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Nonprofit Email Appends: Case Study

  How Shriners Hospitals for Children changed creative and delivery
  to increase number of online holiday fundraising donations by 82%.

When 90% of the names on your nonprofit house file are appended email addresses, what can you expect from a web-based fundraising campaign? You'd be surprised...



























Burke’s summary? “As always, I wish we had started working on it earlier! I think the creative and the copy came together nicely. We were fortunate to have a very compelling story to share, which is vital to any campaign.”























By Lisa Sargent
Sargent Communications

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When 90% of the names on your nonprofit house file are appended email addresses, what can you expect from a web-based fundraising campaign? You'd be surprised...

Shriners Hospitals for Children gets creative and finds new success with nonprofit email appends: an 82% increase over prior year in number of gifts made, and a 69% increase in total donation amount. Following is the story of the one-two strategy that led to the nonprofit’s success, along with supporting samples.

I. Background

In the fall of 2009, with a house email list of 70,000 names, Shriners Hospitals for Children (SHC) set out to send a series of holiday messages that would increase both their email open rate and online donations.

There was just one hitch: nine out of every ten addresses on the email list were appended.

For the uninitiated, the Direct Marketing Association defines email appending as follows:

E-mail address appending is the process of adding a consumer’s [donor’s] e-mail address to that consumer’s [donor’s] record. The e-mail address is obtained by matching those records from the marketer’s database against a third-party database to produce a corresponding e-mail address.

The upside is that for nonprofits looking to build their email address list, email appends get the job done quickly. How quickly?

Christina Burke, Shriners Hospitals for Children’s Development Marketing Coordinator replies:

“Practically overnight. The process was actually really simple…the company we worked with took care of the initial emails, letting our donors know we wanted to begin emailing them. They sent us the list of those who did not opt out and we sent our own welcome message, providing another chance to opt out. Our initial append gave us approximately 90,000 email addresses. Some of those people never opened an email, and over time we have filtered our list so that we are not continuing to email non-openers/ non-responders.” (See Section III for more advice from Burke on choosing an email append service.)

The downside to email appends?

Maligned by donor-centric and permission marketers alike, appended emails are plagued by lower than average open rates and higher than average unsubscribes. For example, The Nonprofit Times reported that on average “appended emails have open rates that are about two-thirds as high as those email addresses acquired online.”

Put another way: Appended-list email messages are the wedding crashers of the marketing world...

They arrive uninvited. They cause a commotion. Often, we snub them. But if they’re well-behaved, we sometimes warm to them – and even come to think of them as family.

Shriners Hospitals for Children had not escaped the horrors of nonprofit email appends unscathed. Historical open rates and click-throughs were relatively low.

And as a donor-centric copywriter, I confess that I haven't been a fan of email appending. So when Sargent Communications was tapped by SHC to do the copywriting for the holiday emails, I knew Burke and I had our work cut out for us.

Described below is the two-part plan used by Shriners Hospitals for Children, combining story-driven, donor-focused creative with Burke’s thrifty “email recycling” strategy.

II. The Two-Part Plan

We started in November 2009, with a thank-you email that was sent to the append-ful house list. There was no overt Ask, and no dominant “Donate Now” button.

This was no marketing ploy. SHC truly is grateful to all of their donors both online and offline: they did, in fact, want to simply say thank you.

The kicker here is that – whether to email appends or opt-ins – many nonprofits start out with a thank-only strategy, but then have a hard time holding on to it, even if just for one email. Somehow numerous Asks creep in.

Shriners Hospitals for Children, though, stayed true to its long term vision.

Part 1: Revise Creative.
5 key creative elements helped set the Thanksgiving email apart:

  1. Super-short, simple subject line: Due to the append factor, I knew we had even less time than usual to grab the reader’s attention – and ultimately settled on “Thankful for...You!” At just 19 characters, it’s well below the often recommended 35, and contains the word you.

  2. Story-driven messaging: Because we’ve worked together before, Burke and I typically discuss several stories before selecting the best one for an appeal. In this case, we were also able to add a video link, using a “still shot” to encourage reader to watch the clip. (Embedding videos in email is not yet a good idea, though it may be one day.)

  3. Artwork in the header: Burke made smart use of a painting drawn by one of SHC’s patients, which helped draw the reader into the message.

