Email is like car maintenance. We all rely on our cars, but we seldom think about how they work. Likewise, while we all rely on email to communicate with donors, it is rare to be truly confident that the emails have all the right pieces to achieve maximum effectiveness. Based on lessons learned from highly successful development professionals, we compiled four tips for writing emails that engage donors and elicit replies.

1. Fit it on the iPhone screen

For many donors, every day is busy, filled with meetings, calls, and appointments. There is little time to scroll through a lengthy, detailed email message. No matter how compelling your email is, if it’s not short, it may well never be read.

Before you hit the “Send” button, check: Does your email, in its entirety, fit on the screen of an iPhone? With iPhone’s new 3D touch technology, emails can even be “popped” open without a full click. You’re looking at four or five sentences, at the most. What really needs to be said in the email, and what can wait for a follow-up appointment or phone call? There’s more to this than brevity—your email, like any other communication, requires a strategy.

2. Use words that say “friendly professional”

Consider these two sentences:

  • Do you have time for a phone call next week to talk more about the endowed fund—maybe on Wednesday?
  • Let’s continue our conversation about the endowed fund next week on any day that’s convenient for you.

The difference between “Do you” and “Let’s” is a big one. One sounds interrogative, while the other suggests collaboration and partnership. On the other hand, suggesting a specific date or range of dates is always a good idea—it enables a quicker reply from the sender and minimizes the chances of having a long back-and-forth exchange to try to determine next steps.

3. Minimize the “me”

We’re all guilty of starting sentences with “I” a bit too often: “I hoped we could meet,” “I wanted to invite you on a tour,” etc. It’s hard to be engaging to a donor or colleague when your emails are all about “me.” What can you say that will minimize the “me” and emphasize the organization, philanthropic projects or programs, or the donors’ own interests? Consider: “The research park building project has advanced in leaps and bounds this year; would you like to come by this month for a VIP tour?”

If, as you review your email, you see a lot of sentences starting with “I,” this should raise a red flag. Ask: Can these sentences be rephrased? Most of the time, the answer is yes.

4. Offer something special

If you don’t have something interesting/helpful/needed to share with the donor, then they may implicitly wonder, “What is the point of this email?” or “Why should I care about this?” Truly engaging emails are about more than carefully chosen words; they’re engaging because they share something that the reader wants to hear. If you’re requesting a meeting, why will this meeting be valuable to the donor? If you’re sharing new information, what makes that information important and useful? Make sure the email has a real purpose, and ensure that purpose is evident.

Likewise, when you offer next steps, make sure that you ask clear, yes or no questions. This improves the chances of getting replies—it’s much easier to respond to a specific question than an open-ended one, and email should be as easy as possible.

While face-to-face communication with donors is almost always best, in those cases that it is necessary to communicate via email, be concise, considerate and strategic. What are your email “best practices” that result in engaged donors and prompt replies?


To learn more techniques for effective donor communications, click below and explore additional resources for your professional development.