Passive/Aggressive: The Art of Creating a Successful Fundraising Email Subject Line

Shad Hanselman

Shad Hanselman

Associate Vice President at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Shad has over fifteen years of experience in higher education fundraising, serving as a senior leader in complex annual giving programsfor top tier universities. He now pioneers new products to propel the success of RNL clients as a member of our leadership team.
Shad Hanselman

What is the best subject line for a fundraising email solicitation? Is it an aggressive call to action? How about a warm and fuzzy message that may not mention giving? Ask anyone in the industry and they have an opinion on this, mostly based on something they were told early in their career or their personal preference.

Like so many things in fundraising, this is an excellent example of the phrase: “your opinion, while interesting, is irrelevant.”

Fundraising email subject line results

Which subject lines get donors to open a fundraising email? Here are our findings from a test of nearly 340,000 emails.

At Ruffalo Noel Levitz we seek to shatter myths in fundraising and use data to inform our strategy. So, we partnered with four institutions to test subject lines across 24 emails during their calendar year-end efforts in 2018 and the results were eye-opening.

The fundraising email subject line tests

We sent more than 339,000 emails to 12 audience segments across 6 universities. Each audience segment was split evenly with half receiving a passive message subject line and half receiving an aggressive call to action subject line.

So, what works better, a “passive” or “aggressive” subject line?

The reality is: it doesn’t matter…much. Here are the results of the 24 tests.

Subject Line Type Passive Aggressive
Open-Rate wins 7 5
 Open Rate 11.7% 11.4%
Click-to-Open Wins 6 6
Click-to-Open Rate 2.7% 2.7%

In 58% of head-to-head tests, the “friendly” subject line had a higher open rate than the more “direct” counterpart. However, there was no statistical difference in the click-to-open rate, which means that the subject line helps get the email opened, but the content and call to action seem to get the click.

The subject line themes that worked best

There were a few items in our tests that showed promise for positively impacting the effectiveness of the subject line. A few of the themes we observed were:

  • Family Comes First: 100% of subject lines that referenced being part of the institutional family outperformed their non-family-oriented counterparts.
  • Cast a Vision: From changing lives to strengthening the institution, subject lines that gave the recipient an opportunity to insert themselves as the hero outperformed those that were more institutionally-oriented.

Our advice for the best year-end fundraising email subject lines

Based on this test, our best advice for crafting a successful fundraising email subject line is to remember who you are writing to and why your message would matter to them. Instead of going back and forth over a passive or aggressive subject line, use your time wisely and craft a concise message to your recipients that connects them to their passion, casts them as part of your community, and provides them with an opportunity to make themselves the hero of their philanthropic journey.

Request a fundraising consultationEven better, talk with our fundraising experts about how you can optimize your fundraising email communications as part of a broader omnichannel strategy. We have helped hundreds of institutions connect with millions of donors, and we can discuss the optimal steps you can take to better engage your donors. Request a consultation now.

Friday Fundraising Update – Year-End Tips – 12-11-15

The Friday Fundraising Update
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The Friday Fundraising Update

A weekly collection of fundraising industry insights and success stories, delivering them each Friday to your inbox. Have a suggestion for a future edition? Email Brian at Brian.Gawor@RuffaloNL.com
The Friday Fundraising Update
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Friday-Fundraising-UpdateThe Friday Fundraising Update collects fundraising industry insights and success stories and delivers them to you each Friday from Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

They say all good things must come to an end. So say goodbye to fundraising year 2015 with these helpful tips from today’s Friday Fundraising Update.

Year-End Online Donors

Capitalize on the visitors clicking through your organization’s website this month and make them your donors.  Data proves that shortening the online giving interface and making the site a more “emotional” experience for donors can generate up to three times more gifts than your run-of-the mill online giving site. Check out this recent podcast from The Chronicle of Philanthropy for more inspiring analysis.

Chronicle of Philanthropy

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Friday Fundraising Update – Race Against Time – 11-13-15

The Friday Fundraising Update
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The Friday Fundraising Update

A weekly collection of fundraising industry insights and success stories, delivering them each Friday to your inbox. Have a suggestion for a future edition? Email Brian at Brian.Gawor@RuffaloNL.com
The Friday Fundraising Update
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The Friday Fundraising Update collects fundraising industry Friday-Fundraising-Updateinsights and success stories and delivers them to you each Friday from Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

It is all about timing, so we hope we caught you at a good moment this Friday. Today, we delve into matters of deadlines, countdowns, and year-end strategies to ensure that your fundraising efforts stand the test of time!

Only a Matter of Time (Until December!)

Does your fundraising team have a strategy for a successful calendar year end? Make sure you keep these 5 key action items in mind now through December, as listed by Clairification.

clairification

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The next generation of planned giving donors

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Chris Hughes

Director of Fundraising Strategy at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Chris Hughes is a former Director of Annual Giving who has more than two decades of experience in fundraising, marketing, public relations and organizational success in higher education and nonprofit fundraising.
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Too often in fundraising, planned giving gets associated solely with targeting retirees or donors who are in their twilight years. In today’s environment, however, planned giving has a much broader potential audience.

planned giving white paper

Download this new white paper on how to engage planned giving donors in their 30’s and 40’s.

Society is now going through what is commonly referred to as “the great wealth transfer.” This is an unprecedented opportunity for your planned giving program to capture donor passion and transform your organization.

Which segment of your donor and prospect database is the best target for planned giving discussions? It may surprise a lot of fundraisers and nonprofit organizations to learn that research indicates the answer to that question is Generation X.

