South African NPOs: Six things to avoid in fundraising emails

Gabrielle Ritchie | Director, The Change Room | 26th May 2017

Last night I participated in Gail Perry’s Fired-Up Fundraising webinar, How a Smart Fundraising Plan Can Transform Your Fundraising AND Save Your Butt. It was a brilliant reminder of some of the basics, the fundamentals, that organisations need to put in place for successful fundraising.  It also reminded me of some of the technical issues around fundraising communications, with particular reference to emails.

While Gail shared with us that last year’s US-based Giving Tuesday’s email campaigns saw 34% of mails ending up in spam, it is still a key mechanism for building support for non-profit causes, and for communicating fundraising messages.  So we really need to get it right.  I recently received two very horrible fundraising emails which reminded me not only how easy it is to get it wrong, but how many organisations are still getting it wrong.  With the unprecedented level of easy-to-access online resources, this should not be happening.  So I have a list, based on the two examples I referred to, on what to AVOID:

  1. Subject line – your subject header is your first and last opportunity to grab your readers’ attention, so make it work!  If you must include something like “[organisation’s name] fundraising event” then …. no, just kidding. Don’t use that subject line. Ever. Unless its an internal organisational event-planning email intended only for your colleagues.  Use that tiny window of opportunity (ie.the subject header) to communicate your key message – eg. Support [xxxx cause] – join us on [date]; or Join us in rocking to [xxx band] – and support [xxx cause]; or something unrelated to the event or to the fact that your support is needed. If it is an event, try something fun: How to spend your Saturday night having the most fun ever! Or if you are appealing for direct donation, try “Ten ways to support old people in your community”. Anything but ploddy and blunt – “Fundraising event” or “Appeal for donation” are designed to put people right off.
  2. Greeting – avoid a dead line such as “Good day” or “Good Afternoon Sir/ Madam” – with no personalisation. It is the coldest, most off-putting, most “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care, but I want your money” kind of opening. And it puts mail recipients off just like that, in the opening line.  Ensure you include the recipient’s name, or title and surname. And get it right.  With the mail management software available, there is no excuse. If you really aren’t able to include names, at least start with something warm and friendly, like “Dear Friends”.
  3. Attachments – don’t include attachments. Just don’t. This is not what fudnraising emails are for. If you are mailing out to a predominantly cold list, an attachment will put people right off. I, like most others, don’t open mails with attachments from people I don’t know.  If you are mailing to a group of existing supporters, don’t make them do the work by now having to download and open an attachment!  If you need to space in an attachment, to include all your information, you are doing something wrong.
  4. Images – if you need to embed images in your mail, make them small!  As a fundraiser, you want to be keeping things as simple, easy and uncumbersome as possible. And you want images to come up right away – because if they are not included to grab attention (only a few seconds to do that!), then why did you include them?
  5. Content – you need to include encouraging text, that takes the mail recipient by the hand and (very quickly) leads them to an emotion.  No emotion = no point of contact.  Don’t bore readers with technical details about your organisation (eg. “:We are a registered NPO” – because if you aren’t, then get out of my mail box you hoaxer! That kind of info belongs in small print as part of your signature). Do not use the precious “real estate” of the readers screen for boring and unnecessary text. You want the reader to be excited about supporting you, whether that sense of heightened awareness is based on sympathy, empathy, self-interest, outrage, justice – it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that however your message makes them feel, it galvanises them to go to and participate in your Call to Action!
  6. Call to Action – this is absolutely critical in a fundraising email.  The purpose of the mail is to share an immediate, direct Call to Action that your recipients can reasonably achieve while they are reading your mail – for example “Go to our Donate page”, with a big DONATE button; or a big button saying “Get Involved – here’s HOW” (which must link to your website where there would be information on the multiple ways a prospective donor can support your work); include a “Get your tickets here” button, which takes the reader to a ticket-purchase page.  You get the idea. Bear in mind that people are not supporting your “fundraising”, they are supporting your “work” and the cause you are involved with – so use that effectively in your Call to Action!

Those are some basics – now go and craft the best fundraising mail ever! You (and your board and beneficiaries) will be so glad you did!


Researching South African Philanthropy – for growth!

by Gabrielle Ritchie, Director: The Change Room

1st April 2016

Image source: CAF Southern Africa: I believe I can make a difference. Report on Giving in South Africa. 2015

In the last few weeks in South Africa – preceding the 31 March 2016 milestone ruling in South Africa’s Constitutional Court regarding #Nkandla – we have seen a couple of important events in South African philanthropy.  In some senses the #ConCourt judgement is as much a victory for philanthropy in support of democracy as it is a major victory for democracy itself.

