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Madeline Stanionis

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Raising Thousands of Dollars with E-mail: Interview with Madeline Stanionis

Madeline Stanionis, author of Raising Thousands (if Not Tens of Thousands) of Dollars with Email, recently spoke with her publisher about e-mail fundraising. GuideStar has published an excerpt from the book, and we're pleased to be able to share Ms. Stanionis's additional thoughts with you.

Some say a subject line should be no more than 40 characters. Do you agree?

A subject line should be as long as it needs to be to do the job. Sometimes it's a little longer, sometimes not. If you have a great, relevant subject line that's 45 characters, use it! Of course, if your subject isn't great, do keep it on the shorter side.

So tell me how to write a great subject line.

Okay, I'll give you nine (I like to be specific) pieces of advice:

  • Climb inside your readers' heads and understand where they're at when it comes to your cause and lead with what THEY are thinking (not with what your organization wants to say!).
  • Consider what else may be in their in-box that day. How will you stand out (without using a bait-and-switch gimmick that doesn't match the message inside)?
  • Pay attention to subject lines used by large organizations. Chances are good they're testing sub lines and are using theirs for good reason.
  • Use relevant news and pop culture. Use the sub line to connect what your reader is watching or reading with what you're messaging about.
  • Shock, but only when justified. Sometimes situations are horrific, gorgeous, unbelievable, deadly, hilarious, and/or devastating. Usually, they're not. But sometimes!
  • Get personal by using everyday terms, casual sentences, and occasionally questions.
  • Read your subject line aloud and listen to how it sounds.
  • Avoid CAPS.
  • Don't be afraid of sentence fragments, slang words, lowercase, and other casual conventions. E-mail is a relaxed medium.

And what are some of the best subject lines you've seen?

Well, the best subject line is the one that performs well today. It might not be the best tomorrow! But here's a few I've liked recently:

Dunkin vs. Starbucks (you know you have an opinion!)

Hey, did I leave my jacket at your place?

1982 called. It wants its pollution back.

1,000 more likes and we get a puppy!

What distinguishes e-mail copy from other forms of writing?

Other forms as in a novel or the NY Times? Or other direct response forms? I'm going with the latter. E-mail is:

  • Certainly shorter than most direct mail.
  • More casual.
  • More personal.
  • Frequent and single-focused vs. occasional and complex. (Except for maybe, e-newsletters).
  • Visual! That doesn't always mean lots of images, but it could.

Does a P.S. have the same power in an e-mail as it does it snail mail?

Jury's still out on that. Some organizations have found a P.S. lifts response; others have seen no lift.

How are smartphones and tablets impacting the way donors read e-mail?

If your e-mail isn't mobile-enabled, you're in trouble. Same goes for your landing pages—and maybe your whole Web site.

However! The upside is that smartphones and tablets make reading and responding to e-mail when you're on the bus or otherwise away from your laptop much more enjoyable. So chances are better that your busy reader might actually read your e-mail when she's on the run.

The best timing for e-mail—is it still Tuesday through Thursday, 9:30-11:30 a.m. and 1:30-4:00 p.m.?

I always say the best time to send your e-mail message is when it's ready. However, the real best time is the moment your audience is most expecting it based on the news, what they're doing at the time, and what your offer is.

The tried and true weekday times still tend to be better for lots of things, but it does depend on a lot of other factors, so I wouldn't make that a hard and fast rule.

Should I ask for a donation in the subject line, or would you recommend a less direct approach?

Depends on what's happening in the world. In a crisis, when the only or best way to help is donating—sure. Year-end? It can work. Other times? Dicey. You don't want to say you're not asking for money in the subject line, but there may be a more enticing way into your story.

What's the fine line, in terms of frequency, between sending enough e-mail to keep people engaged and sending too many, thereby lowering open rates and increasing unsubscribes?

I think you're assuming way too many things in that question! First, you kind of imply that "sending a lot" of e-mail is the same as "sending too many" messages. And, whoa, I think you also decided that sending too many e-mail messages automatically lowers open rates and increases unsubscribes. Sure about that?

Look—I get that it can look that way. Sending too much BAD e-mail can seem like too many e-mail messages and can certainly decrease response. But you know what? If you send good e-mail—really good e-mail—every day, it won't seem like too much, and it can actually increase your response metrics. The problem is that most nonprofits don't have the time or skills to deliver good e-mail frequently. Or—eek—at all! And then we blame the frequency and not the content.

But if what you're asking me for is some sort of rule, I guess I'd say that if you can't gather your best together in an e-mail twice a month or so, then you really have no business sending e-mail at all. And if your words are golden more than twice a week, absent a crisis or critical time period, I'd be quite surprised.

What's a respectable open rate for our e-mails to donors?

Respectable? Hmm. There's a wide range! For big organizations, over 10 percent isn't bad. And many small organizations see much higher open rates. Most important is that you're tracking your open rates and setting your own (respectable) benchmark.

Compared to direct mail, is e-mail a good medium for acquiring donors? And, if so, is there a qualitative difference between the acquired donors?

Let's broaden the conversation to say, simply, online instead of just e-mail—and in doing so, the answer is definitely yes! In fact it's cheaper than many offline sources. Inspire prospects to head to your Web site to give, sign up for an e-mail list, or engage in social media, and you've got a great source of new names.

For a long time, we've known that long letters outpull short ones. Is it the same with e-mail?

Length, schmength. Most people have found that it doesn't usually make much difference. Some have found that short—really short—e-mail at the end of a big campaign can outperform a longer message. But, by and large, it's not a huge deal. And if so, why burn all that time and energy on a long message? Keep it short!

© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers

Madeline Stanionis has been raising money, organizing, and communicating for organizations and causes for 20 years, not counting her second-grade campaign for George McGovern. She is the CEO of Watershed, an online fundraising and advocacy agency; past president and creative director of Donordigital, a full-service online fundraising, advocacy, and marketing company; and author of Raising Thousands (if Not Tens of Thousands) of Dollars with Email.

Writing E-mails for Fundraising: The "Rules" Are a Bit Different from Your Other Communications

Excerpt from Raising Thousands (if Not Tens of Thousands) of Dollars with Email

As far as e-mail copy is concerned, there are two key writing components. The first is the subject line; the second is the body of the e-mail itself. Since readers encounter the subject line first, let's begin there.

The Scoop on Subject Lines

Talk about time being of the essence! To capture your constituents' attention and convince them that of the many e-mails bombarding their in-box, yours is the one they must read, you have a grand total of ...  one to two seconds!

With that in mind, let's address a few subject line fundamentals:

  • Length. E-mail programs vary as to how many characters your reader will see. Be on the safe side and keep yours to about 50 characters.
  • Shouting symbols ($, !, CAPS, *) and words such as: Free, Sale, Teens will land you in the spam filter. Avoid them. (Stay up to date on the "words to avoid" list by visiting or

Tell, Tease, Take Action

Depending on the situation, you'll speak in different voices with your subject line. For example, if your issue is timely and your relationship with the donor is well-established, your job may simply be to "tell" him or her what is happening. Here's what I mean:

  • A crisis occurs overseas and a relief agency sends an e-mail letting donors know how they can help: "Send a blanket to Bamgarian flood victims."
  • The "telling" approach also holds true for e-mails that help your users take care of business: "Order your Golf Gala tickets now" or "Your membership expires soon—renew today."
  • Messages with time-sensitive content fall into the "telling" category as well: "Six vegan-friendly ways to decorate Easter eggs," delivered a few days before the holiday.
However, you won't always have straightforward opportunities to "tell" the facts. Here's when a little "teasing" is needed to get your reader's attention:

  • An e-mail landed in my box last week with this subject line: "The movie President Bush doesn't want you to see." That provocative approach works for me ... I want to find out just what that movie is.
  • Another way to tease is by being a bit clever. Quick, easy-to-scan clever. "It's beginning to look a lot like justice ..." sent just before the Christmas holidays by Earthjustice.
Lastly, whether you're telling or teasing, it's always important to use your subject line to call your readers to action. After all, nothing happens (i.e., sending you a donation, filling out a petition) until they take the next step.

The best "take action" e-mails are:

  • Specific. Rather than exhort readers to "Tell them no," say instead: "Tell Big Tobacco to stop selling to children."
  • Well-timed. Ideally, the topic is in the news.
  • Local, if possible. "Tell Big Tobacco to stop selling to Boston children."
Once you've motivated your constituents to open your e-mail, it's critical to give them something good to read.

Composing an E-mail—Three Elements

Writing good e-mails starts with the basics of writing good copy, period. You must have a story to tell, offer a compelling reason to give, and use clear and persuasive language. Only a few key elements distinguish e-mail copy from other forms of writing:

  1. Make your e-mail scannable

    How do you read your own e-mail? Do you pore over every word? Of course not. Neither do your constituents. If you're like most people, you tend to scan rather than read your messages.

    Therefore make sure your message is "scannable." That means:

    • Short sentences
    • Short paragraphs
    • Numerous links to your donation page
    • Graphic insets telling your reader what to do
    • Bullets
    • Selective use of bold and italics (reserve underlining for hyperlinks only)

    Using these guidelines, your goal is to create a persuasive message that, in seven seconds or so, tells your constituent exactly what to do.

  2. Keep it simple and short

    In a direct mail fundraising letter, you have pages (sometimes as many as eight!) to let your story unfold. Not so with e-mail!

    Chances are good your constituents are a bit overwhelmed by the volume of e-mail they receive, and a windy e-mail will only add to the deluge. Keeping your message short and to the point is a service to your recipients. That means:

    • Presenting only one or two key points
    • Using as few words a possible to state your case
    • Avoiding the history of your appeal (this is no time for background info)

  3. Keep the medium in mind

    E-mail tends to be more casual than print. That means a more personal, less formal tone is appropriate and even expected. For example:

    • Salutations and closings are typically more relaxed. A letter might begin with "Dear Ms. Stanionis," while an e-mail would start with "Hello Madeline."
    • E-mail copywriters tend to use more colloquial terms. Direct mail copy might say, "We were truly overwhelmed by the generous response to our request." In e-mail, that translates to, "Wow! You overwhelmed us (and that's hard to do)!"
    • An up-to-the-minute style of writing is also appropriate. In direct mail language: "It was lovely to celebrate our anniversary with you last month." In e-mail: "I'm writing this at midnight, just getting home after the anniversary party. Whew! What a night."
In this article I've highlighted a few subtle ways in which writing e-mail is different from other forms of writing. Still, good writing is good writing: specific, clear, and forceful. E-mail hasn't changed that a bit!

Madeline Stanionis, DonorDigital
© 2006, Madeline Stanious. Excerpt from Raising Thousands (if Not Tens of Thousands) of Dollars with Email. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers. All rights reserved.

Madeline Stanionis is president of DonorDigital, a consulting firm with offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., that specializes in on-line fundraising. Her new book is Raising Thousands (if Not Tens of Thousands) of Dollars with Email,  published by Emerson & Church, Publishers.