Our new Ruffalo Noel Levitz fundraising white paper, The Next Generation of Planned Giving, addresses Continue Reading »

5 ways to leverage college reunion weekends for alumni giving

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Chris Hughes

Director of Fundraising Strategy at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Chris Hughes is a former Director of Annual Giving who has more than two decades of experience in fundraising, marketing, public relations and organizational success in higher education and nonprofit fundraising.
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fivewaysthumbOctober is a common month for educational institutions of all sizes and types to hold reunion and homecoming weekends. In fact, this October I attended my own 20th year class reunion weekend at Northwestern University.

Most institutions have reunion giving programs, some more formalized than others.  A lot of the activity takes place prior to the reunion weekend (often in order to make a big-splash announcement with a ceremonial check). But what are you doing afterwards to secure more gifts from alumni who attended the various reunion weekend activities?

Here are five things you can do to leverage reunion weekend attendance into more annual gifts:

  1. Upload and utilize attendance and registration information
  2. Segment attendees into short-term CYE pools
  3. At least one significant cultivation activity in November
  4. Send follow-up thank you notes from specific sessions
  5. Surveys

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Five Ways To Improve Your Case For Giving

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Chris Hughes

Director of Fundraising Strategy at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Chris Hughes is a former Director of Annual Giving who has more than two decades of experience in fundraising, marketing, public relations and organizational success in higher education and nonprofit fundraising.
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5waysHughesAFP defines the case for giving as “the reasons why an organization both needs and merits philanthropic support.”  It is the core of every nonprofit organization, yet how much time have you spent lately thinking about improving and evolving your organization’s case to meet the interests of today’s donors?

Putting quality thought into evaluating your current case could position your organization for improved retention, acquisition and reacquisition in the coming months and year.  Here are five things you can do to enhance your case for giving:

  1. Focus on what makes your cause unique
  2. Build and brag upon your library of successes
  3. Don’t incorporate a one size fits all approach
  4. Create separation in the marketplace
  5. Ask your donors’ and prospects’ opinions

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Five Ways To Cultivate Your Newest Alumni

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Chris Hughes

Director of Fundraising Strategy at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Chris Hughes is a former Director of Annual Giving who has more than two decades of experience in fundraising, marketing, public relations and organizational success in higher education and nonprofit fundraising.
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5waysHughesJuly brings forth many things, but in the world of higher education annual giving, it often means a new crop of recent alumni have been added to the database.  Some of these individuals may have given during their spring graduating class gift campaign, but this will mark the first year they have been asked to give as alumni.

Don’t begin your new alumni relationship by immediately asking for money.  Instead, utilize this summer and fall as the perfect time to establish a strong emotional tie for alumni giving.  Here are five things you can do in order to specifically cultivate these new alumni:

  1. Establish annual giving as a brand
  2. Social media signups
  3. Create exclusive, online events
  4. Showcase recent impacts of grassroots giving
  5. Confirm contact information

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How Can You Reach the 98% of High Net Worth Households That Donate Annually?

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Chris Hughes

Director of Fundraising Strategy at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Chris Hughes is a former Director of Annual Giving who has more than two decades of experience in fundraising, marketing, public relations and organizational success in higher education and nonprofit fundraising.
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5waysHughesThe Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s 2014 U.S. Trust Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy reveals a lot of opportunities and trends that you can use to generate annual gifts from wealthy donors.

The great news is that 98.4% of households with incomes above $200,000 and/or a net worth of more than $1 million made charitable gifts in 2013.  Here are a few takeaways and recommendations based on the study that can help drive strategic decisions as you cultivate, steward and solicit these donors for gifts: Continue Reading »

5 Ways to Maximize Your Year End Budget

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Chris Hughes

Director of Fundraising Strategy at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Chris Hughes is a former Director of Annual Giving who has more than two decades of experience in fundraising, marketing, public relations and organizational success in higher education and nonprofit fundraising.
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5waysHughes

Every person who has ever managed a budget at one time or another has found themselves with leftover funds at the end of a fiscal year. For annual giving offices, the question becomes how to use those leftover funds to achieve success not just this fiscal year, but the upcoming fiscal year and beyond.

Here are five things you can do in order to maximize your annual giving program’s end of budget year leftovers:

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Earth Day Green Practice: Coupon Codes to Enhance Online Giving

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Chris Hughes

Director of Fundraising Strategy at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Chris Hughes is a former Director of Annual Giving who has more than two decades of experience in fundraising, marketing, public relations and organizational success in higher education and nonprofit fundraising.
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go_green_smallToday is the 45th Anniversary of the first “Earth Day.” This is a day when significant attention is paid to ways to improve the global environment. In the fundraising world, one of the “greenest” practices is to enhance your online giving program. One way to do that is to consider using coupon codes. Continue Reading »

Phonathon is a New Donor Engine

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Josh Robertson

Vice President of Product Strategy at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Josh has over 17 years of experience in the industry, oversees fundraising strategy, analytics and product development and has worked with over 100+ institutions.
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Latest posts by Josh Robertson (see all)

orangephone

This is an abstract from our latest white paper: The Value of Robust Phonathons.

Why is phonathon such an effective channel for acquiring new donors?

Our team pondered, debated and researched this question and came up with a few conclusions that we wanted to share with our readers. Continue Reading »

Five Ways to Increase Email Open and Click Rates

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Chris Hughes

Director of Fundraising Strategy at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Chris Hughes is a former Director of Annual Giving who has more than two decades of experience in fundraising, marketing, public relations and organizational success in higher education and nonprofit fundraising.
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inboxThere are a lot of theories and opinions regarding email as a communications tool.  Some people say that email is incredibly strong and growing in popularity while others say it is dead.

The statistical reality is that 200 billion emails are sent daily throughout the world, so clearly email is not dying.  For recent alumni, the 2014 Millennial Impact Report indicated that 85% want to receive general campus news via email, and 61% indicated a preferred method of being asked for donations is email. Continue Reading »

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