win email marketing for nonprofits

How to win at Email Marketing for Nonprofits

Part 2 of 3 — Email Marketing for Nonprofits

This is the second of a three-part series dedicated to helping nonprofits use email to acquire, engage and activate audiences through email marketing. If you haven’t already, read part 1 first: Email Marketing for Nonprofits 101.

Picking up right where we left off, the following three email marketing strategies will take you from beginner to intermediate. At Media Cause, we see an exponential lift in open rates, click-throughs, and, most importantly, overall conversions/donations when we implement these strategies. Give them a try!

Segment your email list

Email Segmentation = Relevancy, Respect, and Improved Analytics

Email segmentation is the practice of sending the most relevant message to the most relevant group of people at the most relevant time.

Why such an emphasis on relevancy, you ask? For one, your supporters are not all the same. They have different interests and backgrounds. They have donated different amounts of money to the organization. You can segment your email lists by any number of things, but our best practice includes segmenting by demographic information, donor level, and the first campaign engagement.

It’s also about R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Email segmentation also means respecting your supporters’ time.

Your supporters are busy. They’re on the go and inundated with messages and other media all day long. Sending an email blast to your list with the same generic message shows you’re not in tune with the realities of your supporters, or worse – you know they’re busy, but don’t care. These emails will likely be unread.

Analytics you can be proud of

Have you ever sent an email to a large following, only to look back later and almost shed a tear when you saw the results? 10% open rates. 0.05% clickthrough rates. Ugh. Those numbers are even painful to write.

Sending content to the right people at the right time will not only improve these numbers, but help you identify who is more likely to engage with your content in the future.

  • An email sent to an interest-based segment receives 74% higher click thru rate @MailChimp
  • #1 way to increase your open rate? Segmented emails get almost 10% more opens.

Ok, how should I segment an email list?

There are several ways you can segment your email list. Here are just a few examples:

  • Geography
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Job function/position
  • Donor/non-donor
  • Volunteer/non-volunteer
  • Historic open rates
  • Supporter start date / anniversary
  • Past website or email behavior
  • Social channel affiliation
  • Supporter interests
  • Content topic
  • Content type
  • Heck, even weather patterns – as illustrated by Email on Acid

Pro tip: Unsure how you want to segment your list? Get to know your supporters first – Ask yourself these five questions

Case Study – We helped a nonprofit called CreakyJoints segment their email list, which doubled their open rate! Take a look.

Treat Your Subscribers like VIPs

Your email list is NOT an ATM. Nor is it a tireless conglomerate of do-gooders at your beck and call.

Yes, they opted-in and want to hear from you. But, in many ways, your relationship with your supporters is like a friendship or partnership. You should be communicative but not overbearing. And most importantly, you have to put something into the relationship to get something out.

One easy way to nurture your email list is to send what I call, “just because” content. This type of content is meant to be a pleasant surprise, an unexpected mood booster or a fun distraction; something you know will put a smile on the faces of your supporters. Most importantly, “just because” content does not have an ask tied to it (i.e. it’s not a fundraising appeal, petition, or any kind of call to action.)

Pro tip: Build your “Just because” communications into a content calendar. If you don’t build it in, you’ll find yourself only asking and never giving back to your list. We suggest sending this kind of content to your supporters at least every other month.

Tell a Great Story – Make it Personal – Make it Scannable

The most engaging and successful emails use the power of great storytelling to captivate their audience and compel them to act.

At their most basic level, great stories follow this simple formula:

#1 The story is about somebody with whom we have some empathy.

#2 This somebody wants something very badly.

#3 This goal is challenging, but possible.

#4 The story accomplishes maximum emotional impact and audience connection.

$5 The story has a satisfactory ending, but not necessarily a happy one.


Great emails follow this same formula–they set a scene, build the characters, create a dilemma, and envision a victory. They also (especially advocacy emails) paint a clear picture of what winning means (a.k.a. “Theory of Change” for you political organizers!).

Make it Personal

When you sit down to write an email, ask yourself one critical question:

WHY should the reader care?

Think about the reaction you want your reader to have and work towards that. In other words, it’s not about the story, it’s about how you want your readers to respond to the story.

Every single word in your email needs to earn its right onto the page. If it doesn’t, cut it unapologetically!

Pro tip: Use “I”, “You” and “We” language throughout your email to make it more personal. E.g. “I thought you’d find this interesting” or “We’re in this together.”

Furthermore, pay attention to the language you use for every element of your email: your intro, your sign off, and your from-address. How many times have you seen an email from “” or worse yet “”? Argh, talk about how NOT to build a sense of community.

Pro Tip: When sitting down to write a mass email, start writing as if you were writing to a very close friend of yours. You’ll probably find yourself not using organizational jargon, acronyms, and inside references. Your language will be more human. Test that tone with your list; I think you’ll be happy with the results.

Make it Scannable (and lightweight)

All that said, no matter how awesome your email is, people are still going to skim through it. So, keep your email text short and break it up with heading text.

Also, remember how many people will be reading your email on a phone. People don’t want to scroll forever. A good rule of thumb when drafting an email is to write it all out stream-of-consciousness style, and then cut it down by at least 40% on the second pass.

Write killer subject lines

Email from Obama

Writing a great subject line takes time, expertise, and, most of all, testing.

Remember President Obama’s best-performing subject line of his 2012 re-election campaign? It was one word: Hey.

He (or, in reality, ‘his people’) didn’t just come up with that subject line willy-nilly. It took understanding his supporters and the kind of relationship they would want with their president. It took marketing expertise to know this kind of subject line would be in line with the Obama brand: laid back and personal, but engaging. And it took thousands of email tests to know that it would do well among their tens of millions of supporters.

The elements of a great subject line

  • Keep it short. Aim for 28-39 characters. Shorter text is less likely to get cut off in an email browser, especially on a phone.
  • Speak to a person’s self-interest. We are all more likely to open an email that benefits us in some capacity. In the nonprofit world, that could be a feeling of goodwill, appreciation, accomplishment or supporting a cause.
  • Personalize and localize. As much as you can, include language that is personal or highly segmented. Test subject lines that use a person’s first name. Try “I” or “You” language. Geographically relevant subject lines are also great – e.g. “Ohioans: What do you think of this bill?”
  • Be aware of spam filters and laws.
  • Stand out from the crowd. Try using symbols or emojis to distinguish your email from the pack. 🙂
  • TEST, TEST, TEST. Yes, I’ll say it again. You can be the best marketer in the world and think you know exactly what’s going to work. But, even the best marketers surprised with results from time to time.

Need some email subject line test ideas? Check out our 5 Email Subject Line Tests Your Nonprofit Should Try

Email Marketing for Nonprofits Year-End Giving Subject lines
Subject lines gathered from various organizations during 2015 Year-End Giving

Pro assignment: Sign up for as many emails from as many organizations as you possibly can. This might flood your inbox, so create a new email alias or direct all of the new emails into a separate folder. Now you’ll be able to monitor several different organizations’ approaches as you go forward.

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