The Catholic Fundraiser

How Donors Respond to Your Emails: What Works and What You Should Be Doing Differently

Posted by Kristen Schultz Jaarda, JD, LLM on 11/1/17 1:30 PM


What are the best ways to increase email performance and response rates? How do colors and fonts impact readability? Does the date and time that emails are sent affect donor interest? Crescendo’s 2016 email study Experiments in Email Marketing: Principles of Effective Emails Based on A/B Testing sought to answer those questions and more.

The study used the scientific method known as "A/B testing" — sometimes called "split testing" or "bucket testing." Crescendo designed custom emails for six different charities to test how donors would respond. Each test involved two or more emails that were sent to segmented portions of a charity's email list and the emails were identical except for a single variable. For example, an email testing subject lines would have been identical in all respects except for using two different subject lines. This article will share some of the lessons learned about effective use of emails for donor engagement.

Number of Links

In June, Oklahoma City Community Foundation sent two emails featuring the same subject line: “Provide for Your Family While Impacting our Community.” The goal of this test was to look at how the number of links in an email impacted click-through-rates (CTR). To do this, the first email (Version A) was designed with four links, all linking to a single offer, and the second email (Version B) contained 13 links linking to several different offers.

Number-of-links-Version-A-thumbnail.png  Number-of-links-Version-B-thumbnail.png

(click thumbnail to view full image)

Version A offered a downloadable wills guide and had the highest CTR at 16.9%. Version B included various offers such as a wills guide, sample bequest language, planned gift proposals, DAF information and more. Version B had a 13.66% CTR.

The takeaway from this test is that an email focused on a single offer can produce better results. Said a different way, you can lose your supporters by giving them too many options, especially if so many of those offers are not targeted to the recipient. For this reason, the “something for everyone” approach doesn’t work well and by giving too many choices, donors may choose not to respond at all.

A focused email will have a higher CTR. When writing an email, you need to decide up front what action you want your recipients to take — and then focus your offer to encourage that action.

Personal Satisfaction versus Tax Benefits

In March, Crescendo designed an extended postcard for the University of New Hampshire (UNH) that focused on gifts of real estate. Later that same month, we created two follow-up emails for UNH.

Version A had a subject line of: "Maximize satisfaction from your property while supporting UNH." Version B had a subject line of: "Enjoy huge tax benefits from your property while supporting UNH." Both emails saw excellent open rates — above 20% for both. Version A, however, which had the subject line that focused on "satisfaction" had a slightly higher open rate than the subject line that focused on tax benefits. 21.04% compared to 20.87%.


(click thumbnail to view full image)

The assumption, which this test validated, was that donors are often motivated by more than positive tax outcomes. In this case, highlighting the non-tax benefit in the subject line led to a slightly better open rate. The other takeaway from this test can be attributed to how well UNH understands its donors and markets giving ideas to those donors. The open rate, above 20% for both emails, was exceptional. Sending targeted emails, even to a small known donor group, will produce better results than a generic email sent to a larger unknown pool of supporters.

Planned Giving Offers

In May, Crescendo performed an A/B/C/D test testing four different offers for Hoag Hospital Foundation. We designed a single email with similar subject lines to evaluate donor interest in the different offers. Contrary to popular belief, the word “free” doesn’t always turn emails into spam.

Version A offered a Wills Guide. The subject line read: “Free Wills Guide - Benefit Your Family and Impact Hoag’s Future.” This email had the highest open rate at 26.27% and CTR at 11.07% of the four emails sent. Version B offered a free bequest brochure with the remainder of the subject line remaining the same. The brochure offer produced the lowest open rate (23.18%) and the second lowest CTR (1.79%). It was clear that fewer people were interested in downloading a brochure as compared to a wills guide.

Planned-giving-offers-Version A-thumbnail.png


(click thumbnail to view full image)

Version C offered a free consultation with a similar subject line. This email had the second highest open rate (26.19%) but the lowest CTR (1.75%). Version D was the “all of the above” offer.  It combined each of the download and consultation offers. This email had a comparable open rate to the other emails and the second highest CTR (5.8%).


