Donation Emails Done Right

#GivingTuesdayGiving Tuesday (#GivingTuesday) was initiated in 2012 as a global day of giving that sets itself apart from Black Friday, Small Business Saturday or Cyber Monday, which are all dedicated to shopping. #GivingTuesday was created by Henry Timms of the 92nd Street Y (watch an interview with him on the PBS Newshour here) and the United Nations Foundation as an international movement in response to consumerism and commercialism; it falls on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving in the United States.

You will receive donation requests by email year-round, but #GivingTuesday is by far the biggest fundraiser online.

#GivingTuesday has one simple goal: To celebrate and encourage giving to your community, to people in need and to nonprofit organizations that want to make a difference and rely on online donations. It is a day to give back.

Narrative, visual storytelling, overall presentation and a clear ask are crucial for a successful email campaign. Without a content-first real strategy, any email donation campaign will fall short. Share on X

According to Kindful, “On #GivingTuesday in 2017, more than $300 million was raised online through 2.5 million gifts. #GivingTuesday was mentioned more than 1 million times on social media, and these mentions made 21.7 billion impressions.” GivingTuesday reports that in the challenging year 2020, total giving increased from $1.97 billion to $2.47 billion in the United States alone, representing a 25% increase compared to GivingTuesday 2019. And in 2021, the donation money raised amounted to $2.7 billion in the U.S.

But judging from past years, not all organizations take the time to give a brief mission statement, have a striking visual to accompany their story and clearly ask you to take action. If you are committed to the organization, you might not care. You have given to them in the past and are happy to do so again, no persuasion is needed.

But organizations that you never have interacted with, or haven’t even heard of, face a much more difficult task in their email: to engage you, draw your attention and trigger your empathy to give to them now.

This is why narrative and visual storytelling, overall presentation and a clear ask are crucial for a successful #GivingTuesday and any other email campaign. And without a real strategy on how to approach your pledge and present it to your potential donors, any email donation campaign will fall short.

Here are a few tips on how to create a successful email donation campaign. For #GivingTuesday donation campaigns, don’t forget to register your campaign with #GivingTuesday. And for a more in-depth look at how an engaging narrative and a good design can impact your message, download my two free 30+ page guides A Call-to-Action That Delivers and Driving Impact With Storytelling.


A Compelling Narrative


Storytelling is the most effective way to engage your email recipients—both recurring and new donors. A good narrative captivates and engages them on a personal and emotional level and leads them to your clear call-to-action: to donate now!

Neuroscientists have found emotion is the fastest path to the brain. In other words, if you want your ideas to spread, storytelling is the single best vehicle you have in your arsenal to transfer that idea to another person.

The story itself has to be specific and narrow enough to not distract. Don’t tell all—but make every word count.

Nonprofits who seek donations have to trigger emotions and raise empathy. The donor becomes the hero of a story, not the organization. The donor can make a difference and is therefore eager to help. You fundraise not to make money for your organization; you solicit donations to fund a program that needs help, that provides a measurable outcome in the community and that is important to the donor.

Your ideal storyline in your email has three parts (but keep it brief):

  • An urgent, solvable problem or a challenge told through a personal, relatable story
  • One solution (with a tangible, measurable outcome) to the problem
  • One clear call-to-action (CTA), so that the donor can help solve the problem right now

Aside from a compelling story, the visual design of your email solicitation has to amplify your message as well, not distract from it. This is where content meets design.


A Design That Amplifies Your Content


The way you visually present your pledge in your email can make or break your ask. Poorly designed emails, the choice of fonts, your visuals, the length of your message, the colors you chose—especially for your donation button—all trigger positive (or negative) emotions in the reader.

Shorter emails with a visually compelling ask at the beginning work best. From my experience receiving many #GivingTuesday donation requests last year, what worked best for me were visually simple, easily scannable and clean layouts with a short compelling narrative, presented in striking, yet pleasing colors, using one compelling visual (photo, illustration, map or chart).

A good design amplifies your message—and a powerful CTA seals the deal. A CTA is an interactive element that entices a user to take an action that can be measured, like a donation. The color of your CTA button is less important as long as it stands out.

Time for a disclaimer: all the following examples that I give to illustrate a successful, or a less successful, campaign are from organizations that I care about. My criticism about last year’s #GivingTuesday email campaigns in no way diminishes my gratitude for the work these organizations do. That said, some campaigns worked better than others.

Granted, you might say that it’s highly subjective to like or dislike a specific donation email request—and you’re right. But there are a few general rules and best practices that should be followed when creating a successful #GivingTuesday email campaign.


Email Strategies that Seal the Deal—Or Not


I. Formatting


The shorter, the better. No one wants to scroll through a long, rambling email to find out what the next steps are or to locate a donation button—especially if they have never heard of your organization.

It goes without saying that your copy needs to be error-free and clean. And if you personalize your email, don’t assume who I am. Don’t send me an email in Polish, for example, because my last name’s origin is Polish.

Don’t use too many fonts, font weights and font sizes. Stay away from highlight colors or colors that distract and clash. Provide your contact info, a link to your website and an option to unsubscribe from future emails. And PLEASE, never underline text that is not a link!

First, an example of a nicely formatted email ask that was short and to the point and worked online (Japan Society), and then a too-long email that featured a letter that was formatted for print  (American Museum of Natural History):


Japan Society





II. Visuals


A picture is a great shortcut for people who don’t have time to read. Use an image that directly relates to the story, the hero of your narrative: A real person as proof that every donation can make a difference. If you don’t have an image, find another story.

First, an email that used an effective visual (Geena Davis Institute), followed by one that could have done more to visually entice (New York Public Library):


Geena Davis





III. Narrative


Your email has to present a short narrative. The main goal of your email solicitation is not to raise awareness in itself—but to trigger an action. To entice the recipient to care enough to donate or otherwise take part in your campaign or change a behavior. Leave the longer story for your website and make sure that your email recipients can easily find the link to your site in your email if they want to delve deeper.

Here are examples of an email ask that used a compelling narrative (The New York Historical Society) and one that didn’t try too hard to tell its story (Cooper Hewitt):





Cooper Hewitt


IV. Call-to-Action


Good design and narrative amplify your message—but a powerful CTA seals the deal. Employ only one strong, primary action- and benefit-oriented CTA and use design elements like contrast, color and fonts in your email copy.

First, an example of an email ask that used a CTA button that stuck out (Central Park Conservancy) and one that didn’t use a CTA button at all and whose ask got lost at the bottom of an otherwise compelling visual presentation and narrative (Jewish Foundation for the Righteous):

Central Park Conservancy


Jewish Federation



For a more in-depth look at how an engaging narrative and a good design can impact your message, download my two free 30+ page guides A Call-to-Action That Delivers and Driving Impact With Storytelling.


More on the topic:


Good Stories Make Great Infographics


Don’t Assume I’m A Guy: Gender-Neutral Marketing

10 Steps to #GivingTuesday Success (Nonprofit Hub)

Plan Your Best #GivingTuesday and Giving Tuesday Resources for Nonprofits (Kindful)

Everything You Need for Giving Tuesday and Giving Tuesday Master Checklist (Classy)

#GivingTuesday Game Plan and Campaign Ideas (DonorPerfect)


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