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Are you still perfecting subject lines for our end-of-year emails? Here’s how to make sure they are effective.

When it comes to online fundraising, nothing is as effective as email. I’ve often said that email is the “killer app” for raising money online, because nothing online can match the reach and control you have over your email campaigns.  And when it comes to email, very few things are as important as your fundraising email subject lines.

An email subject line is like an ad for the rest of your email.  When someone gets an email from your nonprofit, all they usually see in their inbox is the name of the sender, the subject line, and perhaps a few words from the first sentence of your letter.  Using just those bits of information, your recipient will decide whether or not to open and read the email.   If the subject line is interesting, they’ll open your email.  If not, they’ll click “delete.”

In this article, we’re going to take a look at how you can write great fundraising email subject lines to make sure that your nonprofit’s emails are cutting through the clutter and getting read by your donors and prospects.


Before we take a look at what you should be doing to make your fundraising email subject lines more effective, let’s look at two things you definitely should NOT be doing if you want people to open and read your email fundraising appeals:

#1: Don’t Be Boring

Far too many nonprofits send out emails with boring subject lines and then wonder why those emails don’t get opened.  I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten over the years from nonprofits I support with subject lines like:

  • Our Spring Appeal
  • February, 2021 Newsletter
  • A Note from the Executive Director

These subject lines are boring… they may factually describe what is inside the email, but they don’t create interest, excite your reader, or cause an emotional response.  Even your most ardent supporters will be bored by a subject line that reads “Support Our Year-End Appeal.”  You’ve given them no reason to open up the email and read it… and most emails that aren’t read immediately never get read (even if the person has the good intention to read it later on).

#2: Don’t Be Overly Sensational

The other side of the coin are fundraising email subject lines that are overly sensational.  This is much smaller problem for most nonprofits than it is for for-profit marketers, but it definitely still happens from time to time.

Overly sensational subject lines are subject lines that are so unbelievable that rather than creating curiosity in your recipient, it causes disbelief – the person knows it isn’t true, or the subject line causes the person to put their guard up, which makes them far less likely to donate even if they do open and read the email.

Examples of overly sensational fundraising email subject lines include:

  • The Single Most Important Email You Will Ever Read
  • We Need to Raise 100x More Money This Year
  • Tom Hanks Called and He Wants to Meet You

(Don’t laugh at the last one . . . I once got a fundraising email that was pretty similar to that one, with a different celebrity’s name.)

In order to get people to open your emails, the subject line needs to be interesting, but not outrageous.


Now that you know what not to do in your fundraising email subject lines, let’s take a look at two things you absolutely NEED to do if you want to get donors and prospects to open your emails:

#1: Create Curiosity

The most important strategy for your fundraising email subject lines is using them to create curiosity in your readers.  When someone reads your subject line, you want them to feel a genuine desire to open your email and get the rest of the story.  For that reason, while you want your subject lines to relate to the content of your email, you don’t want them to tell the whole story… you want to leave people wanting more.

To illustrate this point, take a look at these two possible subject lines for an email appeal sent by a local homeless shelter.  Which would you be more likely to open:

  • Help Jackie Find a New Home for Her Family
  • Have I ever told you about Jackie?

If you’re on the homeless shelter’s donor list and you get an email with first subject line, you already know what’s inside… a fundraising pitch.  On the other hand, the second subject line seems more personal, more direct, and may make you wonder, “Who is Jackie?”

These types of fundraising email subject lines create curiosity and are much more likely to opened by your readers.

#2: Be Honest

While you want your fundraising email subject lines to create curiosity, you also want them to be honest… meaning that they accurately reflect the content of the email.  You don’t want people who click to open your emails to feel duped or like you were dishonest with them.

For example, if your subject line is “3 Ways to Keep Your Children Safe in School,” but your email is just a fundraising pitch for your school safety program, people will feel duped.  You need to tell them the 3 ways to keep their own kids safe, in addition to making your pitch.

Similarly, if your subject line is “Free Ways to Make the World a Better Place,” and you spend the whole email asking people for money to support your nonprofit’s projects, it will seem disingenuous, at best.  Create curiosity and an emotional response with your fundraising email subject lines, but make sure your subject lines feel honest to your readers.


There’s no “perfect formula” for great fundraising email subject lines.  Your best bet is to create a number of possible subject lines following the rules above, and then test them to see which resonate with your audience.  Then, start writing subject lines that not only match the tone of your nonprofit’s brand, but also match the real-world data you have generated by testing various lines in emails to your list.

Not sure where to start? Here are a few sample fundraising email subject lines from nonprofits we have worked with in the past:

  • The Mayor Called Me Today
  • Ten thousand liars can’t be wrong…
  • John, I thought you’d want to see this.
  • The first time I ever got mugged
  • 5 Hours Left (Please Take a Look)

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