Online Fundraising Academy: How to Write Earth-Changing Emails

In GlobalGiving’s fifth Online Fundraising Academy session, we invited our own Alison Carlman, to share tips and key lessons she’s learned in donor communications. In her role as Unmarketing Manager, Alison is responsible for engaging the GlobalGiving community and for telling the stories of GlobalGiving and its partner projects. In 2013, Alison and her team raised $270,000 from donor emails. 

Session Recording

Listen, test, learn, repeat – experimentation and testing key to improving work

  • Listen to your audience, peers, research
  • Test assumptions in experiments
  • Learn from your experiments
  • Do it again and again and again!

This is how GlobalGiving Listens, Tests, Learns and Repeats:


  • Users – your audience, the people who receive messages
    • To improve our e-newsletter, we got feedback from users – who opens, donates, clicks
    • What we learned:
      1.  Keep it short – people don’t read news
      2.  Talk about the users, not you – what’s relevant to them, why they should care
      3. Made it even shorter
      4. Use big images  – people click on the header image
      5. Use clear images with one person making eye contact.
      6. Add humor, make it clever and unexpected – include jokes, puns
      7. Have a big and clear call-to-action – make your ask clear and easy for users to do
      8. Personalize it! – add people’s names, send personalized thank you. Users like to know they’ve been thought of, not just written to the masses.
  • Peers – similar organizations you can learn from
    • charitywater emailcharity: water – use beautiful image, well laid-out, formatted for mobile phones, very little text, interesting lead text, unexpected, humorous and large call-to-action
    • – personalized by state, simple and short, made it sound urgent, very clear request
    • Kiva – personalized, clear call-to-action, made it look like it was forwarded by a staff member
      • Did A/B testing (divide users into 2 groups and provided a different email to each group to see which email did better)
      • Kiva’s “trick” forwarded email performed 2x as well
      • Personalizing really works!
  • What we learned:
    1. Use beautiful imagery.
    2. Make it mobile friendly
    3. Keep it brief.
    4. Use interesting lead text.
    5. Try unexpected/humorous (but still visibly clear) calls-to-action.
    6. Try unexpected subject lines and formats
  • Project report titles are now the subject line when project reports are sent out to GlobalGiving donors
  • Theory – what does the research say?
      1. Shorten distance between user and subject matter – connect them to one person/animal/object. Easier to feel like you can make a difference in one person’s life than a big group.
      2. Tell a compelling story about that one person – how a person has overcome an obstacle or how they have potential to overcome obstacles
      3. Donors will give if they feel it will bring them close to people in their network – focus on what you can do for your users. Give them something to share so they can connect to their social network.
      4. People give more when it’s easy – Make the process to give as easy as possible. And give reminders
      5. Not all donors are the same – these tips won’t work for everyone. Need different messages for different donors.

Test, learn and repeat

  • Look at metrics to measure success of email











For more information on Constant Contact metrics, check out these articles

  • Experiment – we did A/B testing with two Girl Effect emails (one story, one video) and looked at click rate and conversion rate
    • Video email got more clicks, gave 2x as many times, gave 3x as much
    • New assumption: videos in emails might perform better
  • Experimented again with another video email to test assumption that videos lead to higher conversion rates
    • Got highest click rates but lowest conversion rate and lower donation amount
    • Conclusion: Not every video will necessarily have the same effect as Girl Effect video (Girl Effect video might of just been very good)
    • Can’t rely on initial assumptions!
    • What we learned from running experiments:
      1. Stick to one variable at a time.
      2. Pick your most important metric.
      3. Once you think you have come to a conclusion, test that conclusion! – REPEAT
      4. Keep testing! Keep improving!

Design your own experiment

  • Make a hypothesis: “I believe that trying _______ (tactic) will lead to higher ______ (pick a metric: open rates OR click rates OR donations) from my donors.”
  • Pick your tool: …I will know if I’m correct because I will learn from the data using _________ (tool).”
    • Tools you can use that tell you if your metric was successful
      • GlobalGiving Donation Manager – donation rate and amounts
      • link tracker – click rates
      • MailChimp – click rates and links, shows where people clicked
    • Make sure your tactic matches with your goal

Q: What are good click rates?

A: It depends on your email lists – if you know a lot of people on the list or don’t. Use your best performing email as your benchmark.

Q: How does GlobalGiving email donors?

A: Donors sign up for newsletters, we don’t automatically sign them up.

Q: How can organizations communicate to GlobalGiving donors?

A: Through project reports and thank you notes in donation manager. Please DO NOT automatically sign your GlobalGiving donors up for your newsletters or other email appeals. All donors are automatically signed up to receive your project reports when they give, so use it as an opportunity to build relationships with your donors and share updates and appeals! You can see who donates from project reports in your donation manager but please do not add donors automatically to your own communication newsletters.

Q: When should I send out emails/project reports for Bonus Day?

A: It depends on your audience. But we recommend sending out a teaser as part of another email a month before. Send out the Bonus Day announcement a week before. And then a reminder/push email as the Bonus Day begins (9 AM Eastern Time). Do not include links to project page in emails before Bonus Day. Only provide the link to give on Bonus Day to prevent people from giving early (make it easy and clear). If you’re using a project report to make an appeal for Bonus Day, remember that you still have to include an update on your project. You can also schedule project reports to go out on a specific day and time, but try to submit it earlier so it can be approved in time.

*Trend from past session: Personalize your communications! Different groups of donors will respond better to different messaging.

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