email marketing for nonprofits

What You Need To Know About Email Marketing for Nonprofits

Part 1 of 3 – Email Marketing for Nonprofits

This is the first in a three-part series dedicated to helping nonprofits use email to acquire, engage and activate audiences through email marketing.

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email marketing for nonprofits
Me and my dog, riding around town.

First, a little about me.

I’ve been helping nonprofits grow supporter bases and raise money online for 10+ years. In that time, I’ve built, maintained, and grown several large email lists ranging from 25,000 to 500,000 subscribers. Using email marketing as part of a larger digital marketing strategy, I have personally led online fundraising initiatives raising over $400,000 in online donations for a variety of causes including political advocacy, and environmental and youth development.

I joined Media Cause because they are passionate about helping nonprofits increase awareness, engage supporters, and raise funds.

Here are 11 strategies I’ve learned along the way that are most crucial to successful email marketing for nonprofits.

Why email?

Believe it or not, email is STILL the best way to drive action for your cause.

Email has the highest rate of ROI for any marketing channel, potentially raising $40 for every $1 spent (source)

Email is responsible for about one third of nonprofits’ online fundraising revenue (source)

Email is inexpensive, immediate, and personal. You can easily test messaging and gain new insights about your audiences. And, finally, the holy grail – marketing automation. You can set up pre-drafted, automated email series and send them based on your conversion goals and past website engagement. Translation: A series of follow-up emails that automatically move your subscribers up the Ladder of Engagement–from subscriber to donor–without you having to push a button. (More on marketing automation later in our series.)

Why do I need an email strategy? Can I just write what I want to tell people and click send?

Sadly, no. Every organization needs an email strategy because competition for people’s attention is at an alarming level.

The average person receives 76 email messages EVERY day (source)

Furthermore, all email lists–no matter how good the strategy–have a natural decay rate of about 22% (source). That means that if you’re not growing by at least 23% every year, your list will eventually disappear.

If you’re not growing your email list by at least 23% every year, it’ll disappear.

So, without further ado, here are four critical steps to building an effective email strategy for your nonprofit organization.

#1 Use Popups and Landing Pages to Capture Emails

email marketing for nonprofits

I know what you’re going to stay: “Email popups are annoying!” And, while I would agree with you overall, when they’re done well email popups can provide a good experience for your website users and, most importantly, convert your traffic into subscribers.

Email popups convert anywhere from 1-6% of your traffic (source).

Here are few things to keep in mind when creating a popup:

  • Time your popup to launch after a few seconds or when someone interacts with your site in a meaningful way (scrolls all the way to the bottom, clicks on an article, etc.). You should also have another popup for when people are about to leave your site, an “Exit popup” which can be very effective when they’re cleverly done.
  • Establish social proof so people can trust you as quickly as possible. Something like, “Join over 20,000 subscribers!”
  • Keep the copy ultra short; the bare minimum about what people will get when they sign up.
  • Don’t ask for too much information up front. One field email signups are ideal. Remember, you can always get more information from someone later–in a survey, when they attend an event, or when they donate, for instance.
  • Use a relevant, high quality imagery.
  • Pay attention to every detail–from the kind of photo that you use to the color of a button. Test everything and see what works with your audiences.

Build and test a variety of landing pages: Landing pages are standalone web pages, often times with their own URL. They are created for a very specific reason like downloading an ebook, signing up for a webinar, etc., and rarely have any distracting elements (e.g. a menu, links to other pages, or text or images ‘below the fold’). The Call-to-Action–in this case, the email signup–would be front and center, like below:

email marketing for nonprofits
A landing page that we created for Unity College; email signup front and center, no scrolling.

When set up properly, landing pages can have great conversion rates.

#2 Get to know your supporters

You’ve heard it before: If you don’t know who you’re talking to, how are you going to decide what to say?

First, assess your list:

  1. How many people are on my email list?
  2. How and when were they added?
  3. What demographic information do I have access to (DOB, M/F, mailing address, married/single, race/ethnicity data)?
  4. How many times a year do they donate?
  5. What content seems to resonate with them?

Next, triangulate your data from other sources like Google Analytics, Facebook, and Twitter.

There is often overlap between email supporters, web traffic and social channels. Understanding how these mediums are drawing in distinct or overlapping audiences can start to paint a fuller picture of your digital presence. Look at the demographics for each platform; visit the profiles of your Facebook and Twitter followers to see what their interests are and who else they follow; develop personas for your top supporters.

Last but not least, surveys are excellent ways to get to know your email list. People like to provide feedback for an organization, so ask your audience what issues are most important to them and how often they would like to hear from you.

NOTE: SurveyMonkey has some great survey templates for nonprofits!  From market research, to gathering donor feedback, to a volunteer satisfaction survey.

A final note about purchasing lists: Don’t do it. We’ve all been there. We need to grow our email list and we need to grow it fast. But, no matter how enticing they are, purchased lists have an extremely low ROI and, if anything, they can actually damage your brand and online stature if people start flagging your messages as SPAM. We highly recommend you refrain from using this kind of tactic to build your list.

#3 Put a single goal behind each email

Many organizations make the mistake of cramming several messages into a single “update” email. This does not work. Instead, think of the one, single thing you want your audience to do. Then put that one thing in front of your audience with a single way to do it.

Use these questions to help guide your process:

  1. What action(s) do we want our supporters to take this month? (e.g. “Sign up to help stuff backpacks for our back-to-school initiative.” “Read an important blog piece about our latest campaign.”)
  2. How are we going to measure our success? (e.g. “100 volunteers attend and help stuff backpacks.”)
  3. Have we tried to drive this kind of action before and, if so, what were the tactics and results?
  4. What resources do we have for the project (time, money, people, talent)?
  5. What can wait and what is a priority?

#4 Create a communications schedule

One question we get a lot is, “How many times a month should I be emailing my supporters?”

The short answer: On average, organizations send 2-4 emails/month to their supporters.

The long answer: the number of emails you can or should send depends on a variety of factors:

  • Your communications goals for the month.
  • The size of your email list.
  • How much you can segment your messages.
  • How much capacity you have to develop the content for multiple emails.
  • How much time it takes to go from concept to completion for a single email (brainstorming, outlining, drafting, editing, vetting, approving, designing, coding, sending and evaluating).
  • Whether or not you’re running a campaign that month. For instance, a fundraising campaign can add another six or so emails on top of your regular monthly schedule (one email introducing the campaign, three direct asks, one or two right before the campaign deadline ends, and one thank you email).
  • How often do your supporters want to hear from you.

Lastly, your communications schedule should be structured but still have a little room to breathe. Some of the best performing emails I’ve seen can’t have been put on a calendar in advance; they were in response to a breaking news story or an urgent issue.


Alright folks, that’s it for this week! Tune in next time when we’ll be posting about how to create killer content, testing your emails, and measuring your success. And yes, we’ll be answering some age-old questions on every nonprofits’ minds, “How do our emails stack up? What’s a good open rate?” etc. Read part 2 here.

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Salsa Labs – Infographic: The Risk (and Rewards) of Sending Effective Emails
Social Media Today – How Is an Email List Like the Golden Gate Bridge?
Conversion XL – In Defense Of The Email Popup
SurveyMonkey – Nonprofit Surveys, Work Smarter & Drive Breakthrough Results


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