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Invisible but Important: Less-Known Ways to Improve Open Rates for Email

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So far, as we’ve been talking about ways to improve the open rates of fundraising emails, we’ve focused on things donors can see and respond to.

There’s another whole class of things you can do that donors can’t see. But these behind-the-scenes tactics can really boost open rates, leading to much better response.

Send Timing

“When should I send emails?” is a question I’m often asked. My answer? It depends. 🙂

If your email is responding to a real-world emergency or high impact breaking news, get it out as soon as possible. The subject’s relevance and audience engagement at that moment trumps other considerations, and you can always follow up again the next day.

Outside of that scenario, you need to figure out when your audience is most likely to check their email and what’s happening on different days and times for them. Tuesdays to Thursdays are generally better days as people aren’t taking long weekends and your audiences in different time zones may have already started their weekend on your Friday or still be in their Sunday on your Monday. And mid-mornings or mid-afternoons – when people have cleared their morning pile of work or have come back from lunch – are often good times for response.

Of course the profile of your email list – whether they’re more workers or retirees or other – will impact what’s going on for them on different days and times. So your insights into your supporters can really come in handy.

Ultimately, you should experiment with different send times and analyze the results to find the optimal time. Tools like Send Time Optimization (available in some email platforms) can help automate this process, sending emails at the best time for each individual recipient where possible.


With segmentation, we’re talking about who receives your email – as opposed to tailoring the email content to individual recipients, which is personalization.

You can segment your audience using variables such as prior email engagement, supporter/donor type, giving history, activities they may have done with you and other information about them. Being selective about who you send to can make for greater relevance and email engagement. But it’s important to be careful about assumptions you make.

Segmentation for direct response fundraising can be fairly straightforward. For example, selecting donors and non-financial subscribers to include in a monthly donor conversion campaign, which might exclude one-off donors who have previously given over a certain amount.

But be wary of making assumptions about what people are and aren’t interested in unless you’ve got hard evidence. Just because a supporter hasn’t previously done a fun run with you, doesn’t mean they won’t do the next one and be a winning fundraiser.


Deliverability is the ability of your email to reach someone’s inbox without being stopped or sent to the spam folder. Your sender reputation, content quality, authentication protocols, and list hygiene all play a role in email deliverability.

Deliverability is a complex topic, and the larger your list, the more attention you should pay to it. For those starting out, you can split it into two main areas, with the following aligned recommendations:

  1. Program quality: This impacts your reputation with email and internet service providers, which takes time to develop and must be maintained. In general, you should make sure your emails are interesting and relevant for your audience, avoid spam-like behavior (commercial sale or competition language or click-baiting), build relationships with your audience, and steer clear of buying poor quality email lists that lead to low engagement or spam reports.
  2. Authentication: Email authentication proves that your email really comes from your organization. Its implementation is technical – although mostly not overly-complex – and generally requires IT or developer support to implement. The first steps to take for authentication are to implement DKIM and SPF protocols. Most major email service providers should step you through these or have support articles on how to implement. Once you have these two implemented and you’re growing your list, you can consider implementing a third protocol, DMARC. But don’t worry about that yet if you’re just starting out.

To understand how you’re doing with deliverability, you can monitor your sender reputation with tools like Sender Score. To keep your reputation healthy, you can maintain a clean email list by removing inactive or invalid addresses. You can also consider using a double opt-in process to ensure that subscribers genuinely want to receive your emails.

Putting extra effort into getting your emails noticed and opened really is worth it. Experiment with the tactics and variables mentioned above, even if you’re starting out with a small list. The time and energy you invest now will lead to more income for your cause as you grow your online communities and digital fundraising program.

Want more up-to-the-moment help for digital fundraising? Take our all-new and completely FREE online workshop, 3 Email Fundraising Mistakes That Cost You Tons of Donations. Featuring digital Fundraisingologist James Herlihy, this single session will help you leap forward in your online fundraising mastery. Sessions are coming up soon! More information here. 

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