How to Increase Your Email Open Rate by 14%

Email Open Rates.

A client of ours started sending monthly “e-stories” last November. And since November, their average email open rate has increased from 24% to 38%.

Most organizations would sacrifice a Board member for a 14% increase in open rates!

So you might ask, “What’s an e-story?”

An e-story is a low-fi, simply-formatted email from your E.D. to your donors. It tells one “before and after” story.

Here’s the outline:

  1. Warm, personal greeting
  2. Directly tell the donor that you are going to tell them a story that’s a good example of how their gift made a difference
  3. Tell a “before and after” story from your organization’s work
  4. Reaffirm to the donor that they helped make that ‘before and after’ happen
  5. Let the donor know that they can give again if they’d like to
  6. Thank the donor for their generosity

You want your e-stories to look like they came from your E.D.’s personal email. No formatting, no header image, no photo, no links to social, you get it.

It should feel personal.

Why E-stories?

Most “reporting” to donors via email answers questions that nobody is asking.

Typical “e-news” or “e-newsletters” have abysmal open rates. No one was reading them.

So how can organizations fulfill the need to “report back on a donor’s gift” via email?

If they aren’t reading the e-newsletters, that means e-newsletters aren’t relevant for most donors.

So we asked ourselves, “What would be relevant to most donors?”

Telling and showing the donor that their gift made a difference.

The Results

Your e-stories will raise more money than your e-newsletter.

Your e-stories will have higher open rates than your e-newsletter.

Your e-stories will cause more engagement than your e-newsletter (you’ll know this because of the replies and feedback you’ll receive).

Some organizations have been able to cease their e-newsletter all together. (And there was much rejoicing!)


It all comes down to relevance. The organization I mentioned found that e-stories contained information that was relevant to their donors. (After all, donors want to know what their gift did more than they want to know what your organization is up to.)

When the content of the email was more relevant, more people opened the emails. And now, because their donors are more likely to find relevant content in their emails, their donors open all of their emails at a higher rate.

You can guess what’s going to happen next:

More relevant emails → higher open rates

Higher open rates → more people reading their fundraising

More people reading their fundraising → more people giving

More people giving → more mission work done!

Go look at your organization’s email communications. Are you reporting in a powerful, relevant way? If not, add a few e-stories. You’ll be glad you did!

Note: if you want me to walk you through creating an e-story (or donor reporting letter) for your organization, there’s inexpensive training at Work Less Raise More.

Should You Sponsor or Start a Podcast?


I’ve been asked some form of the following question three times in the last week:

“We want to get new donors, and we’re thinking about sponsoring a podcast.  What do you think?”

Spoiler alert: the short answer is “probably not.”   

There’s nothing wrong with sponsoring or even starting a podcast. However, it’s likely that the cost for each donor you acquire via a podcast will likely be higher than the cost to acquire a donor through more traditional methods.

In short, there are three main reasons why…

#1 – Most Donors Are Old, Most Podcast Listeners Are Young

The most recent Blackbaud study shared that the average age of a donor in the United States is 67 years old.  (It’s good to recognize that this means half of the donors are older than 67.)

And according to, only 22% of podcast listeners are over 55.

Right there we have an immediate mismatch. Generally speaking, nonprofits generally want older donors because older donors tend to give more, and tend to be donors for longer lengths of time. But the audience for podcasts is younger donors – who tend to give less, and for shorter lengths of time.

Is there anything wrong with this? No. But targeting younger people tends to be a less efficient use of resources.

#2 – But Steven, We Need Younger Donors, This Is Great!

The “but we need younger donors!” argument was part of all three conversations I had.

But it doesn’t hold much water.

For most organizations, the average length of time a donor will give to the organization is about 5 years.

So, say you sponsor a podcast and you’re acquiring donors who average about 35 years old.

Most of those donors will have left your organization by the time they are about 40 years old.  That’s roughly 25 years before they enter their prime giving years. 

Is there anything wrong with this?  No.  Will you have raised some money and acquired some “younger donors?”  Sure. 

But if you have limited resources, wouldn’t you rather acquire 60-year-old donors who would give more and for longer periods? 

#3 – Donating Is A Little Harder

In the context of listening to a podcast, there’s a little bit more “friction” between a person and their donation than there is compared to traditional fundraising channels.

