How to Achieve Out of This World Open Rates [Plus 5 Tips to Avoid the Trash Altogether]

Guest Post by  Ashley Donald. Online Fundraising Enthusiast. Wiener Dog Lover.  Barre Evolution Addict.  Short Order Cook.  Adventure Travel Nut.


Let’s face it – it takes you less than a second to decide whether or not to open an email. No, this is not a heavily confirmed or long researched statistic that I am quoting – In fact, I made it up. 

But it’s the truth.

Every day, I wake up, scroll my email inbox – SCAN the subject line for something relevant – then open or delete according to my 3 Bucket Principle. If the email doesn’t fit within one of the 3 buckets, the only place for it is the trash.

Your donors are no different. 

They’re bombarded with emails every day. The only way to ensure your email isn’t immediately discarded is to be invited into their inbox.

To do this, your email must be categorized under one of the 3 Buckets:

Bucket 1: Trusted Sender

Who sent the email? If I receive an email that comes from a close friend, family member or colleague – you’re in.  No scanning necessary.

But what about your supporters – are you acquainted enough with them that they’ll open the email solely because it came from your organization?

If you’re not consistently building relationships with your supporter base, getting to know them on a first-name basis, it’s unlikely that reading your email will be high on their priority list.

Bucket 2: Stuff I Care About

If the email isn’t sent from a “trusted sender”, I then ask myself whether it’s something that can help me or something that I care about?

At the end of the day – we’ve spent our lives developing and mapping out who we are, what we love, and what we stand for.  If you send me an email about how to save an orphaned group of dachshunds, where to find the best deal on barre classes in Charleston, SC, or what to do when you run out of milk mid recipe – you’ve won my attention.

What matters to your supporters? Are you keeping track of their interactions with your organization so that you have a comprehensive understanding of their ties to your organization?

Knowing your supporters – their habits, interests, and history with your organization – will help your organization strategically segment your lists so that you’re sending content that is relevant to each supporter.

Bucket 3: Ok, You’ve Got Me…

If you don’t fall immediately into the first two buckets– bucket 3 is your  last shot at being saved from the trash. Is there something in this email or subject line that is SO enticing that I have to open?

In other words – I don’t have a developed interest in what you are saying, doing or trying to sell me – but maybe, JUST MAYBE, you sparked an interest. Now, tell me more.

Maybe you’re working to build relationships with new donors or rekindle the flame with old ones. Either way, it’s important that your subject line entices them to want to know more. Remind them of why they supported your organization in the first place. Give them a reason to click.

Here are five easy ways to get your nonprofit’s email into one of the 3 coveted buckets from our Blackbaud Email Marketing experts: 

1. Rate Your Subject Lines

You can use a free service like to score your email subject lines. While impartial, this tool will at least give you an idea of whether your email is in danger of being axed early. 

2. A/B Test

Send one subject line to one group and another to the second group.  Look at the data.  If one did far better than the other – you have your winner.

Caution: make sure you test this with a small first batch, (maybe 100 email addresses).  That way you won’t waste your valuable email on the subject line that was not as effective. 

3. Get Feedback

If you have the opportunity talk to some of your more active donors, ones that respond to email, find out why they are opening them.  Feedback is always your friend. 

4. Have a Call to Action

Don’t just say “Learn More” or “Checking Back In” (meaning that I have probably already deleted your email once).  Show some excitement!  

I opened 3 emails today because the subject lines included  the words “Redeem,” “Introducing” and “Sneak Peek,”  All lines that make me wonder “What’s New?” or “Did I miss something?”.

5. Stay Out of the Third Bucket Altogether

Database and online marketing tools allow you to bucket your supporters into different groups based on interest – USE THOSE TOOLS.

Every interaction you have with a supporter should build on the last. If your donors feel like just another name in a database, it’s likely that your email open rates will dwindle.

Get to know your supporters and demonstrate your appreciation for their support by creating and sending thoughtful, timely, and relevant emails.