Think of the email inbox as an exclusive party.  And you’ve managed to get an invitation (which in this metaphor means your reader signed up for your email newsletter).  Now there’s a reason you got invited to this party in the first place, and if you go to the party and act in accordance with expectations, there’s a good chance you’ll be invited back next time.  But if you’re obnoxious and off-putting, you may be waiting around for that next invite for quite a while.

If you’ve set up an email newsletter for your nonprofit, that’s a great start.  But it doesn’t do you a whole lot of good if no one opens your emails.  It’s not easy to get people to read your emails.  One study found that 80% of emails that ultimately are deleted get the ax within 3 seconds.  You don’t have much time.

Hopefully some of the tips in this article will help get your email newsletter opened more frequently and ultimately be more of an asset to your nonprofit.

But first, something to remember.

Email Opens Are a Means to An End

Sometimes we get a bit too caught up in measuring metrics that don’t actually correspond to organizational goals, or really even have any meaning in and of themselves.

Existing alone, an email open does not matter.

It’s when that email open is successfully driving towards another, impactful organizational goal that it can have a lot of meaning.  Remember, your goal is “the why” behind sending the email in the first place, not the fact that it’s opened.  Email opens are a means to another, more important and impactful end.

Examples of such ends include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Donors giving to your nonprofit
  • Volunteers signing up to help out
  • Guests registering for an event
  • People spreading the word about your organization or your cause
  • Brand recognition amongst members of the community
  • Cultivation of ongoing, meaningful relationships with supporters

Figure out your goals, and celebrate email opens as a step towards achieving them.

Now how can you take that first step and actually get your emails opened?  Here are some ideas.

Focus on the Benefits to Your Reader

Your readers get a ton of email.  They’re much more likely to open your message if you give them a compelling benefit they’ll get from reading it.  Don’t focus on yourself.  Focus on your reader.  Why will they care about what you have in your email?  Tell them clearly in the subject line and those that are interested will read on.

Segment Your List

There’s a much better chance someone will open your email if they’re actually interested in what it is you’re sending their way.  But this can get tough since different groups of readers will want different info from you.

It’s for this reason that segmenting your email list is so important.  Segmenting your list means breaking your entire list into smaller subgroups based on some criteria.  One great way to do this is to allow your users to select their interests when signing up (of course this offering depends on the functionality your email provider allows with regards to customizing a signup form).

Segmenting your list can significantly improve your open rates while diminishing the likelihood readers will get frustrated by emails they don’t care about.  With a segmented list, you can send emails only to those that indicated they’re interested in receiving info about a specific topic.

Make Your Subjects Short

The best practice here is to keep your email subjects under 50 characters.

They should not be much longer than this sentence

That sentence is 49 characters, including spaces.  As you can see, that’s not a lot of real estate to work with.

What I’d suggest is don’t initially worry about the character limit.  Write out your ideal subject first, then start cutting it down.  Get your message right, then work on the delivery.

Be Honest About What’s In Your Email

Your reader signed up for your email newsletter because they had some level of interest in your nonprofit or what you had to say.  Show them their interest is justified by telling them clearly in the subject line what to expect if they open your email.  Remember, an email open has no value unless it leads to some other desired outcome.

As Brian Clark points out, the relationship between an email recipient and your organization is predicated on trust.  And violating this trust is not something you want to do.  True, having a misleading subject may cause more people to open your email.  But you’ll likely notice your higher open rate coinciding with a higher unsubscribe rate as well.

As cliché as it is, honesty is the best policy when it comes to email subjects.

Ditch the CAPS and Exclamation Marks

Most email clients will mark emails that have excessive CAPS or exclamation marks in the subject line as spam.  If you somehow make it through spam filters, subjects with CAPS and exclamation marks just look like yelling.  And your readers don’t want to open an email that’s yelling at them.

Consider Using Numbers in Your Subject Lines

Some suggest using numbers in subject lines can help increase the likelihood that users will open your email.  Lisa Sparks, who works at Constant Contact, says in her opinion numbers can help suggest to your reader that the content in your email is going to be “easily digestible,” thus increasing the likelihood they’ll open it.  For example, “5 Tips to Reduce Your Energy Consumption” is better than “Reducing Your Energy Consumption.”

Personally I’m not ready to advocate for you to always include numbers in your subject lines.  Lisa’s suggestion makes sense, but it’s pretty easy for a headline with numbers to turn gimmicky pretty quickly.  I’d recommend testing it for yourself.  Send out an email newsletter with a number in the subject line and see how it affects your open rate.  You can use the data to inform future decisions.

More on data in just a moment.

Don’t Try To Sell in Your Subject Line

MailChimp says it so well:

“the best subject lines tell what’s inside, and the worst subject lines sell what’s inside.”

Certain words just conjure up mental images of a sleazy salesman.  You don’t want to be that sleazy salesman.  Instead of trying to make your email sound incredible, just tell your reader what’s inside.  If they’re interested in what you’ve included, they’ll open it.

It’s important to avoid using what sales strategist Jill Konrath calls “delete-inducing words.”  These words include:

  • Exciting
  • State-of-the-art
  • Solution
  • Partner
  • Leading edge
  • Passion
  • Unique
  • One-stop shopping

Additionally, both Boomerang (who makes email plugins) and MailChimp crunched their respective numbers on millions of emails to see which keywords in subject lines correlated with the lowest open rates.  Here are some more words you should probably try to avoid:

  • Help
  • Percent off
  • Reminder
  • Confirm
  • Join
  • Assistance
  • Speaker
  • Press
  • Social
  • Invite

Use Your Data and Experiment

Data doesn’t lie.  It’s not swayed by personal beliefs or subconscious bias.  In order to measure the effectiveness of any email campaign, your nonprofit needs to be relying heavily on the feedback you’re getting from your data.

When it comes to subject lines for email newsletters, there’s no formula for what will work with your readers.  So experiment.  Keep in mind the techniques discussed throughout this article, but view them as a starting point.  Take a chance on a subject line and measure its effectiveness.  If it works, great!  Use elements from it in the future.  If it flops, and you will have flops if you’re truly experimenting, figure out what you should avoid in the future.

The key is to find what’s right for both your nonprofit organization and your readers.  If you’re consistently providing valuable content to your readers, I’m sure your subject lines will be just fine.


MailChimp for Nonprofits – MailChimp

Best Practices in Writing Email Subject Lines – MailChimp

How do I know if I’m writing a good subject line? – MailChimp

6 Tips for Better Subject Lines – Constant Contact

Get It Read: 7 Tips for Writing Better Email Subject Lines – Sitepoint

The Three Key Elements of Irresistible Email Subject Lines – Copyblogger

7 Tips for Writing E-mails That Won’t Get Deleted – Inc

Want People to Return Your Emails? Avoid These Words – Mashable