For instance:

  • When a person reading your letter wants to give a gift, the reply card and reply envelope are right there
  • When a person reading your email wants to give a gift, they click on a link
  • When a person listening to a podcast wants to donate, they have to press “stop” on the podcast, then they have to search for the link to your donation page.  This assumes that the link is in the show notes and that the notes are included in the app the person is using to listen to the podcast. 

Is there anything wrong with this? No, it can still work. But always pay attention to friction – it matters far more than most people think.

There Are Exceptions

It’s easy to think of two exceptions to this advice:

  • Organizations whose donor base is overwhelmingly younger, like many social justice organizations.  If the average age of your donors is 35, then a channel that reaches that audience makes sense.
  • Organizations that have already maximized the ROI from traditional donor acquisition channels, but still require more new donors to meet organizational goals, so are willing to expand outside of the “tried and true.”

I’m sure there are more exceptions.

If you’re considering getting in the podcast game, those two exceptions are probably good “starting filters” to see if it makes sense for your organization.

Be “Platform Agnostic”

The three hard-won lessons I’m trying to share really have nothing to do with podcasts:

  1. There are lots of ways to acquire new donors
  2. Each one has a different audience and a different return on investment
  3. When our resources are limited, it’s our job to figure out how to get the best return

Be “platform agnostic.” It doesn’t matter which platform or media channel you or your friends prefer, or what would be “cool” to do. What matters is looking at all the available choices and making the best choice for your organization.

Sometimes that means making unsexy choices. Sometimes that means alienating younger members of the fundraising team. Sometimes it means pissing off the spouse of the board member who has strong feelings.

It means looking at all the options. Estimating the ROI of your possible choices. And then achieving as much of your mission and vision as you can.

Outline for newsletter stories


Here’s the outline we follow for newsletter stories.

It’s remarkably simple, and it does two powerful things:

  1. It makes your newsletter easier and faster to write, because you have a model to follow
  2. It makes sure each story helps you achieve the purpose of your newsletter

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Simple Newsletter Outline


  • Summarize the situation the beneficiary was in
  • Tell the donor the situation changed because of them
  • Summarize the positive situation the beneficiary is in today


  • Tell the beneficiary’s “story” as above, but go into more depth


  • Thank the donor for making the transformation (from “before” to “after”) possible
  • Thank the donor for caring about the beneficiary enough to take action to help

Note: most newsletter stories are between 150 and 250 words. So the number of paragraphs will vary depending on the length of the story.

The Power of This Approach

When you use this approach, your donor doesn’t have to read more than the first paragraph to get your newsletter’s main messagethat the donor’s gift made a meaningful difference in the life of one person or for your cause.

At Better Fundraising, we assume that 80% of the people who open your newsletter will only read the headlines, picture captions, and a paragraph or two. For those people (4 out of 5!), you want to do everything you can to ensure they still get your main message.

Other nonprofits will make their donors wade through tons of words to find out whether the donors’ gifts made a difference. Sometimes the donor will never find out. I’ve seen newsletters where the donor is never even mentioned.

But by following this model, you and your organization will communicate your main message to almost every person who opens your newsletter. That’s a huge win!

Repeat This Formula in Every Story

When a donor opens your newsletter, you don’t know which story (or stories) they’re going to read. So you want to use this formula for every story so – whatever they read – they get the message that their gift made a difference.

This approach will feel repetitive to you – since you see every story. But most of your donors won’t read every story.

It will feel repetitive to your staff and core stakeholders (like your board) because they’re far more likely than most donors to open every newsletter and read every story.

But Remember

Your newsletter is not for you, your staff, or your core stakeholders. It’s a communication vehicle to show the remaining 95% of your donors that their gift made a meaningful difference.

Why is showing donors that they made a meaningful difference so important?

So that they can trust that giving a gift to your organization makes a real difference

So that they’re more likely to give you a gift the next time you ask

So that they’re more likely to keep giving to you year after year

So that they’re more likely to become a major donor

So that they’re more likely to leave you a gift in their will

So no pressure… but make sure your newsletter shows each donor that their gift made a meaningful difference. And one of the most powerful ways to do that is to write the stories following this outline.

To learn LOTS more about how to make your newsletter as effective as possible, download our free e-book, “10 Steps to Create a Money-Raising, Donor-Delighting Print Newsletter”

This post was originally published on March 3, 2020.

Not All Good, Not All Bad


Fundraising shouldn’t be all good news, and it shouldn’t be all bad news.

