Fundraise Smarter

What President Obama Can Teach Us About Sending Great Email

Posted by Andrew Littlefield on May 9, 2016 10:00:00 AM

Find me on:


You know what I find positively terrifying?

Those photos of presidents comparing how they look their first year in office versus their last year.

Across a span of 8 years, their appearance seems to fast-forward decades. The stress and long hours of the job takes a visible toll on their health. The future of our country is hanging on their decisions that they must make on a daily basis.

Yikes. Makes you wonder why anyone wants to run for office.

Given all that responsibility, the President is forced to be very efficient in their decision-making process.

And there’s a lesson to be learned here for nonprofits when it comes to communicating with donors.

President Obama’s Decision Making Process

In 2012, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker obtained hundreds of White House memos for a piece he was writing. That piece goes very in depth into some behind-the-scenes politicking, but an interesting tidbit that came out was how President Obama responds to memos.



Apparently, per his request, memos that require is decision must include three checkboxes. They are simply Agree, Disagree, or Let’s Discuss.

Boom, that’s it.

Drake Baer of Fast Company explains it brilliantly:

“This is effective because, like always wearing the same suit, the checkboxes impose simplicity. While the decisions are obviously complex—how else do they end up at the desk of the president—creating three choices speeds up the feedback loop. Rather than submitting an essay test for each problem, the president can opt for multiple choice.”

By dictating how memos are delivered to him, Obama has not only created a system that works for him, he’s created a system that forces those who want a response from him to be concise with their requests and boil it down to the simplest terms.

Wouldn’t that be great to do for your audience of donors and supporters?

Making Email Simple for Donors

So chances are, the President is a bit busier than your typical donor. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still make your communications simple, quick, and easy to respond to.

At their most basic level, every email you send has a 3-part goal:


First, you want the recipient to open it, right? Why else would you send them something?

Next, you want them to read it. No sense taking time to send someone a message if you don’t really care if they read it or not.

Finally, you want them to respond. A response could be any number of things. It could be simply digesting the information, it could be clicking a link, responding with an answer, sharing something on social media, etc. Point being, your desired outcome is to affect the recipient's behavior in some way, be that big or small.

Yet the way some nonprofits structure their email communications, their messages would end up in President Obama’s trashcan.

They’re too long, too complicated, too irrelevant, or all of the above.

But worst of all…

They offer too many dang choices.

The Email Call-To-Action

Most messages you send, from personal to mass emails, contain some sort of call-to-action. Sometimes, it’s just asking a question to someone:

“Are you free to hop on a phone call tomorrow at 10?”

There is an implicit expectation that the recipient should answer this question.

With mass emails, more often than not, the desired response is for the recipient to click some link in the email. When you measure the percentage of recipients who clicked a message, you’re measuring what’s called the “Click-through rate” or CTR.

And if the 33.4 million Google results for “click-through rate” didn’t clue you in, people have a lot to say about CTRs. How to improve them, what’s a good CTR, and on and on and on and on and…

You get the idea.

Calls-to-action are important. Email is the #1 driver of online fundraiser traffic. Millions of people sign petitions online. Hundreds of thousands of young people engage in online activism on a daily basis.

But to get the biggest response possible, you need to simplify your asks.

One Message, One Call-to-Action, One Response

Back to our Presidential example.

President Obama's requirements make it so that the memo must be formatted such that it can be replied to using one of those three responses.


Fundraising Campaign Calendar


Is your request too complicated? Better boil it down to those three options, or no dice.

If you want the greatest chance of getting a response from your nonprofit audience, you need to make your calls-to-action as simple as this.

A common problem many nonprofits face with their email lists is providing too many options for readers to follow. One message might contain a fundraising appeal, news about a new staff member, a request for volunteers, and invitations to follow your organization on social media.

When you provide too many options, people are likely to just take none of them.

I used this football analogy in a recent webinar: "If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterback."


The quarterback is the leader of a football team. He or she must have rapport with their teammates. They find a rhythm together. Once you start rotating multiple people through that position, you throw out that rhythm and rapport.

What you end up with is a team with no real leader.

Similarly, once you start introducing multiple calls-to-action in one email message, you end up with no real action being taken on the part of recipients. Rather than read and understand what your request is, they're left with too many decisions and end up not making any of them.

"Can you donate $50 today to help feed a family?" > Agree, Disagree, Let's Discuss

"Will you join 47 others who have signed up to volunteer at the soup kitchen this Sunday?" > Agree, Disagree, Let's Discuss

"Show your friends you care by sharing the pledge on Facebook" > Agree, Disagree, Let's Discuss

All of these calls to action on their own make it easy for recipients to respond, thus increasing the likelihood that they will.

A Time and a Place for Multiple Choices

Not every message you send needs to be boiled down to something this simple. Many people worry about emailing their list too frequently (though I would argue that they are usually overly cautious), and splitting up your messages to make single asks at a time will certainly require an increase in frequency.

So there is certainly a time and place for combining asks.

However, I would also be willing to bet that the asks within those messages will see a lower response rate. This is fine if you only need a handful of volunteers.

But for important asks where you're looking for a high response, you're doing yourself a disservice by letting it get lost in a longer message containing multiple asks, all competing for our attention.

Clear and concise communication is the key to any relationship, and the relationship between your donors and your organization is no exception. Why not shower your donors with some #DonorLove by making things smooth and easy for them?

The next time you email your donors, ask yourself: "Is this worthy of the President's desk?"

Fundraising Campaign Calendar

Topics: nonprofit marketing,, email fundraising

22,182 Readers and Counting!

Follow WeDidIt

Popular Posts