Respect the Inbox: Fundraising Email Best Practices for the Annual Fund

A few weeks ago, I met up with a good friend of mine. As we were catching up, he told me that he had once unsubscribed from his alma mater’s solicitation emails. He wasn’t in a financial position to give at the time, and he felt overwhelmed by the constant emails.

But because he unsubscribed from being solicited, he somehow no longer received emails about events, volunteer opportunities, or anything else. Although he wanted to stay connected, the alumni office had grouped him into the “Do Not Contact” box.


The reason I share this story is because I’m guessing that few of us who work in fundraising consider the effect that our emails can have on alumni and donors. We’re so focused on getting “30% of alumni to give” that, sometimes, we don’t provide the best experience for our audiences.

Think about the difference between soliciting major gifts versus annual gifts.

Major gift officers need to know when to push donors and when to give them space. Is this the right time to ask for a gift? Is the donor passionate about the project we’ve proposed? There’s more empathy because of the fear of pushing these folks too hard, too fast.

For the rest of the donor population—who may not have deep pockets—we seem to have less patience and understanding. There are constant emails that read:

“Have You Given Yet?”

“Only 3 More Days to Give”

“All Your Friends Have Given… Why Haven’t You?”

“Fiscal Year Ends Tomorrow—Just Do It Already”

Why do we treat high-end donors with so much more courtesy than the annual fund population? 

Last time I checked, all donors have one thing in common: They’re human.

Is it a bigger mistake to upset the million-dollar donor? Absolutely. But if you make annual donors feel small, you are hurting your institution—not necessarily now, but 20 years from now.

We are going to have a fundraising crisis if we don’t change the way we do things. Modern technology has allowed every Tom, Dick, and Harry to ask for money and get their cause funded. You’re battling hundreds of other worthy nonprofits and causes. Don’t think that just because alumni went to your institution, they are going to open their checkbooks.

If you want to stand out, you have to change.

A mail merge with a “Join the Cause” subject line isn’t going to grow your donor population. If you want to “wow” donors, you need to create a compelling case for why they matter to you, not why you should matter to them.

Here are some tips for writing great fundraising emails.

Are Your Emails What They Appear To Be?

Translated: Are you doing the bait and switch?

Think about your experience at any conference. There’s nothing worse than sitting in a session and quickly realizing it’s not what was advertised.

That same, awful feeling can be had over email. If your subject line reads “Important News about the Football Game,” don’t ask for a donation in the email.

Your donors are smart—they went to your institution, after all—so they’ll quickly lose trust in your alumni office if emails aren’t what they appear to be.

Stop the All or Nothing

Respect the inbox. For the love of all that is decent and holy, do this.

This means more than not sending a solicitation email every day, for the entire month, as you approach the end of the fiscal year. This means more than a subject line of “Why Haven’t You Made Your Donation? Your 145 Classmates Have.” This means more than the “Time is Almost Up!”

As a single woman, I find ignoring emails similar to ghosting. Do you really think he’s going to ask you out again if he hasn’t responded to your 10 texts? Probably not.


Remember: He has your info. If he’s interested, he knows how to get ahold of you. If he’s really motivated to give, he can go online and donate. Those constant emails are going to do only one thing: Turn him off.

My advice? Focus your emails on the “active buyers.” Many businesses, like Amazon, send reminder emails to customers when they’ve left something in their cart. The same concept can apply to fundraising. By tracking who clicked through to the giving page from your solicitation email—or who began to fill out the form but didn’t finish making a gift—you can remarket to those alumni with a reminder email. These people have clearly shown an intent to give, so a gentle nudge might be welcomed.

Interested in donor remarketing? Learn how EverTrue for Annual Giving can help.

Of course, as a general rule of thumb, space out your solicitations. (Like any good marketer, I know that it takes at least three messages for a customer to respond.) Try an email on Thursday and then maybe another 10 days later. Three email messages a month—plus the remarketing—should help you get stronger results.

Stop the Campaign-Specific Jargon…

You live and breathe your institution. You’ve seen the construction of new buildings. You know the campaign inside and out. You’ve mastered all of the rhetoric of the fundraising world.

