Does Email Fundraising Really Raise Money?

Exclamation SignI thought it was going to be easy. Yes, I know, famous last words, but I really did.

In a post early last week, I asked whether or not we should do a year-end fundraising appeal.

We received many responses to that post (sadly, most of those responses were off-line – what is it about some questions that leads to the responses coming off the blog?).  Some, like the comments by Alexandra Peters and Mark Riffey here, gave us great stuff to consider as we made the decision. Virtually all the other responses encouraged us to go for it.

And so, figuring we had nothing to lose, we decided to do a combined social media / email / snail mail appeal, and see what happens.

Getting Started
When Dimitri and I founded and ran Tucson’s Diaper Bank, our direct mail campaigns were highly successful, and so we weren’t worried about that aspect of the campaign. And since then, we’ve proven we could raise money through social media, as we did to purchase the domain names for Creating the Future earlier this year.

But email fundraising? The fundraising Dimitri and I did for the Diaper Bank was 10 years ago, before most organizations even had email (forget actually using it for fundraising!).

And so I thought (silly me) that I would find samples of great email appeals, adapt our considerable experience from our Diaper Bank days, and be up and running.

How to Write An Effective Email Appeal
My first step was obviously to ask for samples of effective email appeal letters. I defined effective as “an appeal that met or exceeded the fundraising goal for that appeal.”

I asked on Twitter and Facebook. I asked on Listservs where consultants gather. I asked individuals who had been professional fundraisers for a very long time.

In response, I received zero samples of effective appeal letters. People suggested websites where I could learn how to do an appeal. They forwarded appeals they had thought interesting (but most them not interesting enough for that person to have donated).

After a while, the tone of my tweeting and Facebook notes changed. Here is what I posted this morning:

For 3 days I’ve been seeking samples of successful email appeal letters, with virtually no response. Can it be that email is less effective at raising money than we’ve been led to think?

The response to that post was interesting. Marketing and communications consultant Clover Frederick noted the following:

I don’t have any samples handy but certainly, the trend has been that email appeals are good for small donations of specific amounts (often related to something in particular.) For instance, one of my organizations requested donations of $15 – each would provide a safe taxi ride home on St. Patrick’s day. Somehow, people don’t mind getting out their credit card for that rather than for big end-of-year donations.

And Marcia White, Director of Community Development Philanthropy at Nebraska Community Foundation posted this:

Funnily enough, research shows that hard copy letters are more effective at driving online donations.

Once Again Being the Guinea Pig
It has been our mission this year to transparently share our work with you all. We are doing this for a variety of reasons, the most important in our minds being a matter of walking our own talk, putting The Pollyanna Principles into practice.

If we are all truly interconnected and interdependent, and if being the change we want to see really does mean walking the talk of our values (two of the Pollyanna Principles) – and if keeping those principles front of mind as we do our work increases the likelihood of that work effecting change – then engaging with authenticity and transparency about our work seems the only logical course to take.

There are two additional reasons we have chosen to do our work by engaging transparently.

  1. We want to prove it is not only possible to work in this way, but that it is more effective (and more fun!).
  2. By engaging discussion about our work in this way, we all get to learn together.

So that’s our plan – to share every step of this campaign, to share openly what works and what doesn’t.

In the next few days I will share our dollar goal. I’ll share our approach – who we are targeting in the mailings, our reasoning, and the content of those emails. We’ll be asking for your ideas about those emails (unless, due to our tight timing, they will have already gone out, and then we’ll ask you to armchair quarterback what you would have done…).

Then together, we can all see what works and what doesn’t. We can cheer or groan together, and most importantly, we can learn together.

So if you have samples of successful email fundraising letters to share – emails that have met or exceeded your dollar goals – please share those with me. (My email is – please make the subject line “Sample Email Appeal” so I don’t confuse it with all the spam I get at this time of year.)

And please, make a donation right here now. Let’s start this campaign off with a bang!

I can’t wait to see how it all goes, and what we all learn – together!

6 Responses to Does Email Fundraising Really Raise Money?

  1. My take? The reason you don’t see a lot of examples of great email appeals is because nonprofits typically don’t know how to do it right – but that isn’t specific to email marketing. How many of the direct mail letters that you’ve opened in the past month or so have truly EXCITED you? Truth is, the majority of nonprofit direct mail is bad. Can I tell you that for nearly every letter that arrives in my mailbox I’m tempted to take a red pen, mark it up and send it back? Email marketing is very similar to direct mail in terms of compelling headlines, DONOR-centric copy and action steps – with the main difference being length. Oh, and, just like all sound donor-centered fundraising, organizations cannot expect to send out one email and expect to see money rolling in – if they haven’t built the relationship over time to begin with.

    Here’s a TERRIFIC resource: – Katya, over at Network for Good has asked for examples of year end email appeals. Organizations who are doing email marketing right include Best Friends Animal Society (see my article on one campaign here: and the NY Restoration Project.

  2. Agree with the idea that emails are good for small asks over a discrete period of time. Another thought, fundraising via email often requires a series of emails sent over the course of a campaign. Social Actions’ $20,000 for 2009 campaign used three: the first went into the most detail about what and why; the second less so; the third was shortest – a 2-3 line reminder just as the deadline approached.

  3. Hildy – Thanks for the interesting and honest questions. I look forward to hearing the results of your campaign.

    I think what we’ve seen to date is that it’s a combination of traditional and email solicitations that work best these days, and for good or for bad, you can’t do one without the other. The integrated approach is what seems to be working for many organizations although much is based trial and error and identifying the particular strategy that works for your organization’s audience and donor base.

    The key is to keep all approaches as personal as possible. Have email solicitations forwarded by board members, staff members and supporters so that recipients are more likely to open it, because it comes from a friend or colleague.

  4. Hi Hildy,

    I guess I didn’t realize you were looking for EMAIL examples. I raised $100,000 primarily through email about 10 years ago. I’ll make sure you get a copy of what we used.

    As for transparency, I think all our fundraising should be transparent. But you’re going a step further and publishing it. Thank you!

  5. Im really really pressed for time today (wife’s birthday, geek deadlines, youngest just home from college) so Ill just stir the pot briefly and move along for now.

    When you first asked, I didnt realize you planned a mixed media campaign – that was going to be my first WTH? 🙂

    People spend a ton of time crafting direct mail (as they should) but seems like they spend almost no time crafting email to the same person. The cost-to-send isnt the issue, regardless of the media.

    What would be in an email you’d like to get? What would make YOU stop what you are doing right now write a big check? Or for that matter, a small check? Would an early in the relationship email do that?

    Seems unlikely.

    What would make you forward a fundraising email to Lizzie, Dimitri or myself?

    And how does the email fit in with the rest of the campaign? (email, social, direct mail, whatever else) Is the email a follow up? Is it the first follow up or a last gasp? Obv, I think there should be more than one in the conversation.

    I dont see a lot of well-written fundraising emails. Ok, I havent seen ANY, as yet, but I dont see any good direct mail fundraising pitches either.

    Make me cry. Make me stop everything and look for my checkbook. Send me something so compelling that I forward it to everyone I know.

    Youll be the first:)