80 Email Subject Lines from End of Year Fundraising | npENGAGE

80 Email Subject Lines from End of Year Fundraising

By on Jan 3, 2012


I get a lot of nonprofit email messages through subscribing to lists, working with lots of organizations, and being a donor. That means my inbox gets pretty flooded at the end of each year.

Back in 2010, I wrote about all the direct mail pieces that I had collected over a year. This time I collected all of the nonprofit emails that I was sent between December 15, 2011 and January 1, 2012. Here’s what I discovered after going through all the email messages.

So Different, Yet So Similar

Despite these organizations having a wide variety of missions and causes — it was surprising and a bit concerning how similar most of the subject lines appeared to be.

It was almost as if many organizations were reading from the same recipe book. It was very common to receive multiple messages from different nonprofits at about the same time with very similar subject lines.

I ran the subject lines of the 80 emails from 35 nonprofits through a text analyzer. Common words and the names of the organizations were removed. The result was that words like “give” and “gift” were used the most along with “deadline” and “midnight” in the subject lines. “Donate” and “support” were less common as was “thank” in the emails.

The subject lines also followed a similar pattern over 18 days. The emails began on December 15th with a holiday related message before shifting to gift or giving subject lines, and then a major focus on the end of year and tax-deduction reminders by December 31st. The frequency of the emails and sense of urgency also increased up until the end of the year.

Now, I certainly realize that the subject line is just one part of a successful email message. How you segment the message and the actual content and calls-to-action are also very important. But end-of-year and time-sensitive emails place a higher importance on the subject line. This is because a tremendous amount of email during this time of year is read on mobile devices and the subject line may be the online thing people see.

I may be an outlier because of the volume of emails that I receive and that I’m really paying attention to them — but imagine what potential donors are seeing.

EOY Fundraising Toolkit

Standing Out in the Inbox
The average donors gives to 3 or more nonprofits. By now, most nonprofits are engaged in email marketing. They might not all be sending a lot of email but you can guarantee that they use email as part of their end of year fundraising programs. This mad dash at the end of the year creates an attention crunch and nonprofits that don’t stand out are simply going to be ignored. The key to success is standing out in the in the Inbox.

From a completely subjective perspective, I would say that less than 10 of the emails subject lines stood out in some remarkable way. One email with a subject line of “Is it Friday yet? Email error” caught my attention enough to read the actual message. The organization was apologizing for sending members and lapsed members the same email appeal. It says something that they took the time to send another targeted message and that stewardship was important to them.

Some stood out for the wrong reasons. I’ve never been a fan of the “fake FWD” subject line — it’s a trick spammers use. And there are good ways and bad ways to highlight the possible tax deduction benefits of donating. I say “possible” because in the US, charitable contributions are deductible only if you itemize deductions. Less than 35% of Americans actually itemize their deductions.

Several nonprofits ran matching gift campaigns and others focused on outcomes. These work well when paired with good message content. Thank you messages from prior gifts also stood out in the inbox. Some simple A/B testing could tell you which subjects lines and messages will perform best for your organization.

80 Email Subject Lines from End of Year Fundraising
Here are all the subject lines beginning with those received on January 1, 2012 and moving backwards in time to December 15, 2011:

  • Happy New Year from _____
  • URGENT-Just a few hours left!
  • Last chance! Just hours left for year-end gifts
  • Only a Few Hours Left: Help Us Reach Our Goal
  • Midnight Deadline to Give
  • Hurry! Triple match ends at midnight tonight
  • LAST CHANCE to make your tax-deductible year-end donation!
  • It Ends Tonight at Midnight
  • Please Open! 12 Hours Left to Double Your Impact with _____
  • DEADLINE: Twice as Strong
  • Tax Deduction 2011. Close the year by offering struggling families self-reliance.
  • Midnight deadline for tax-deductible donations
  • DEADLINE: midnight tonight
  • It’s New Year’s Eve
  • Final hours to double your year-end gift
  • Don’t miss out on a tax deduction
  • So close
  • Happy New Year from the _____
  • Last Chance to Give in 2011
  • Only 1 day left–don’t forget to donate!
  • Let’s Rally Together
  • Last Chance to Make a Tax-Deductible Gift in 2011
  • _____ Still Needs Your Help
  • URGENT: year-end deadline is tomorrow
  • Just one day left
  • Time is running out for your dollar-for-dollar year-end match
  • It’s not too late to give in 2011
  • It’s the end of the year, but just the beginning for many!
  • 73,000,003 reasons
  • Assurance, hope and stability
  • The perfect team?
  • A special message from _____ Co-Founder _____
  • In the New Year
  • Sharing light and hope with grieving families year round
  • Don’t miss your chance–donate before December 31!
  • An expression of your passion for birds
  • There’s Still Time to Give in 2011!
  • Make Your Tax-Deductible Gift and Save a Life
  • Make a difference in 2011
  • Maximize your 2011 tax deduction before December 31
  • Just a Few Days Left
  • Don’t miss the 2011 tax deadline!
  • Every surgery, vaccine, or meal
  • Will our closest relatives survive this?
  • URGENT: TRIPLE Matching Gift Offer!
  • Happy Holidays from __________!
  • Double Your Impact
  • Finishing Strong – What Can We Do Together?
  • Thank You from the _____
  • _____’s year-end match will double your impact for the Bay
  • It’s not too late. Give gifts of hope from _____.
  • Meaningful Last Minute Gifts
  • Please don’t forget your gift for the birds
  • Make a Year End Impact by Supporting the _____
  • FWD: Give last-minute _____ gifts. Give long-lasting hope.
  • Why You Should Support _____ this Holiday Season
  • Make your gifts count in 2011
  • Invest in the future of _____
  • There’s still time to give a Gift of Hope
  • It’s not too late to give a gift that lasts a lifetime
  • Thank you for your support of _____
  • Give last-minute _____ gifts. Give long-lasting hope.
  • It’s a Last-Minute Gift that Makes a Difference
  • There’s Still Time to Give in 2011!
  • Donate to protect polar bears and your gift will be matched
  • Is it Friday yet? Email error
  • Thank You for Supporting the 58th Annual Free Care Fund Benefit Show‏
  • Give the Comforts of Home for the Holidays
  • A Very Important Message to Our Treasured Friends
  • Join Now, Get a Tax Deduction
  • Adoption Fees for ALL Adult Animals Underwritten by an Animal Angel!
  • Happy Holidays from _____
  • Happy Holidays from the ______
  • Happy Holidays from ____!
  • Shop today and your gift will be matched for maximum benefit
  • Holiday Greetings

Do you recognize any of these? How do some of your own subject lines compare to these? Are you standing out in the inbox?



Steve MacLaughlin is the Vice President of Data & Analytics at Blackbaud and bestselling author of Data Driven Nonprofits.

MacLaughlin has been featured as a fundraising and nonprofit expert in many mainstream publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, USA Today, The NonProfit Times, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Bloomberg, and has appeared on NPR.

He is a frequent speaker at events including the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP), American Marketing Association (AMA), Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), Direct Marketing Fundraisers Association (DMFA), Giving Institute Summer Symposium, National Association of Independent School (NAIS), Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), Institute of Fundraising National Convention (United Kingdom), Civil Society Conference (Netherlands), International Fundraising Congress (Netherlands), Ask Direct Fundraising Summer School (Ireland), and a keynote speaker at several conferences across the social good sector.

Steve previously served on the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) Board of Directors and is currently an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University.

He is a frequent blogger, published author of a chapter in the book People to People Fundraising: Social Networking and Web 2.0 for Charities, and is a co-editor of the book Internet Management for Nonprofits: Strategies, Tools & Trade Secrets. His latest book, Data Driven Nonprofits, became a bestseller in 2016.

Steve earned both his undergraduate degree and a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University.

Comments (18)

  • Allison Van Diest says:

    Great post, Steve!  It is intriguing to scan the list of subject lines and see how few stick out.  The winner for me was “73,000,003 reasons”  Just curious (and keeping in mind that you are maybe a bit different than the typical audience for these emails based on your relationship with the organizations) – did any of them influence you to give?  Or were your choices already made and all donations given before the year end flurry?

  • Sandy says:

    Interesting.  Thanks for sharing this list Steve. 