  4. Using a signer. In the past, SHC’s emails weren’t signed by anyone. I recommended they use a signer (who in this case is also the signer of their direct mail packages): this email was to be a one-to-one communication, as virtually all nonprofit emails should be.

  5. Donor-focused copy: One example: in the body copy, the words you and your appear 29 times. We appears twice.

A link to the Thanksgiving email is included at the end of this article.

But if you’re curious to know how it fared, the effect was immediate: open rates doubled, from six percent to twelve percent, well above average for appends.

As a bonus, both Burke and I feel the thank-you email fostered a receptive attitude among readers, effectively paving the way for the emails we planned for December.

Next stop: Christmas.

Based on the Thanksgiving appeal Burke hoped to duplicate our twelve percent open rate, thinking that this would in turn drive donations higher.

She decided on heavy revisions to an email that SHC had used the year prior. This essentially meant that, as the copywriter, I stuck to the general length, kept tax-benefit language (good for end-of-year appeals), and worked within a pre-set design template.

I did, however, change the appeal copy.

For starters, I used the same techniques that worked so well in November to craft the email, and that I recommend to my nonprofit clients:

  • Story-based appeal
  • Strong lead - the first 1-2 lines must engage the reader
  • Short subject line, based on solid headline-writing principles
  • Photo (with caption, if at all possible)
  • Top-level signer

And again, you can see the story we chose, and the Christmas appeal itself, by clicking on the link at the end of this article. (By the way, SHC is good with using the word Christmas as well as holiday.)

From a marketing perspective, though, this is where things really get interesting...

Part 2: Burke’s Brainstorm.
Repeat delivery using cost-effective “copy recycling” strategy.

Instead of sending a series of different emails throughout the season, Burke sent only one.

Then she sent it again.

Then in the days remaining before December 31st, Burke sent two more emails with a strong “tax-deductible” slant (this time based on a skinnied-down version of the 2008 email).

Each time, Burke sent the email only to those who hadn’t yet opened the previous messages. And each time she changed the subject line, as follows:

Delivery Date
Subject Line
Brittany’s Miracle: A Holiday Story
Help make a holiday miracle possible
Only 3 days left to make a tax-deductible gift
Your last-minute gift means bright futures for kids


When asked how she thought up the strategy, Burke replies:

“I actually cannot take credit for this strategy. At a conference I attended in November, many non-profits were raving about the results of this strategy. We had always sent at least one follow up email to non-responders, but I heard from my peers that they were seeing success with up to four sends. Particularly during the holidays, I think you have more latitude here because you are trying to cut through the clutter. People are not reading every email they receive and may actually appreciate the reminders. We only sent one per week, which I don’t think is overwhelming. Our opt-out rates were not dramatically different than any other time of the year. If they were, we would need to re-think our strategy, so I would caution other non-profits to keep their eye on those metrics and adjust accordingly. The goal is not to annoy your constituents!”

(Author's Note: I disagree with Burke about who gets the credit. Because she took the initiative and acted on what she learned at the conference, I'd say Burke is well-deserving of whatever kudos come her way.)

How does Burke summarize the 2009 campaign? “As always, I wish we had started working on it earlier! I think the creative and the copy came together nicely. We were fortunate to have a very compelling story to share, which is vital to any campaign.”

III. Results, Takeaway Tips and Samples


For this specific campaign SHC saw a 69% increase in total donation amount and 82% increase in number of gifts made as compared to their 2008 campaign (which consisted of one appeal and one follow up).

More advice from Burke on choosing an email append service:

“Do your research. Ask your website hosting company if they know of good companies they can recommend. You want to select a company with a good reputation because you will need to be able to trust them to comply with best practices and spam laws, and to guarantee they will provide you working emails in a timely fashion.”

Creative Samples:

Sample Thanksgiving email: click here or click thumbnail to view PDF.

Sample Christmas email: click here or click thumbnail to view PDF.

© Lisa Sargent and Sargent Communications.


About Lisa Sargent and Sargent Communications:

Head of Sargent Communications, Lisa Sargent is a freelance fundraising copywriter and donor communications specialist. Dedicated to helping her nonprofit clients raise more money and keep more donors, Sargent works on retainer and per-project to write effective post-acquisition fundraising and development communications, known as donor retention communications. Since 2005 Sargent has helped raise well over ten million dollars for her nonprofit clients.

Got a project? Just call +001 (860) 881-7009 to get started, or email Lisa at

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