Email marketing is an invaluable tool for any nonprofit organization. But a big hurdle to getting your emails read is getting them opened in the first place.

If you are looking to make truly impactful improvements to your nonprofit 501c3 email marketing program you want to start where your recipient starts — right at the beginning. Achieving consistent, healthy email open rates is essential to any successful email marketing effort. After all, you can’t get clicks and donations if people aren’t opening your emails in the first place!

It may seem like there isn’t a lot that you can do to make someone open an email but that just isn’t true. There are some small but important things you can change to make your emails more appealing, personal and timely to make them more likely to be opened.

Anticipate Your Audience

Before you even type in a subject line you need to know who you are sending to. How well do you know your audience? What do they care about? If you haven’t created one already a great exercise is creating a Buyer Persona. A Buyer Persona is a profile of each type of customer or donor you may have. You can build a Buyer Persona with this handy little free quiz we designed for our clients.

The point in understanding your recipient is that you will be able to communicate to them more effectively if you know them better. If you can personalize your messaging more you can make deeper connections.

By understanding your audience more you can also do a little research and A/B testing and find out when they are most receptive to your messages. When do they have the most screen time? When are they most likely to donate? If you have a younger audience maybe they are more receptive later at night, maybe an older audience is more open to donate early in the morning.

3 Keys To Open Rates

If you are looking to increase your open rates you don’t really need to worry so much about the body of the email messages themselves (though they are still important). You will want to focus on the precious little you have control over in the mailbox before the message is opened.

Subject Lines

The area where you have the most creative control is the subject line. A bad subject line can kill an email send right at the start while a great one can help ensure the rest of your content gets seen.

Luckily the art of the subject line has been studied for more than a decade and several email marketing best practices have emerged…


The more personalized you can make your subject line the better. You can use the Buyer Personas you have created here to segment your email list so you can better appeal to each type of recipient you have. The more personal the subject line the more relevant it is to the recipient making it much more likely it will be opened.


Subject lines should always be short, no more than 50 characters. Keep in mind that many inboxes won’t show the entire subject line in the inbox, especially if it is shown on a smartphone (32 characters for iPhone, 40 for Android). You want to make sure that when your subject line is cut off the recipient can still understand what it’s all about and is still enticed to click through.

Use Questions

A great way to engage is to use questions in your subject line. Ask a question in the subject line and then answer it in your email. Try and think of a question that they might be asking themselves or thinking about at that moment already. Try to be topical and timely!

Convey Urgency

One way to promote action is to convey a sense of urgency. If you are looking to reach a goal let people know that time is running out! Urgent language has been shown to encourage people to take more action in the moment. But don’t use this for every email, the effect will wear off if everything is seen as an emergency.

Avoid Spam Triggers

One way to never get your emails opened is to end up in the spam folder! Avoid using spam trigger words in your subject lines to keep your messages going to inboxes. Use this list of spam trigger words when crafting subject lines in the future.

Send Time

One thing that doesn’t come with a set of best practices is the best time to send. For some organizations, Tuesday at 10am is a great time to send emails, for others it’s Sunday at 9pm. There is no right answer. The best time to send is different for each and every nonprofit 501c3 depending on its audience.

To figure out what the best time for your nonprofit is will require a dive into your data and a little A/B testing.

Go back in time through your data and take a look at open rates in the past. Is there any day or time that has a clearly higher open rate than others? Have you always sent on the same days and times? Have you done any research on this in the past?

Even if you think you have found the right time or day try out some A/B testing. On your next send try splitting your list into random, equal sections and sending the same email out at different times. This will allow you to see if the email performed better at different times of the day. It may take some time, and some sends, but you can narrow down the best days and times by consistently testing your email sends this way.

This may seem like a tedious process but it can make a huge difference in both open rates and engagement rates of your emails.

From Name

When you send an email what name and email appears in the ‘sender’ field? This is a tiny detail that is extremely easy to overlook but very important to someone who may consider opening your email.

Having a recognizable ‘from name’ and branded email address are crucial in establishing the legitimacy of your email sends. People are on high alert for phishing scams and spam emails so anything that seems off will often lead to an automatic deletion. Make sure that names are recognizable and capitalized correctly and that the email from which it is being sent includes your organization’s url.


Email marketing is a powerful tool with decades of statistics that prove it’s value. And for a nonprofit organization that line of communication is even more important.

You put a lot of work into building your nonprofit 501c3, you want to make sure your marketing messages are getting seen. Taking the time to work on your Buyer Persona, subject lines and send times will only help you increase engagement, volunteers, and donations down the line. If you can make even modest improvements to such a critical marketing channel, you can ensure the continued success of your nonprofit organization.


About the Author

Bryan Caplan is all about helping you build a bigger, better business. A national speaker for Grow with Google and Constant Contact, award-winning CEO of Bryan Caplan Marketing and host of the Bigger Better Biz channel on YouTube, Bryan works with entrepreneurs around the world, teaching and coaching on digital marketing topics to help small businesses grow and succeed.

Bryan is a guest lecturer at several colleges and universities throughout the country. He has also been featured on Inc, GoDaddy, Constant Contact,, and the Boston Business Journal. Connect and Learn with Bryan by visiting