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5 Tactics You Definitely Aren’t Using to Grow Your Nonprofit Email List

Author: Artie Shlykov
October 10, 2019
🕑 12 min read

This is a guest post by Sean Kosofsky, the Nonprofit Fixer.

Picture this: you crafted an amazing email, chock-full of information about your mission.

You sent it out with great excitement, then waited with anticipation for all the great responses you were going to get.

And… crickets.

You check your email database.

Out of your grand total of ten subscribers, three of them opened it, and no one replied.

Sound familiar?

To many nonprofits I’ve worked with, this is an all too common situation.

Most small nonprofits are trying to tackle big things, and have big agendas.

But when you can only send emails to a tiny list of supporters, it can feel like you aren’t getting anywhere — especially since not everyone opens every email.

Since it’s impossible to make things “go viral,” we need to do the slow and steady work of growing our capacity.

And one of the best ways to do that is to focus on growing your nonprofit’s email list, and building relationships with supporters online.

Wondering how to get started? I’ve identified 5 tactics that most nonprofits aren’t using, but that I’ve seen be highly effective.

  1. Network Like Your List Depends On It: LinkedIn 
  2. Portal to Your Power: Landing Pages 
  3. Solve Your Constituents’ Pain Points: Lead Magnets
  4. You Gotta Have Friends…: Friendly Forums 

And if you want to learn more, join my on-demand webinar to get 8 more tips to grow your email list.

1. Network Like Your List Depends On It: LinkedIn

I’m sure you have heard of LinkedIn, and probably have a rockstar personal profile on the site. It has carved out a stellar niche for professionals in the social media environment — a place where people are actually well-behaved!

But one of the powerful things that LinkedIn does that most people don’t know about is allow users with an account to export the list of all their Connections.

So, if you have 500 Connections on LinkedIn, you can export that list…wait for it…with email addresses.

nonprofit email list

I am not aware of this functionality being available on Facebook, Instagram, or other networks. This is powerful.

Essentially, by exporting the email addresses of people who have jointly agreed they want to be connected, you are looking at a list of people who not only want to be affiliated with you, but who are willing to do so online. This makes this list warmer than many other lists of people you may be connected with.

So, if an organization wanted to connect with, or recruit, thousands of individuals to get more involved, you have a way to do so.

And you don’t have to limit yourself to your Connections only.

Consider asking all staff, board members, key volunteers, and other stakeholders if they would be willing to export their LinkedIn connections to a spreadsheet that can then be used to email them about your nonprofit or cause.

However, make sure that the first email comes from the connection themselves, and ask if they consent to receiving emails from your organization first.

It’s tricky (and in some cases illegal) to email hundreds of people who haven’t opted in to receive emails from the organization directly, but individuals can certainly reach out and invite their networks to sign up or get involved.

For example, I made the mistake years ago of exporting a bunch of emails of friends from Google Contacts, who were all my friends, and emailing them in the BCC line about a charity I cared a lot about. A few people did NOT appreciate that because it felt like an email blast and they worried they had been signed up for something against their will.

Also, spam blocking software, especially Yahoo accounts, wouldn’t let any of the emails through, even if I tried sending them one at a time later that day. Epic fail! If you try importing lists of names into your email client (such as Mailchimp or its alternatives) they will ask you if you have permission to email these folks, which technically you probably haven’t received.

There are also marketing tools (such as LinkedHub 1.0 or GrowthLead) that you can use to message people on LinkedIn to steer them toward a landing page, petition, or signup form for an organization.

Those marketing tools aren’t free, but they can make your messages look very personal, which is better than an e-blast. Because it isn’t “salesy,” you may get higher engagement than those who use the tools to sell services.


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2. Portal to Your Power: Landing Pages

Landing pages are dedicated pages you create on the internet that may or may not be attached to your main website. Basically, they’re webpages stripped of anything that doesn’t help “convert” someone from being a stranger to someone who takes an action you want them to take.

In this case, you want to use a landing page to surrender their email address to get something, ideally something more than just email updates such as a lead magnet (more on that in the next point).

Just like any website, a landing page is normally comprised of sections.

These can include:

  • A great image or graphic that really captures someone’s attention
  • A description of the unique service or solution that your organization offers
  • “Social proof”, evidence that your organization is awesome (such as news stories, testimonials, data about the groups you’ve helped)
  • Bullet points rather than long paragraphs.

Remember, you want to reduce barriers to action, and long text is a barrier. Your page should be focused on one thing, and one thing only: getting people to subscribe to your email list.

