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After wading through the thicket of Giving Tuesday emails, here’s the top 10 recommendations for next year.

“It’s #GivingTuesday!”

If you are a philanthropic person like me, you probably received many emails with this or a similar headline last week. I received 69 email solicitations and decided to carefully read and analyze them in order to glean lessons that nonprofit leaders can use to improve email marketing. As Sergeant Friday would say on Dragnet, the information you are about to read is true. The organizations have been removed to protect the innocent. If you contact me, I can forward you specific examples.      

Let’s start with positive lessons, and then what can be learned from negative trends.

1. Humanize your work

The best emails were personal in nature, either a genuine letter from the CEO or a story about someone who benefited from the donor’s investment. For example, one U.S. ministry that invests in small international ministries included a video showing how a small gift provides porridge to kids in a village. I almost cried because of the humble ask to provide basic needs and the gratitude expressed by the person supplying the porridge. Two groups featured their staff members talking about why they work at the organization and how it personally affects them.   

2. Make it easy and consistent for the donor

The best emails provided a specific and easy way to give that is consistent from the message to the landing page. One group had a goal to bring on 100 monthly donors, each of which would provide a student with a conference scholarship. Another made their match known, recognized the match donor, and had attractive fall foliage design in the email and landing page. Others provided buttons that gave a specific verb about what you do when you click such as “Help a student” or “Provide meals for the hungry,” which is more compelling than “Donate” or “Give.”   

3. Connect to larger themes within your mission and vision   

Several organizations were asking for end of year gifts and happened to make that ask on #GivingTuesday as opposed to a specific one-time ask for the day only. One group sent the ask on Monday night and mentioned #GivingTuesday in passing as part of their overall year-end ask. Another organization had a short video at the top of the email that outlined their specific plans for 2021.

4. Make a specific ask that has a tangible value proposition

The best asks were specific and understandable.  One organization asked to “help a family now” for emergency food aid and offered specific options on the landing page. Another organization was starting a research and publishing project to offer solutions to homelessness in San Francisco, and their landing page described the specific plan and how your gift will be used. Yet another started with a story of a college journalism program alumna who went on to publish at high-level outlets, and asked you to give toward their $10,000 goal to provide two others with that internship.   

5. Consider a follow-up email with the results 

Of the 68 emails I received from about 40 organizations, only two sent a followup by Wednesday afternoon thanking the donors and giving an update about how they did on their goal. I found the ones I received to be encouraging – both had exceeded their goal, and one by a large margin!  

6. Don’t distract from your message with information about #GivingTuesday itself

Of the 68 emails, 28 had #GivingTuesday in the subject line. A few had the subject of “Today is #GivingTuesday” and one even had that as the subject and subhead. Many started the email with language about when, how, and why #GivingTuesday was created, and even more had the #GivingTuesday logo to start the email. I recommend focusing on your message because people know it is #GivingTuesday already and receive many messages with that information. You wouldn’t start your direct mail with “This is direct mail. Many organizations solicit donations through this method to raise money for their work.” 

7. Don’t talk about yourself and your organization at the expense of the donors

Ask yourself “so what?” when you read the email and put yourself in the shoes of the recipient. Some of the emails simply stated the organization’s type of work or a vague description of what they do and went directly to the ask. Others used “I” and “we” pronouns with few or no mentions of “you” to refer to the recipients of the email and their colleague supporters. Make the email about the donors and what their gift makes possible, not what “we” the nonprofit do or “our programs.” Several organizations offered an incentive if you make a gift, including one group that sends a tumbler if you give $250, and another that had higher and higher quality cookies for gifts of $75, $150, or $250+. This can be done tastefully (no pun intended), but you may want to focus on the benefits for donors related to your mission (ie. you will feed 5 hungry people with a gift of $25) instead of cheap swag.      

8. Don’t treat people like ATM machines or computers

Most organizations sent one or two appeal emails, but a few sent three or four. Unfortunately some of the repeated emails were exactly the same as earlier ones, or simply a short reminder. The organization offering a tumbler sent a “it’s not too late to give for #GivingTuesday” email on Wednesday and texted once on each day. That’s too much. If people are going to support your organization, I don’t think the third or fourth reminder in one day is going to be the deciding factor. Another group copied the exact text of their video into the same email that had a link to the video at the top. And the video was the CEO dispassionately reading a script about what #GivingTuesday is for 30-45 seconds before discussing what their mission is and how the gift will be used.   

9. Don’t bury main points down in the email

Several emails had large graphics at the top that drew away from the main point or linked to the picture itself when you click (instead of not having the picture link or linking to the landing page). Others did not have a clear value proposition or assumed that the audience knows the mission and vision already.  One organization had a large photo of their museum with the words “Giving Tuesday” and this copy which does not mention their vision or value proposition: 

Celebrate Giving Tuesday, a global movement where anyone, anywhere can make a difference! Kick off the charitable season and support [name of museum]. #GivingTuesday is a global day of giving to encourage philanthropy and celebrate generosity worldwide. Join the movement to support your community and amplify acts of kindness. 

10. Don’t emphasize it in case your list is not personalized yet

Some organizations sent personalized subject lines that included my name, and addressed me as “Dear Roger” but the majority did not. It is difficult for small organizations to gather data at a sophisticated level, so if you don’t have the capability to include donors’ names yet, I recommend not including “Dear Friend” or “Friend” in the subject line because it highlights that you are not personalized yet. One organization sent an email with the subject line “Friend, 8 hours left.” 


You, as a nonprofit leader, can improve your email marketing by using simple techniques and asking easy questions before sending messages to your donors. Put yourself in the recipient’s place and anticipate how it might be received. Work to humanize and simplify your work into emotional messages that clearly state the value proposition for the potential donor. Give a consistent and specific ask across email, mail, and website so your message is reinforced. And be sure to thank and follow up with donors as quickly as you can. Thanks for all you do to improve lives – but now go do it better!

Roger Custer is Senior Director of Development at the Commonwealth Foundation and a consultant, advisor, and board member for several nonprofits.

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