Online Fundraising Academy: How to Write Earth-Changing Emails

Online Fundraising Academy: How to Write Earth-Changing Emails

In GlobalGiving’s fifth session of the Online Fundraising Academy, we invited our own Will Frechette, Digital Marketing Specialist, to discuss his efforts to experiment with and learn from GlobalGiving’s donor communications, including important take aways and recommendations. In 2014, Will and his team, which is responsible for telling the stories of GlobalGiving and our partner organizations, raised more than $170,000 from donor emails.

Session Recording:

Session Notes:

Listen, Test, Learn. Repeat.

  • Listen to your users, peers, and theory
  • Test assumptions through experiments
  • Learn from your experiments
  • Do it again! We continuously engage this cycle of learning in order to keep improving communications to our online audience.

How does GlobalGiving Listen, Test, Learn, and Repeat?


Users – Audience who receives your messages

  • Our email newsletter was in need of improvement, so we listened to the feedback our users had. Some of it was direct feedback, but most of it was their behavior (opens, clicks, donations. etc.) in response to the communication. Here’s what we learned works best for OUR audience:

    1. Keep it short – people weren’t looking to read news
    2. Show users what it means to them – why it’s relevant to them and why they should care. Talk about them, not you.
    3. Make it even shorter
    4. User bigger images – combined with #3, it led to more engagement and higher click rates
    5. Use clear images which feature one person making eye-contact with the audience, create an emotional connection with your users
    6. Make it clever and unexpected – we included puns, mixed up the content (different themes and stories), and made our communication funnier
    7. Use a CLEAR call-to-action – clearly define what you want people to do upon reading the email
    8. Personalize it! Based on users’ giving history on our site, we suggest projects that may be a good fit for donors, increasing revenue from our email list. Address users by name, send personalized thank you notes, let users know they’re being thought of.
  • You may be tempted to assume that these lessons will apply to YOUR audience. Don’t assume! Use simple A/ B testing tools in MailChimp and other email providers to test any assumptions about length, photos, etc. to see what works for YOUR audience.

 Peers – Organizations that are similar in work, scope, and size

  • We reached out to some of our peer organizations like charity:water,, and Kiva, to see what works for their email marketing. Here’s what OUR peers had to say:
  • charity:water – emails are well laid-out; include beautiful images; formatted for mobile phones; feature very little text; include interesting lead and subject line text; feature unexpected/humorous (but still large!) call-to-action
  • – personalize subject line so it’s relevant to donor’s location; simple and short; urgent, clear request; emotionally compelling photos
  • Kiva – personalized; clear call-to-action; used a 2 email series – if the user didn’t respond to the first call-to-action, forwarded the email back to the user using a staff member’s name.
    • Further personalizes the email, the format is different from what users usually see

  • What we learned:

    1. Use beautiful imagery – it goes a long way!
    2. Format images and text to look good on mobile devices
    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
  • Using recommendations and ideas from our peers, GlobalGiving has tested many of these lessons in our own email communications. Consider reaching out to YOUR peers–organizations that are similar in work, scope, and size–to hear what they have learned.

Theory – what does the research say?

    1. Increase a donor’s emotional proximity; connect them to ONE person (animal or object)

    2. Tell a compelling story about that ONE person

    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 donors, give them something they can share in with their social network

    4. People give more when it’s easy to do so – make the process of giving as easy as possible.

    5. Not all donors are the same – realize that these tips won’t work for every donor type. Develop different messaging and strategies for different donor types.

 Test, Learn. Repeat.

Now let’s explore a specific example of a GlobalGiving email experiment.

  • GlobalGiving ran an A/B test with two Girl Effect emails (one story, one video), measured the click and conversion rates:

    • Video version had higher open and click rates, the conversion (donation) rate was 2x as much, and the donation amount was 3x as much

    • Our assumption: emails with videos might perform better

  • So we ran another video email test to see if the assumption that videos drive more donations was correct:

    • Though the email still had strong click rates, the conversion rate was much lower

    • Conclusion: the content of the video itself is a big factor when it comes to motivating donors to give

  • When running experiments:

    • Stick to one variable at a time

    • Pick your most important metric – design your test around this

    • Don’t settle on something you learn once – once you think you have come to a conclusion, test that conclusion!

    • Make sure your communications don’t become stale, keep up with what your audience is expecting

    • Keep testing! Keep improving!

 When designing an experiment, consider what you’re looking to measure and what metrics you can use to evaluate the success of the experiment.




How good is the subject line?

Open rates

MailChimp,GG Web Analytics
Does the email content make people want to do more?

Click rates


GG Web Analytics


Does the email (and project page) make people want to give? Conversion (donation) rates


GG Donation Manager

Is the message consistent with the mission? Qualitativefeedback



Design your own experiment:

  • What’s your hypothesis?

    • Make a hypothesis: “I believe that trying ______ (tactic) will lead to higher ______ (open rates OR click rates OR donation rates) from my donors”

  • Tools:

    • Pick your tool: “…I will know if I’m correct because I will learn from the data using _____ (tool)”

    • MailChimp, Emma, Constant Contact

      • MailChimp click map – allows you to see which elements in an email are driving the most clicks; ability to see if people are clicking calls-to-action at the bottom of emails to determine best email lengths

    • GlobalGiving donation manager: track your traffic sources, what’s generating donations? Learn more about the donation manager here.

    • link tracker: create a trackable link, see how many people have clicked on it

Project Reports:

So, how can you apply these lessons to your email communications on GlobalGiving? Project reports are emailed out to your donors

  • Required every three months, reports are emailed to all project donors and are posted on your project page.
  • Reports should be 2-3 paragraphs, and should include a mix of: close-up, high resolution photos; stories from your beneficiaries; progress of your project and accomplishments; impact statistics, specific to your project; a call-to-action
  • Your project report title is the subject line of the email that is sent to your donors.
  • GlobalGiving staff review each report and rate it on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). The ratings are not displayed, but are for your benefit so you can see how your report compares and ways you can improve. Learn more about report ratings here.
  • Use your Web Analytics page in the project entry system to track project report open and click rates.

Q: What are the average numbers for open, conversion, and click rates?

A: It depends on your organization size and the number of people you have on your email list. A great resource to look at is M+R’s 2014 online benchmark report, where you can see different rates that you can apply to your organization based on your context.

This post was written by Destiny Nobles, Program Team Intern.

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