Much has been happening in local philanthropy, aside from the extent to which Constitutionalism in our country has so fully been strengthened with philanthropic funding. The first event I refer to was the launch of a unique new online knowledge resource (at which offers insights, thoughts, expertise and knowledge on practices of grantmaking in South Africa, and an overview of the current state of the local philanthropy field, with a particular focus on funding in support of human rights and social justice.

This is the first resource of its kind, offering a comprehensive look at the “as is” in local philanthropy, as well as documented insights and views from a range of key practitioners in the social justice and philanthropy fields. In addition, the resource offers illuminating insights into the innovative grantmaking practices and approaches of The Atlantic Philanthropies, a limited life Foundation which has now exited from its grantmaking in South Africa after funding more than $355million in projects, programmes, initiatives and capital developments in the Southern African region.  Remarkable stuff.

The second event I refer to is the launch of South Africa’s first Chair of African Philanthropy at Wits Business School (announced last year and launched recently), a long-overdue energy shot for building the field of philanthropy, not only in South Africa but also more broadly across the continent. This is most exciting, and a pan-African seminar has been held to kick-start the development of the academic programme under this new Chair.  With Professor Alan Fowler leading this development, the knowledge environment is seriously opening up for the local philanthropy field.

These are both clear signs of the growing energy and interest in the field of philanthropy in South Africa and on the rest of the continent – not just in the forms of giving, but also in who gives; what people commit their support to; the intentions behind giving; the reasons for wanting to contribute to a particular cause or organisation; how this giving takes place; and trends in amounts invested in social issues and in particular causes.

While these research initiatives and this energy are absolutely critical in the strengthening of the environment in which philanthropy is built and broadened, there is a range of other features required for local philanthropy promotion and growth.

The global experience in growing philanthropy indicates a number of key requirements for encouraging and improving the levels of philanthropic funding investments in social change.  These include the provision of encouragement and motivation for philanthropy; fostering an interest in and understanding of the field of philanthropy; developing a strong research-derived knowledge base in this area; and building a strong professional infrastructure around the business and practice of high net worth philanthropy. Additional to this is the requirement to ensure that the legislative framework for philanthropy actively enables and encourages giving, rather than inhibiting it.

To build, maintain and strengthen support for a strong change-focused agenda for civil society in South Africa, the following (amongst many others) are important enablers:

  • Active citizenship – the commitment and active engagement of South Africa’s people in the identification and removal of obstacles to rights and justice
  • The freedom to build democratic participation through social movements and civil society organisations
  • The willingness of philanthropists, nonprofit organisations and social activists, to define and implement programmes for social and political interventions for change
  • A Constitution which outlines the inalienable right to human dignity and equality, and which can be called upon directly in support of efforts to access rights
  • A legislative framework that facilitates the space for civil society activists to speak, organise and demonstrate where they deem necessary, without fear of sanction (or worse)
  • The political will of the state to ensure that civil society can operate openly without restriction, within the boundaries of the Constitution
  • A post-secondary education system and structure geared to engage responsively with the needs and requirements of a strong democratic culture, and not only to respond to the needs of commerce and industry
  • A progressive media that seeks out news and stories on issues of rights, civil society initiatives, and the watch-dogging of government and big business (for rights violations and other transgressions around good governance, transparency and accountability)
  • The financial resources to conduct the work required – to support the organisation of initiatives, the design and implementation of campaigns, the physical space where organisations can do their work, legal challenges in court, and the many other tactics that might be employed by a movement or organisation to achieve access to rights and justice.

Currently in South Africa, most of the above enablers exist – and some require a more demanding and vociferous public than others, for the realisation of the enabler.   While human rights and change-focused activism takes place all over the world regardless of the existence of any of these conditions, it is these which most directly and actively support the attainment and realisation of rights and justice.

However, it is the area of financial resourcing (outlined above), that surfaces as a key challenge in South Africa.  Any South African news channel will provide ample indication of the ongoing urgency for financial support for social justice initiatives at a local, provincial, national and regional level.

For example, we all want a free media but we need to learn to pay for it. So as my sign-off, I am providing my organisational PICK OF THE DAY for strong investigative journalism:

Amabhungane at Support amaB. Support Democracy.



South African PhilanthroFacts 2 – When we give, who is it who gets?