  • Hank Techentin says:

    Perhaps you’re not subscribed to any faith-based nonprofits, but I’m a little surprised that “Merry Christmas” is missing from the list. It’s just possible that using that in a subject line for 2012 year-end email will help the message stand out. In the US, gift-giving is most strongly related to Christmas.

    Every study I’ve ever read on the subject tells us that tax benefits are among the lowest motivators for donors. And, as Steve points out, most US donors don’t itemize their deductions (and therefore, will not likely receive a tax benefit from a year-end gift.

    And maybe these messages were aimed at people who’ve not given previously, but I’m *really* surprised by the absence of “Thank You” from the subject lines. Nonprofits cannot say “thank you” too often, even before receiving the first contribution.

    Thanks for compiling this, Steve!

    • HOH4vida says:

      @Hank I agree about the Thank You. One of the first things we learned as children and should be still very important.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes, there’s a sample bias in here because it’s only orgs that are emailing me. But it does give a window into patterns of what nonprofits are doing.

      Agreed. The tax benefits aspect is a low donor motivator. Surveys shows this and the data does too.

      Yep, not enough “Thank You” messages and follow-ups in the New Year.

  • Annaliese says:

    Thanks for compiling this, Steve.  I was watching these similar emails come through my inbox during this period and also remarked the similarities — from subject lines to messages to campaign tactics.  Since I work both *at* a nonprofit and *for* nonprofits, this concerned me — I think it was the sense of competition that unsettled me, but also the realization that much of it is unavoidable.  It is the end of the year; studies and blog articles (including from my organization) have been telling us to send lots of email at the end of the year to raise more gifts online. 

    From my personal perspective, I think what would move me the most to donate is the reminder from the organization or cause that I was already committed to.  In that case, the reminder of deadlines plus perhaps a kind of personal appeal — from someone at the organization, not just the general organization — might be the most effective for me.  And when there are, say, 10 or so of those in my inbox, well, I think it would boil down to which organization had the best relationship with me throughout the year, not just at the end of the year. 

    So the moral of this end-of-year-email-deluge story for me would be to make sure to build those relationships with supporters throughout the year, so that when all those “last chance to give” emails come at the end of the year, your organization will stand out because of who you’ve been all year long, not just at the deadline.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree. There is a lot of talk about the importance of end of year giving and the need to email donors. But the consequences of this is that it creates a deluge. Only those organizations that have built good relationships are likely to stand out. For all the great things about technology — it still comes down to the basics.

  • Very useful article.  On December 31, I had back-to-back emails in my in-box from the same organization.  One read “Time is running out” and the next one read “There is still time.”  Apparently they were doing an A/B split, but for this donor, neither approach prompted a gift.  But I was amused by the “glass is half full/half empty” approach!

  • Brendan says:

    That is quite an interesting list.  Seeing all of those headlines together goes far in illustrating the sense of competition.

  • Ehren Foss says:

    People in the nonprofit industry get a ton of emails, but how many does the average person get?  How many lists are they on?  

    I hope a few causes sat out the fracas and are preparing to launch a “why not give all year? don’t procrasdonate” campaign this week or next.  

    I’m also curious, for year end giving, how much people actually think about the marginal benefit to their taxes, the marginal benefit of holding onto the money for 51 weeks (earning interest) and then donate at the deadline, and how many people give because it’s just what you do this time of year.  

    • Anonymous says:

      Good questions. No one knows for sure how many nonprofit emails the average person receives. But we know that the average donors give to 3 or more organizations. And it’s not a stretch to assume that they are receiving at least a few email solicitations at the end of the year.

      I agree 100% that there needs to be a shift to encouraging giving year round, not just during the last days. In many ways, nonprofits are just painting themselves into a bad corner for focusing so much on this last mad dash.

      The tax benefit is highly overstated both in surveys of donors but actual taxpayer behavior. It seems to be an appeal of last resort compared to all the things — mission, outcomes, impact, etc.

  • Very interesting and usefull article. We will be sharing this with our fundraising groups.

  • Tmwinther says:

    Who cares ?? Why am I receiving this useless crud ..

  • Jwclark says:

    A good portion of these emails will get blocked by filters.  50% are all saying this email is urgent.  When they are all urgent they get ignored.  The other emails are all repeat subject lines.  I would unsubscribe very quickly from this email list. 

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