How to Optimize your Fundraising Emails with A/B Testing — and What to Test


Quiz: What’s one question you can always ask of your digital strategy? The answer: “How can we make this better?”
By utilizing A/B testing across your platforms, you can more effectively optimize fundraising emails, landing pages, and digital ads — thereby maximizing the metrics that matter most to your organization. By running comparisons of different content strategies or design approaches, you can challenge assumptions and let the data guide your nonprofit towards more donations and more impact. This includes using A/B tests to get the highest return on your email marketing investment.

Why email fundraising?

Before we get into the actual testing around email fundraising optimization, let’s talk about the value of email (especially for fundraising). From the dog days of summer to year-end fundraising, email can have a return on investment of 122%, which is more than 4x greater than the ROI of social media, direct mail, and paid search. In 2017, email accounted for 26% of online revenue for nonprofits. 

Why A/B testing (aka, subscribers are people, too)

That said, we recommend focusing on quality (rather than quantity) and listen to your users. Subscribers and donors are people, too, meaning that you don’t call your friends only when you need to ask for a favor. And when you do need a favor, you don’t ask each friend in the exact same way. And here’s how digital fundraising becomes like a Liam Neeson film (go with us on this…):
Much like your friends, no two donors are alike. What’s more, every organization has a unique relationship with their constituents. Testing your messaging will help you discover what works best for your particular set of supporters. You know how Liam Neeson has a particular set of skills in Taken? All nonprofits have particular sets of supporters. (You’ll see this in our new film, Donated, coming soon to a theatre near you.… Not really.)
What nonprofits have in common with Liam Neeson: Liam has a particular set of skills. Nonprofits have a particular set of donors. Share on X

A/B testing best practices: A refresher

To run an email A/B test, create 2 copies of one email, changing just one element at a time. Send both emails to random segments of your list, and track which one gets better open and/or click rates. Then send the winner to the rest of your list. Even if your list is small, you can still run A/B tests through your email marketing service in order to optimize your messaging. The results may not be statistically significant, but they can help identify a pattern.
Now, onto the testing! 

5 A/B tests to optimize your fundraising emails

1. Time of day and day of the week

Look at past email data to see when you sent emails. Do you see patterns in open rates? Do some days or times get more opens than others? Focus on the days and times that seem to be working, and run tests to find the golden hour of when users open your emails. Then, be consistent! When people expect your emails, they will be primed to look for them, and will be more likely to open them.

2. Subject lines

For fundraising campaigns, our favorite subject lines are those that instill a sense of urgency, insert a subscriber’s name, or reference current events. Run an A/B test where you send the same email with 2 different subject lines to 2 random segments of your list. Which one gets the most opens? Send more in that style.
For example:

  • A: Only 3 days until Giving Tuesday!
  • B: Meredith, only 3 days until Giving Tuesday!


The Nonprofit Organization’s Guide to Email Marketing

From lead generation to email segmentation to A/B testing, this guide is a one-stop-shop for bringing your email marketing strategy to the next level.

3. Send name and “from” address

Studies show that adding a human name to your “from” address can increase open rates by 30%. If you have a high profile person at your organization, or a celebrity associated with your nonprofit, try sending from those highly recognizable names. Even if you don’t have the high-powered connection, sending from a non-famous human name can still boost open rates. Soon, subscribers will come to recognize you as, say, Meredith, the Whole Whale email person! Just a random example…

4. Email media

For content, 3 things that tend to drive people to click on donation emails are images, videos, and data visualizations. What works best for your organization? Run an A/B test where 1 email has an image, and 1 has a video. What gets the most clicks? Test the winner vs. an email with data viz. Track your results and find the media that drives the most people to take action. Once to determine what kind of media works best, you can test options within that larger category.

5. Copy length and calls-to-action

Does your audience need a full story in the email to persuade them to click through? Or do they just need an enticing snapshot to get them to check out your donate page? Run an A/B test where one email has 2-3 paragraphs of text and one has just 3-5 sentences. What gets more people to click through? Find the sweet spot and run with it. Don’t forget, too, that your copy can include those calls-to-action. What inspires more donors for your organization: “Donate” or “Give”? Only one way to find out. 

Email appeals can raise a tidy sum for your organization, but only when you focus on sending quality messages that resonate with your audience. Start testing, and start raising money! For more email and A/B testing tips, sign up for our list and download our complete email guide below.


“What are email users doing on my site?” asked every nonprofit ever. With Lighthouse by Whole Whale, we’ve created a virtual handshake between your email marketing provider and your Google Analytics to better understand the online activities of high-value email subscribers. Get more information and sign up for a demo at