holiday season when organizations are pushing for “urgent” donations, although any “season of giving” is fertile ground for donor fatigue.

You can always include a link to the donation page at the end of these email campaigns. You can even work in that otherwise monetary urgent subject line, placing it as a hook near the end of your update.

Examples of Uplifting Fundraising Email Subject Lines

  • Be the first to see our new food bank 👀
  • Look at the 500 trees [Organization Name] has planted
  • See how [Organization Name] brought joy to this war-torn community
  • Your donations had a significant impact on the lives of these pups
  • Your response to our fundraising email helped the Davis family!

4. Hire a Team of Professionals

A crowd watches a professional pickleball tournament. "Hire a Pro: Let Experts Handle Your Email Subject Lines."

Ultimately, the easiest way to help your organization succeed is to find a professional email marketing partner.

My team, The Email Marketers, is dedicated to growing every client’s brand. My hand-picked experts understand the intricacies of the digital marketing landscape. They’ve worked alongside traditional businesses and nonprofit organizations to make a difference. More importantly, they’ll handle the nitty-gritty details of marketing while you create change!

Schedule a free strategy session to see how my team can optimize your email subject lines. You’ll get a comprehensive plan to tackle your goals and maximize the impact of your fundraising emails. And that plan doesn’t stop at the subject lines. I’ll cover everything!

So, let us worry about making an intriguing subject line. You have more important things to do than draft a fundraising email.