Nonprofit Email Marketing: Subject Line Strategies to Improve Open Rates

6 min read
June 21, 2021
Brady Josephson
VP of Innovation and Optimization, NextAfter

When it comes to online fundraising, nonprofit email marketing is one of, if not the, biggest drivers of online revenue.

When we do data audits we see this time and time again for organizations working in different areas and of differing sizes. So email fundraising is valuable and should be core to your online fundraising efforts.

Today, I won’t go into all the things required for great nonprofit email marketing, like email acquisition, but rather focus on one thing: writing great subject lines. There are many reasons why people don’t read your emails and one of the biggest is that they don’t even open them and the subject line can play a crucial role in changing that.

The Subject Line

Before we dive into some subject line ideas based on our research, we first have to understand how people are using subject lines. It, along with the preview text, sender line, reply email, and date, is a key element of the ‘email envelope’ — what you see before you actually open the email — and it’s the email envelope that you and I use, even unknowingly, to triage our inboxes.

There are really two strategies to writing subject lines:

  1. You appeal to the topic
  2. You appeal to the conversation

It can be tough for many nonprofits to appeal to the topic as it requires you to know a lot about your person you are sending to so you can be extra relevant. And, often, the topic you want to discuss, may not be the most top of mind for the recipient.

So instead I’ll focus on how you can appeal to the conversation — gives the reader the impression that the conversation itself is worth getting into without going into the topic very much at all — which relies on using conversational cues.

5 Key Levers to Write Great Subject Lines

1. Mystery

This leaves people wanting to know more and invokes their sense of curiosity.

Let’s take a look at an experiment we ran using mystery where the first email is from the Founder of the organization and a frequent sender of emails. In it, she’s trying to be kind of cute and establish a connection through moms.

This example does not illustrate a benefit very clearly.

The second is from another user on the site who hasn’t sent an email before. In it, she uses a personalized statement that doesn’t really say too much about what the email is.

An example of a subject line that appeals to the conversation.

The end result: the second email got 137% more opens.

Key Point: To activate the element of mystery, you need to leave just enough information out of the subject line concerning the topic.

2. Utility

This gives people a sense that they will benefit from your email and what you are offering. Take this experiment for example where the first email is trying to show what you get:

This example does not illustrate a benefit very clearly.

While the second email is much more clear with what you get (and when you can get it):

This subject line clearly communicates the benefit and encourages the reader to open the email.

The second email increased opens 71.6%.

Now if you’re asking for money it may seem like you aren’t offering anything but rather taking. If that’s your view of giving then fundraising is going to be hard as giving is a great gift that makes people feel happy and makes some kind of difference in the world.

So there are two benefits you could feature in a subject line: what they get in terms of happiness or what their gift does in terms of impact in the world.

Key point: To activate the element of utility, you need to imply that there is something useful to them or their special interest: a benefit, a gift, content that progresses them, or even a favor.

3. You

This is one of the most magical words in fundraising. Using ‘you’ has been a stable strategy for copywriting and particularly for direct mail for years and it’s a strategy that is still hugely useful for emails and subject lines.

Remember the example from above for mystery with the “You Amaze Me, Jeff” subject line? That experiment shows the power of ‘you’ as well as how ‘you’ can be used with mystery.

It can also be used with utility. In one experiment, we simply changed the subject line from ‘Time Is Running Out to Get Your Free CD’ (utility) to ‘Our Gift to Thank You – A Free CD’ (utility + ‘you’) and it increased opens 49%.

Key point: To activate the element of you, you need to imply that this email was made specifically for them, either by using the word “you,” using their name, or writing it so it feels personally addressed.

4. Recency

This involves using time reliance and things like days of the week, time-based salutations, and words like ‘yesterday’, ‘today, and ‘tomorrow’. This helps increase the sense of urgency someone feels because it is time-based and when done right helps with relevance.

Many emails you send are time reliant in one way or another — when you’re sending, what the content is about, when they need to respond, etc. — so just by adding in that fact can increase your open rate.

Key Point: To activate the element of recency, you need to use a word that implies your email covers something recent and/or newsworthy.

5. Authenticity

This is a hugely important one as one of the main goals for your fundraising is to come across like a human talking to humans – not an email marketing machine.

Here’s an example experiment where adding in the more urgent and sales focused copy, ‘Don’t wait another minute’, decreased opens 28%:

This example does not use urgent, sales-y messaging and stays true to the organization's voice.
This email's subject line performed worse than the other, because it features off-brand messaging.

Key point: To activate the element of authenticity, you need to avoid phrases or word pairs that come off as opportunistic.


If you want to send better emails and raise more money from them, you have to first get people to open your email. The subject line plays a critical role in your open rate.

By taking a conversational approach and using those 5 key levers, you have a better chance of standing out in a crowded inbox, having your donors engage with your content, and, possibly, going on to make a donation.

One response to “Nonprofit Email Marketing: Subject Line Strategies to Improve Open Rates”

  1. Good info! Thought of what I’m going to use in my subject line for my fundraising!

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