Your stream of fundraising communications should feature both.

Asking for gifts (appeals, e-appeals) works best when it shares the bad news: the problem or negative situation that your organization works on. That truth about what’s happening reveals the tension donors hold between what the world is like today and what they want the world to be. 

That tension causes a lot of people to donate.

Reporting (newsletters) works best when it shares the good news: examples of how your organization made a difference.  It brings real joy to donors to see the triumphs that their gift made possible – and many will want to give again to do more good and feel more joy. 

Those triumphs will also cause people to donate.

Rules To Live By

Here’s what we’ve noticed…

If you share only bad news, you’ll raise less than you could raise. When we serve organizations who previously only shared the bad news, they raise more money when they incorporate Reports that share the good news.

If you share only good news, you’ll raise less than you could raise. When we serve organizations who previously only shared the good news, they raise more money when their appeals and e-appeals share the problem or negative situation their organization works on.

Finally, in the context of direct response fundraising, each piece of communication should focus on only one type of news. When we’ve served organizations who previously “mixed together” the good news and bad news in each piece of fundraising, they raise more money when their appeals and e-appeals share the bad news, and their newsletters share the good news.

We wish it weren’t that way, because it means that organizations must share tough needs and tough stories. And they must be disciplined about what they put in each piece of communication. But this approach helps the organizations we serve to raise a great deal more money. 

Greatest Hit: Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Newsletter Article

The following post is one of the most popular posts in the history of this blog.

I’m reposting it because you might be new to the blog, or you might be like me and need to hear a piece of advice more than once before it really sinks in.

This post proved helpful to thousands of people, I hope it’s helpful for you!

The first sentence of every newsletter story is really important.

Don’t do what most nonprofits do. They assume that all donors read to the end of all articles. I routinely review newsletters where the most powerful parts of the stories are in the last paragraphs – where very few people will see it. Because all the eye-tracking studies show that most donors don’t “read” your newsletter. They scan it.

So, you want to work hard on the first sentence of your newsletter articles and stories. If the donor likes your first sentence, she’s more likely to read your second sentence, and so on.

And you don’t have to be a “writer” to make the first sentences of your newsletter sing. But you do have to think about them differently. I have 25 years experience that testifies that the following ‘ways of thinking differently’ about how your start your newsletter articles will help you raise more money.

Keep it simple

Make it short and easy to read. No long sentences. No complex sentences with multiple clauses. Your reader should be halfway into the second sentence before she realizes it.

Now you have momentum. Now you have a greater chance your donor is going to get the message you’re sending her.

Good Example: “Ebola took everything Elisabeth had.”

It’s not about your organization

The first sentence of any newsletter article should never be about your organization or staff.

The most successful newsletters are written with the purpose of showing your donor what her gift accomplished. Not to talk about all of the things you’ve been doing or have coming up. Because more people are reading your newsletter wondering “I wonder if my gift made a difference?” than are wondering “I wonder what the organization has been working on?”

So, your first sentence should be about the donor, or about a beneficiary.

(And remember: as your donor is deciding whether to read your story or not, she is in a hurry and has other things asking for her attention. So, if your first sentence is about your organization or staff, she’s just not as likely to keep reading.)

After all, would you be more likely to keep reading if the story was about something amazing you helped do, or something an organization you support is working on?

Bad Example: “After landing in the capital city of Kinshasa, The Democratic Republic of Congo, our team traveled inland to a village outside the town of Kivuvu.” Why would a busy donor keep reading?

Good Example: “Thanks to you, Sarah’s life turned completely around.” Bonus points for including the donor and a beneficiary in the very first sentence!

It’s the start of a summary

I need to do an entire post on writing newsletter stories. But here’s one of my tricks; the first paragraph is often a summary of the whole article.

Why? Because most people are not going to read the whole article, but you still want them to get the message you’re trying to send. So if you summarize the message in a compelling way two great things happen:

  1. More people get the message you’re sending
  2. More people will read the whole thing

Good Example: “Your gift did something simple but life changing for a mother named Teri Maes, and you might have saved the lives of her two sons.” This one is a little long, but it summarizes the whole story AND includes the donor!

Don’t start with a statistic

In a nutshell, experts love statistics. But donor’s don’t.

Experts like you, your staff, and your incredible program people love statistics. Statistics are meaningful to experts because they provide context, show progress, and show expertise.

