How to Stand Out in All That Email

A short few months ago, we were at the beginning of pandemic awareness and a sudden stay-at-home mandate. This quick turn of events made us more aware of those around us and, I believe, led us to care more about others and their well-being. Craving connection and kindness, we searched for optimism and good news wherever we could find it, including in our email inboxes.

The good news: Donors opened 17% more messages from nonprofits in March 2020 than they did last March, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Four months later, we’re seemingly still where we began. But as we begin to “open up,” uncertainty lies underneath. As we straddle the public vs. stay-at-home line, our donors are still looking online for glimpses into the larger world.

Email activity is up. Inbox volume is down. This presents space to meaningfully talk with your planned giving donors through email.

Start here by downloading Stelter’s “A short-term guide for marketing planned giving.


1. Give subject lines proper attention. Forty-seven percent of email recipients open email based on the subject line alone, says Khalid Saleh, CEO and co-founder of Invesp.

Now, think about how you scan your inbox. These are things that likely go through your head as your eyes scroll down the screen: Another to-do. Another company trying to sell me something. Who needs my attention now?

Be the breath of fresh air. Start by giving subject lines proper thought. That is, don’t write them after you’ve written email copy (which is the tendency and when you just want to be done with it). Instead, try writing one or two tight, well-structured lines before writing the body copy and let that guide your thoughts.


  • Make it short. Six to 10 words, max, typically achieves the highest open rate. Remember: People are scanning their inboxes. If the subject line looks hard to get through, they’ll likely skip over it and scan to the next short, clean line.

Feed This Child for $1


You Can Make a Difference. Help This Hungry Child—With Your $1 Donation.

Which one makes you want to dig deeper? Hopefully, the first one. Chances are, it’ll get recipients wondering, “What does this child look like?” Or, “How is it even possible to feed her for $1?”

  • Make it easy. Use initial or sentence capitalization with minimal punctuation. Maybe sprinkle in an emoji every once in a while. But. Not. Every. Single. Email. Subject line. (Testing subject lines with emojis versus without is a wise idea. This can help show how emojis impact your unique audience’s open rate.)
  • Show cause/effect. Show people how their gifts make a difference. “These Pups Are Safe, Thanks to Frank’s Future Gift” or “Kayleigh, 6, Wants to Show You Our New Play Center.” When donors open the email they can find a video of Kayleigh showing them around the new center, ending with something like, “Because you planned ahead, we can too and make projects like these happen for our community’s kids.”
  • Use this subject line tester to see how your emails rank against other marketing emails (not just planned giving ones).

Another angle? Talk about the benefits of an estate gift. “Make a Future Gift. Gain Income Today. Find Out How.” Drive the personal benefit.

2. Connect human to human. Especially these days, we need to know that your nonprofit is still there. Your goal with every email is to make the reader feel like there’s no one else you’re talking to. It’s just the two of you.

  • Keep in mind the state of the times. COVID-19, unemployment skyrocketing, local businesses closing shop, uncertainty in the state of our nation. Right now, avoid pushy, scary language like “hurry!” and “Don’t miss out.” Match the mood instead. “Family first.” “We’re with you.” “Planning time.”
  • When appropriate, add a little humor. This one’s a fine line. Above all, always keep the fun innocent; avoid controversial or sensitive subjects. Examples: “Straight From the Kids: Why Our New Playground Is Awesome!” or “See Our Animals in Their New Home, Thanks to You.” When donors click through, they can watch a video with kids playing and funny quips about what they love about their new playground. Who doesn’t love watching kittens or pups playing in their new spaces? The videos are subtle reminders of the power of planned giving.

3. Keep the palette clean, the copy direct. Think clear, crisp visuals and video. Sentences that accurately describe the situation and are action-oriented. Use headings, subheadings, bulleted lists and bold text to guide the reader and break text up into “bites.”

Avoid overuse of exclamation points! Overuse diminishes effect!

TIP: Design emails with smartphones and tablets in mind, and test emails before sending to ensure content automatically resizes to the user’s screen.

4. Create one strong call to action (CTA). This is what your articles, photos and graphics have been leading up to. Whether it’s through a CTA button or pullout copy, CTAs can’t play around. Tell readers what you want them to do.

CTA button: Use contrasting or vibrant colors but stick to one from the color palette you’ve used throughout the page. Make the text and/or the size of the button larger, so that it stands apart from copy. However, Campaign Monitor reports that readers often have a distaste—conscious or subconscious—for threateningly large lettering. Make the CTA prominent but not offensive.

Pullout copy: Keep it short and simple. Double-check contact information.

Your future gift helps future children, like Kayleigh, learn, grow and succeed. To learn more about the planned gift that best supports you and the children, contact … .”


  • Create white space around CTAs for a visual break that signals what’s coming. White space also draws the reader’s attention to the CTA.
  • Don’t save the CTA for just the bottom of the page, after you’ve told the entire story. When it makes sense, move your CTA near the top of your email, or after you’ve told the story enough to prompt action.
  • Need more tips on writing a CTA that works? Check out “How to Write Stronger CTAs: Tips From the Pros” and “Avoid These! 10 Mistakes in Calls to Action.”

5. Test and talk. As part of your planned giving marketing and fundraising efforts, email leaves no room for guessing what resonates or inspires readers. Regularly run an A/B test to see which tested variable gets higher traction. You can test subject lines, call to action, design—just about any element of the email. It’s crucial, however, that you conduct A/B testing correctly; otherwise, you could end up with misleading information. Seek expert guidance and check out “The Truth About Direct Mail and Digital Marketing” for more about A/B testing.

Have you changed the cadence, tone or design of your emails recently? We’d love to hear why and the results you’ve seen.

And here’s another chance for a quick and easy download to receive  “A short-term guide for marketing planned giving”—Stelter’s latest guide for expertly navigating your planned giving marketing for the next 90 days.

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