The picture above was taken by Carmel Loggenberg/EWN, published at

Blog by Gabrielle Ritchie 16 March 2015

What prompts us to give? Five motivators to giving money to social causes:

Summer at the Cape Peninsula in South Africa is always a time for truly wicked bushfires.  The combination of dry weather and outrageously strong winds is a recipe for disaster.  Summer 2015 has been no different.  Huge fires that last for days are, thankfully, quite rare, and so it seems that this summer was to be Cape Town’s first real “big fire” season in quite a few years.  Bush firefighting is a massive community endeavour, heavily reliant on volunteer firefighters, drivers, food donations, co-ordination, evacuation assistance and so on.  The recent Cape Town fire (which started 1st March) used more than 400 firefighters, burned for 5 days, turned to charcoal more than 5,500 hectares of land – and at many points seemed unstoppable, with huge flames and the front line spreading for kilometres.  On the 4th day of the fire, a local radio station hosted a fundraising phone-a-thon for one of the volunteer firefighting services, and raised – in the space of about 12 hours – approximately 14x their original target.  Corporates and individuals called in, pledging their financial support to the firefighting non-profit.  It was a truly spectacular fundraising success.  To the volunteer organisation’s enormous credit, their social media campaign was impeccable all the way through the 5-day fire.  It was textbook campaign excellence and the phone-a-thon results reflected this clearly.

Along with this fundraising success came the very necessary questions from concerned members of the public and social media commentators.  These questions focused on how non-profit causes are promoted; who decides on which causes are provided with media platforms for fundraising; whose lives and homes are privileged for fundraising, while others’ are deemed unimportant; does money always go to the already-resourced organisations; what about the hundreds of people routinely losing everything to shack fires that break out in squatter communities?

These are just some of the questions that put the notion of “fundraising success” under a social justice lens, and which invite scrutiny and interrogation of the politics of public fundraising appeals.  I have had many discussions, arguments and debates since the fires about the profiling of some causes above others, and about the role of activists and organisations in shaping public understanding about social issues. While those discussions are far-reaching and complex, the key question remains about how individuals make decisions about what they are going to give their hard-earned cash to.

Below are listed the five top reasons, in my opinion, why people give:

  1. Passion – what is in our hearts. Often this isn’t something we can account for or necessarily explain at first, but when it connects, you feel it. As per the recent Cape Town example, if we care about the environment in general, and the Table Mountain National Park in particular (which was spectacularly affected in the fires), then supporting a volunteer firefighting organisation is a “no-brainer”.
  2. Values – and the ability to identify with a cause. The issues or causes that connect with our values are those most likely to catch our attention and hook us in. So if we value grit, determination and perseverance, for example, then again the “Cape Town Fires” cause is an obvious one to support because of the sheer scale and duration of the firefighting effort.
  3. Urgency – this is often a key reason, where crisis can play an important role in getting involved in supporting an issue or cause. If it is apparent that your giving, right at the moment, is going to make a difference, if your immediate action is going to make an immediate and visible difference, then this is often what will pull individuals towards getting involved through funding support. We like to see how our contribution is making a difference.
  4. Availability of information – it is much easier to give to a cause when we know the the current state of play of a cause, and what kind of support is required – with clear and easy-to-access information on the different ways in which we can help or the different kinds of support we can provide. With social media, most people expect to be able to access immediate and up-to-date information. Not being able to do so is likely to lose an organisation its support quite quickly. The Cape Town fires are a really excellent example of up-to-the-minute communications – at any given point those with access to facebook and twitter were able to get information not only on the status of the fires, but on what particular help and support was required at any given time at any given fire station. Good, timeous communication is the key to any cause attracting support.
  5. Easy processes for giving – linked directly to the point above, the easier it is to help and support and contribute and donate, the more likely people are to do it. Social media provided an incredible platform for sharing information about the fires and how to support. Drop-off points for material donations were clearly advertised, specific calls were made about what to donate and where to take it, and banking details were repeatedly made available online on facebook pages.

There are a number of other motivators for giving:

  1. Low-risk causes – If a cause is low-risk, and there is unlikely to be some kind of negative social impact on oneself in being associated with a particular issue. For examples, children and animals are very popular to support because they are what we call “soft issues”.
  2. A public face – If there is a public figure, or a face, or a character that fronts a cause, and if people are able to identify with that figure
  3. Telling a good story – If there is a particular story associated with a cause, and people can relate to the story.

Gabrielle Ritchie on Cape Talk Radio and Radio 702, in discussion with Bruce Whitfield about what motivates people to give