But that’s not what most donors are looking for. They are looking for a quick, easy way to know whether their gift to your organization made a difference. That’s usually a story of a beneficiary, with a little editorial content for how the donor’s gift helped the beneficiary.

Starting with a statistic immediately reduces the number of people who will keep reading because it asks the donor to understand something new and then understand why it’s important or helpful. That’s a lot to ask of a non-expert donor who is moving fast.

She’d rather read a story, my friend. So start with a story.

Bad Example: “Only one in nine children in our great state will ever go to a symphony.”

Drama! Action! Peril!

I’m going to quote my post on appeal letters on this one:

“Fill it with drama or make it interesting to your donor. Drama and tension are two of the best tools you have for engaging their interest. Or make it something that would be interesting to your donor – which is likely something different than would be interesting to you!”

My best one-liner about this is, “You want to write like the National Inquirer, not National Geographic.” That probably over-dramatizes it, but drama and emotion catch people’s interest. Most nonprofits assume they have their donor’s interest – and that’s a bad assumption.

Bad Example: “Drs. Martha and Robert Bryant strive to use their medical practice to make an impact.” Who are those people? Why should the donor keep reading?

Good Example: “The first night Jacqueline went to community theater, her life changed in the second act.”

So as you go to work on your next newsletter, here’s what I hope you’ll remember:

  1. Very few people will read an entire newsletter article. So get to the point very quickly, summarize it, then tell the full scope of the story.
  2. To increase the chances that your donor will read more, make your first sentence easy to read and interesting to her!

This post was originally published on February 2, 2018.

How Email Increases How Much Your Direct Mail Raises


Savvy nonprofits use email to win the hearts of their donors in between the organization’s printed appeals and newsletters.

They use email to tell great stories. To report back to donors on the impact their previous gift had. To ask for a donor’s preferences. Email is how they keep their name on a donor’s lips.

Their donors become more familiar with the nonprofit. Their donors like the nonprofit more.

So when an appeal arrives, the donors are more likely to open the envelope, and are more likely to give a gift.

If your organization can become a familiar voice in your donors’ inboxes – a voice who tells wonderful stories of the impact the donor has had and is having – you’ll move onto their “automatic recall” list.

And not only will you raise more with your printed appeals and newsletters, you’ll also get more gifts out of the blue.

Because when a donor gets an inheritance from her Aunt and she wants to make a gift, or she receives a bonus at work and wants to give back, it’s your organization’s name she’ll remember first.

I know it’s hard for nonprofits with fewer resources to write and send out more emails. If that’s you, I’d remind you no donor out there is hoping for another professional-sounding email in a pastel-colored email template with links to everything.

But donors are absolutely interested in a personal, relevant email about things they care about. And because they’ve given a gift to your organization, you know they care about whatever your organization works on.

A simple, text-only email once a month from your founder or ED will go a long way to building relationship.

If you’re up for it: a simple, text-only email once a month with a short story about how the world is a better place because of your organization and the donor – this will go even further to build the relationship.

Keep it simple. Each email is not precious. Get into the habit of regular email communications with your donors and ALL of your fundraising will do better!

Bragging is not Reporting (example)


In our experience, most organizations don’t Report enough (especially to major donors). And when they do, they focus on what the organization did, on the organization’s role in the story.

We call that bragging. As in, “Our programs provided holistic care to 345 people…”

That leads to “Ask, Thank, Brag, Repeat” instead of the far more successful “Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat.” Remember … focus on your donor’s role in the story, not your organization’s!

Example Time

Here’s part of a newsletter story – a Report – that a client of ours sent to donors a couple months prior to working with us. Notice the bragging.

  • Our Dentists on the Road Program provides free, urgent dental care to low-income children and adults who lack insurance or a realistic way to pay for treatment. The service is provided in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. Our fleet of dental vans provides up to 30 clinics per week.

    Last year with the help of dedicated volunteers, we provided approximately $5 worth of care to patients for every $1 invested in the program.

    In 2017, our 12 Nebraska Dentists on the Road vans treated more than 17,000 people. These people are no longer battling the intense pain and preventing future systemic complications associated with advanced dental diseases as well as socio-economic challenges associated with severe dental problems.

    Children from lower-income families are almost twice as likely to have decay as those from higher-income families, yet they face disproportionately high barriers to receiving care. While in theory all Nebraska children are covered by Healthy Kids insurance, there are many reasons why they may be having trouble accessing it, such as difficulty finding providers that will accept it.

