Richard Casson

Email Marketing Manager

How to write a fundraising email: 5 tips for when writer's block strikes

6 mins read

How many of us have been here?

The deadline for your fundraising email is looming. But you’re staring at the screen, stuck for what to write.

45 minutes pass while you sit waiting for inspiration. Still, the page is blank.

It’s a feeling I know all too well. Because in the years I’ve spent writing nonprofit emails, it’s happened to me over and again.

But here’s the good news – today we’re going to take a look at some tried-and-tested techniques to help you shake free from fundraiser’s writing block.

By no means is it an exhaustive list (I’d love to hear from you with ideas to add to it). But I hope it helps when you find yourself stuck.

Tip 1: Look at the data

If you’re working in nonprofit email advocacy or fundraising, chances are you’ve got access to an archive of emails you sent in the past. If you’re really lucky, there could even be hundreds of emails in there.

Buried among them will be plenty of gems. Now you just need to find them.

If your email platform lets you export performance data, your first point of call is to download as much data as you can – going back as far in time as you can.

Once you’ve done this, start combing through the stats. Keep an eye out for the emails with the best open rates, click rates, and donation/conversion rates.

Tracked these down? Great. That means you’ve found the top-performing emails. And you can learn a lot from them.

Now read through the content from each of these top performers. And as you do, look out for:

  • common themes or issues.
  • the language and the story-telling techniques used.
  • the call to action (e.g. monthly gift vs one-off gift).
  • anything else that catches your eye that is likely to have made the email a hit with supporters.

Ask yourself: what can I learn from these emails to carry through to the email I’m working on right now?

Copy some of the content you like and paste it into the email you’re working on. After a little editing, you should now have some words on the page. And by working in this way – using performance data to inform your emails – you’re increasing the chances your next email will be a top performer too.

Tip 2: Choose a topic (and only one topic)

Here’s another familiar scene:

You’re working in nonprofit email marketing, juggling sending out emails about multiple appeals from multiple teams.

You say to yourself: instead of building separate emails for the cake sale, the skydive and the summer appeal – I could save time by squishing everything into one long email, with a feature on each appeal.

If this is you, then first of all – solidarity. I’ve been there myself.

But also if this is you – please stop right now!

Because according to research from Litmus, the average email is only read for 8.97 seconds. That’s just about enough time to read 30 words.

The main thing to take here is: don’t try to cram too much in.

You’ll see better results by segmenting your email list and focusing on a single appeal at a time. And short, punchy emails are easier to write – so less time staring at that blank screen.

Which brings us to the next tip…

Tip 3: Write a fundraising ‘shopping list’

I can’t remember who first told me about the fundraiser’s shopping list. But whoever it was, thank you. It has to be one of the most useful techniques I’ve ever been taught.

Here’s an example of one in action from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust:

£5 could provide food every month for the water vole platforms.

£8 could help place a trail camera to monitor the otters.

£17 could buy a pair of loppers which will allow volunteers to manage the reedbed for marsh harriers, bitterns and bearded tits.

It’s called a shopping list because it lists an item alongside the cost.

It’s such a simple concept. But it’s so powerful because by making it clear how donations are spent, the person reading it can visualise their cash being put to use – in turn making them feel more compelled to give.

The other beautiful thing about shopping lists is that they’re usually pretty straightforward to write (if they’re not, it might mean there are stronger issues your nonprofit could fundraise on). Which means writing one can help you get words on the page fast.

Tip 4: Read emails from other orgs

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

The debate is out on who made that line famous. It might have Pablo Picasso. Or it might have been Steve Jobs.

Whoever it was, there’s something important in that quote.

Now obviously I’m not advocating you head out and rip off other folks. But what to take from this is: almost every great idea is a riff of another great idea.

It’s true for music. It’s true for movie scripts. And it’s absolutely true for direct response fundraising.

One of the best ways to come up with as many ideas as possible is to get them sent directly to your inbox. So, if you’re working in nonprofit email marketing and not already subscribed to at least 30 other nonprofit email lists, then now’s the moment to fix that.

In no particular order, a few brilliant email lists I’d recommend you start with are: All Out, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Charity Water, Refuge and Greenpeace UK.

Subscribe to these today. And then sign up to other lists from outside the sector, like this superbly-written newsletter about spreadsheets or this newsletter about newsletters.

Don’t just stop there. Next, ask your colleagues which emails they enjoy receiving most – and why they enjoy reading them. Subscribe to those too.

Set up a folder just for receiving emails from these lists. And when an email comes through that catches your eye, study it. Unpick the writing style. Think about how you could adapt what you see. When an email comes through that really blows your socks off, favourite it for a later date. Then re-read it the next time you need some inspiration.

Over time, I promise you this will add up. It’ll help you find a style of your own. Eventually it’ll make the difference between writer’s block lasting a full day vs lasting 10 minutes.

Tip 5: Experiment with AI

Using AI tools like ChatGPT for writing fundraising emails comes with some big caveats. First of all, there are ethical issues nonprofits should consider. Secondly, it’s absolutely crucial that content produced by AI is checked for bias.

For those reasons, at this stage we only recommend using AI to help you generate ideas for emails – not for writing emails from start to finish.

Here’s an example prompt that I recently fed into ChatGPT for Save our Oceans (not a real charity, just one I made up for this blog) that’ll help explain how it works:

Please write a fundraising email for Save our Oceans, a nonprofit organisation working to address the many threats our oceans face. The email should be serious in tone, written for a reading age of 14 and use short, punchy sentences. It should also be no more than 300 words long. Ask for the reader to give a donation of £24, which is the average gift other donors have made in 2023.

When I typed this into ChatGPT, a lot of what it came back wasn’t very compelling. And some of it was completely inappropriate.

But a couple of sentences it produced did trigger some ideas:

"Imagine the heartbreaking sight of sea turtles struggling to swim through a treacherous sea of plastic. Their once pristine home has become a deadly trap, endangering their very existence."

These sentences resonated with me. The image of sea turtles swimming through plastic is emotive. I could imagine reading that in a fundraising email and feeling compelled to donate.

Crucially, it made me consider: what else could I write about the threats to marine life? What other emotive language could I use in an email like this?

This is what I mean by using AI to help create ideas. It shouldn’t be used to write an entire email. But in those moments when you’re staring at a blank page, it can help you move forward.

If you’re still stuck…

As I write this, we are working on a guide to build upon the tips in this guide, adding in several more tactics too. It’s called 20 Tactics To Supercharge Your Fundraising Emails and will be available to download for free in autumn 2023.

If you’d like us to let you know when it’s ready, join our email list and we’ll make sure you’re the first to receive a free copy.