Unsurprisingly, your donors haven’t. Instead, they’re bogged down in their children’s ballet recitals and taking their parents to doctor appointments.

Your email about the importance of “Light the World” or the fact they are a LYBUNT donor is going to fall flat.

Instead of piling on the keywords you “have to use” in an email, why not take a more conversational approach? Paint a picture of what the newest initiative is improving. 

…But Keep the Institution-Specific Jargon

What makes your school special? Do you have a homecoming tradition like no other? Do you have stunning buildings?

Tap into nostalgia and match it with an appropriate ask. Let’s say your school’s dining hall has a popular sandwich called “the EverTrue Delight.” If I’m an alumna and your subject line read “The Cost of an EverTrue Delight,” I’m going to open it. If you told me that—if all alumni donate $6.95 (the hypothetical cost of the sandwich)—we could raise enough money to build a new dining hall, I’m in. From the subject line to the body of the email, everything makes sense. The hook is there.

In my opinion, I think that a lot of institutions don’t have the courage to play with these tactics. They keep with traditional PR language and miss out on huge opportunities to connect with alumni. So, take risks and appeal to the magic of what makes the student experience special. Good things will come. 

Make It Personal

Nothing boils my blood more than “speaking” to a robot over the phone. Press “1” to make a change to your address. Press “2” for a referral. I scream “customer service!” into the receiver in hopes of getting an actual human.


Believe it or not, emails can have the same effect.

Traditional PR language feels stiff. It feels too proper, even inauthentic. It doesn’t build trust.

So, keep it casual. If you can write emails using an authentic, conversational voice, do it.

Another way to personalize an email is to stop with the as the sender. If I have a question, where do I go for support? If you can include a real email address in the body of the email, do so.

Finally, does this message feel like it’s going to everyone? Avoid that. Instead, try building custom segments (e.g., LYBUNTs, active donors, ages 60+) and sending templated emails via mail merges to those personas. It’s easy to email everyone with a mass message, but it’s a lot more effective to write personalized appeals for different donor segments. Don’t be lazy—do the work.

Remember Mobile

You check email on your phone, right? So do your alumni. Make it easy for them to read an email on their mobile device. In fact, you should customize the email layout to make sure it’s mobile-first. (Don’t forget to optimize your giving page for mobile, too!)

  • Make the call-to-action buttons big. If you want them to sign up for an event, the “Register Here” button should be clearly visible. In the same way, if it’s solicitation, the “Give Now” button should be prominent.
  • Keep it short and sweet. According to HubSpot, the best email messages are under 200 words. Why? You’re leading them to another page to do something else, like sign up or donate. Your email message should be like a movie trailer. If you want to provide more information, put it on the landing page. No one wants to keep scrolling.
  • Use brief subject lines. For a long time, tweets had a limit of 140 characters. In the same way, you should be character-conscious when it comes to a subject line. The limit? 50 characters.

Be Clear If It’s a Non-Fundraising Email

Events are a great way to reengage alumni. Create event-specific emails that are easy to recognize, using subject lines like “What’s New at [Your Institution]” or “Upcoming Alumni Association Events.”

These emails are great for keeping alumni informed about what’s going on near them. And because calendars can get full quickly, remember to include events more than six months out. People want to plan ahead, so give them that opportunity.

Your open rates should be high for these types of emails. Once alumni trust you with these emails, they may be more inclined to read your solicitations.


I still think about the conversation I had with my friend. Here is an engaged alumnus, someone who adds to the alumni community—yet he was instantly turned off by the alumni office’s email marketing.

So before you hit send, ask yourself this: What effect are your emails having on your donors?

Learn how EverTrue for Annual Giving can help you segment and target the right constituents with your email marketing

Stephanie St. Martin is the brand awareness manager at The Ariel Group. Prior to this, she was the social media manager for Boston College University Advancement, i.e. the person behind @BCAlumni on social media. When she’s not in the digital marketing trenches, Steph can be found writing, playing/hosting trivia, and driving around the USA in hopes of seeing all 50 state capitol buildings. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter if you dare.

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