Notice how:

  • The donor is never mentioned?
  • There’s a lot of numbers, medical jargon and education?
  • Notice that when you run into all that detail you start to skip ahead? So do your donors.

Now look at the next time we talked about this program. We told the story of one person who had been helped, we prominently mentioned the donor’s role, and we gave the donor the credit:

  • Emergency Root Canal Saved Schoolgirl’s Tooth!

    Your kind gift helped save the smile of 14-year-old Cecelia who needed urgent dental work.

    When Cecelia bumped her tooth, it seemed like a harmless accident.

    Her mother thought the soreness and swelling would go away, but the pain went from bad to worse and Cecelia begged to stay home from school.

    But thanks to your gift, Cecelia was able to be helped by the Dentists on the Road program.

    It turned out that Cecelia had nerve damage and an infection in one of…

There are a handful of things to notice here, all of which work together to make this an effective Report. This story:

  • Focuses on a person, not a program.
  • Quickly summarizes the need, then showed the donor how they helped meet that need.
    • We do this because eye-tracking studies show that most donors don’t read the whole story.
  • Directly credits the donor for causing the transformation.
  • The language and paragraphs are simpler and easier to read quickly.

Now your donor knows – at a glance – that her gift made a difference. And she is more likely to give to your organization again.

Prior to working with us, this organization didn’t keep performance results for each newsletter. So, we don’t know exactly how much the new version outperformed the old.


…after applying these guidelines for 6 months their net fundraising revenue was up 53%!

This post is excerpted from the Better Fundraising e-book “Storytelling for Action.” Download it for free, here

A Short Note for Writers

Here’s a tip our writers use as they work on donor communications:

Use verb tense to help take your donors on a journey.

And here’s what that looks like:

  • When Asking for support (appeals, e-appeals, events) use the future simple tense to describe what the donor’s gift will do: “Your gift will help…”
  • When Thanking for a gift (receipt letters, thank you notes) use the present continuous tense: “Your gift is helping…”
  • When Reporting back to donors (newsletters, e-news) use the past simple tense: “Your gift helped…”

It’s a subtle – but powerful – way of communicating to a donor that their gift matters and that it made a difference.

This post is excerpted from the Better Fundraising e-book “Storytelling for Action.” Download it for free, here. 

Your Printed Newsletter: The final Big Idea that brings it all together


Your printed newsletter should be raising a lot of money – as much as your appeals and, in some cases, even more.

The goal of this series has been to give you a tested, proven approach to creating a donor-delighting, money-raising printed newsletter:

  • Direct mail experts ran a series of head-to-head tests of different types of printed newsletters. The approach detailed here beat all the other approaches.
  • We’ve used this approach since 2004 to reliably (and sometimes incredibly) increase the money nonprofits raise from their newsletters.
  • We’ve taught this model at conferences, seminars and webinars.  We’ve received hundreds of pieces of feedback about how the approach increased newsletter revenue.  You do not need to be an expert to follow this model and raise more money

So take it this approach and apply it to your organization.  Test it against your current approach, or any other approach.

Be Intentional with Your Newsletter

Figure out what your organization’s approach is.  Discover and name your organization’s underlying assumptions. 

  • Maybe your organization believes that printed newsletters are obsolete.  (They aren’t.)
  • Maybe your organization believes that printed newsletters shouldn’t or can’t raise money.  (Neither is true.) 
  • Maybe your organization believes the way you’ve always done your newsletter is the only way your organization can do a newsletter.  (Not true.)
  • Maybe your organization fears that if you change your newsletter in any way, your donors will leave.  (Also not true.)
  • Maybe your organization believes you could do a newsletter like the one taught here, but you could never do an Ask along with it, because it would offend donors.  (You guessed it, not true!)

I’ve run into all of these beliefs before.  And it doesn’t matter what you believe – what matters is that you identify what you believe that results in your current approach.  Then you compare it with the approach outlined in this series and decide which approach to take.

Great newsletters don’t raise money by accident.  Content is included for a purpose, and content is excluded for a purpose.

And remember: the primary reason donors read your newsletter is not to hear about your organization. They’re reading because they’re hoping to hear about themselves.  Specifically, donors are reading to find out if they and their gift made a difference.

So start with this proven approach that shows and tells donors how they made a difference.  And good luck!

Read the whole series:

This post was originally published on August 11, 2020.