(click thumbnail to view full image)

What did we learn? Users in general react well to offers, which explains the high open rates for all of those emails. People responded best to the offer for a “Free” wills guide as compared to other offers. It should be noted that the email showing multiple offers had a lower CTR than the leading email with a single wills guide offer. This confirms, again, that focusing an email’s message on a single offer usually produces better results. When making a single offer, it’s important to match the body of your email with the expectation created by the subject line.

Send Date and Time

In our next test, we were able to gauge responsiveness to emails based on when emails were sent. Priests of the Sacred Heart wanted to market charitable gift annuities and they sent five emails with identical subject lines and content.

The first email was sent on Friday, June 24, the next three emails were sent at three different times on Monday, June 27 and the final email was sent on Wednesday, June 29. The highest performing email was the Monday evening email —  registering a 9.58% CTR. The lowest performing email was the Wednesday email — with a 2.83% CTR.


(click thumbnail to view full image)

What did we learn? First, that emails sent at the beginning of the week actually scored the best. This runs counter to conventional wisdom that it is best to send emails mid-week. A second lesson is that it is a good practice to segment a list to send the same email to people at different times. Any charity can replicate this test to see how your donors respond.

Bequest versus Estate Plan

In April, Crescendo performed a test to compare how donors would respond to typical wills and bequest marketing language. We designed two emails for Michigan Tech University with a similar design to compare use of the words “bequest” and “estate plan” in the subject line and content area. We also tested immediacy using the words “Act now” in one of the subject lines.

The subject line for Version A read: “What is a bequest and how can it benefit you and Michigan Tech.” This email had an open rate of 25.53% and CTR of 11.76%. In Version B, the subject line used the language: “Act now: Impact Michigan Tech through your estate plan.” The immediacy of the words “act now” and use of “estate plan” resulted in a much higher open rate of 30.3%.


(click thumbnail to view full image)

One lesson we learned is that the use of urgency in the subject line such as "act now” can increase interest, for example, as part of an end-of-year gifts campaign. This will allow the donor to take advantage of some last minute charitable deductions before the New Year. Many charities used urgency effectively to encourage donors to contact their IRA administrators and make a charitable transfer after the IRA charitable rollover was passed for the final time and made permanent.  

Urgency works well, just don’t overuse it. If all of your emails are urgent, your donors may not know which messages require immediate action. To optimize results, the urgency in your call to action (in the body of the email) should match the urgency in your subject line.

Color Comparison and Font Analysis

Crescendo worked again with UNH to design two emails that were both sent on June 15. Both emails had the same subject line: "Protect Your Loved Ones and Create Your Legacy." The difference was the font and background colors. Version A had dark text on a white background. (8.65%) Version B had light text on a dark background (5.23%).

color-comparison-and-font-analysis-Version-A-thumbnail.png  color-comparison-and-font-analysis-Version-B-thumbnail.png

(click thumbnail to view full image)

There is actually a difference of opinion on which is easier to read. This test confirmed that dark text on a light background was more likely to produce a click-through. That could have been, in part, due to how the "take action" button looked. The button on Version A — with the white background — was a blue button. On Version B, to make the button stand out, the button had a black button on the dark blue background.

Additional things to consider when designing emails to produce the best results include the following:

  • Use short paragraphs
  • Headlines and bullets can add structure and improve readability
  • Bold and italics should be used sparingly – if everything is bold, nothing is bold
  • Avoid using underlines – underlining should be reserved for web links
  • Line spacing and margins should be consistent



A great deal can be learned from testing emails. I would encourage you to perform your own tests to see how your donors respond to your marketing. To view more results from Crescendo’s study, visit


Learn more about how to increase donor engagement through integrated email, social media, and other digital media at our December 13 Webinar.



Kristen Schultz Jaarda, JD, LLM

Written by Kristen Schultz Jaarda, JD, LLM

Kristen Schultz Jaarda is Executive Vice President of Crescendo Interactive, Inc. She specializes in charitable tax planning and online marketing for planned gifts. She is responsible for client education for Crescendo's web and software services. Kristen serves as a board member for the American Council on Gift Annuities (ACGA) and an Editorial Advisory Board member for Planned Giving Today.