Some software programs allow you to build unlimited numbers of landing pages for a monthly fee. If you use a tool like LeadPages or ClickFunnels, you can use templates with great visuals, bullets and a call to action (a form to submit their email).

If you just want to build your own website, create a page that is more simple and does not look like all the others on your site. Once you publish the page with elements listed above, publish it and use the link everywhere you can gather email addresses from.


3. Solve Your Constituents’ Pain Points: Lead Magnets

Very often, the staff and boards of nonprofits think their mission is so great and so compelling that people would be crazy not to sign up for their newsletter.

Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but the truth is that:

  1. Other people don’t think like us true believers
  2. They really do need convincing
  3. They really don’t want to surrender their email for free — it feels like a sacrifice.

Marketers in the corporate world learned a long time ago that converting someone from a stranger to a follower is the first step in the sales “funnel.”

Here’s how it goes.

Advertising or organic online content reaches the public. The public sees something compelling. They surrender their email address for something cool. You provide the cool thing, and they see you as providing real value to them.

Bam — they’ve gone from stranger, to subscriber, to fan.

Of course, this isn’t always seamless, cheap, or easy, but that is the funnel at work.

So, what is a lead magnet?

A lead magnet is some attractive thing you offer to give away (the magnet) to attract a subscriber (a lead).

Take the story of Dr. Samuel Dyer of the Medical Science Liaison Society. He offered a free salary survey on his website in exchange for an email address and gained over 1,500 new subscribers. He began marketing the benefits of joining his organization to these new subscribers and many became paying members.

What Dr. Samuel did right (and which many more nonprofits are doing right too) was that he offered an incentive (the salary survey) in exchange for an email address.

You may bristle at using private sector language to describe your nonprofit processes and people, but try to imagine the funnel process applying to nonprofits, and you can grow your list very quickly.

The most effective and efficient way to give away a lead magnet is by using a dedicated landing page that is focused on one thing — getting an email from someone and then delivering the lead magnet. You can learn more about landing pages online. It helps if you have your email program connected and automated so that once someone submits their email, they get an automated email with the lead magnet or are redirected to a private page with the download.

Although this is common knowledge in the corporate marketing space (just think of how many online clothing sites offer a slight discount or free shipping in exchange for an email signup)  nonprofits have not adopted this broadly at all.

And how do you choose a lead magnet?

Nonprofits have tons of great stuff they can give away for free. In marketing, it is strongly advisable to give away something that solves a problem or a pain point, or a very specific small problem, not a huge problem.

Or you can give away something valuable. This could be a free download, a cheat sheet, tip sheet, workbook, infographic, or a free 10-minute video course explaining something really useful related to your mission. There are thousands of ideas on the web, and nonprofits can innovate in creating their own ideas. I would strongly advise you use a lead magnet that lifts up the brand of your organization and isn’t a hassle to give away, like swag.

My guess is that less than 10% of nonprofits are using this strategy, and I don’t know why more aren’t, because it really works!

Want more examples? Here are a few other types of lead magnets you can give away in exchange for an email:

1) A Case Study

Do you have a shareable story about a client, member, or recipient you’ve helped recently?

Case studies can be inspirational giveaways for your audience, and they can position your organization in a great light, too.

2) A Toolkit

If you’ve got a collection of useful resources that your subscriber would find interesting (like cheat sheets, blog posts, checklists, videos, or ebooks) you can package them together into helpful toolkit for your audience.

3) A White Paper

Many associations I’ve talked to give away their most popular white paper for free in exchange for an email address. This helps showcase the association’s value to prospective members who visit their website.

4) An Online Course

Many nonprofits hold online workshops or events for their members. If you’re already doing this, offering the recording can be a great way to attract more email subscribers. Simply advertise it on your website, then when someone new emails you, give them access to the recording.

Remember to get the sound quality as high as you can, and make sure there’s interesting and/or useful content in the course – it shouldn’t be one big sales pitch for your organization.

5) Access to a Live Q&A with You

Some nonprofits offer a monthly Q&A where audience members can ask questions that are on their minds. This kind of open Q&A can be a great way to build your authority and bond with your subscribers.

You can offer the live session to your new subscribers, and also send them recordings of previous Q&A sessions right after they sign up for your list.

6) A Cheat Sheet

Everyone wants to do things quickly! Is there a shortcut or “cheat” you can teach your audience that will be useful to them?

People often prefer incentives they can consume quickly, so testing out a cheat sheet can sometimes yield surprisingly high conversion rates!

7) A Checklist

People love checklists. If you can describe the steps of detailed process, you can create a printable checklist for your subscribers.

I highly recommend testing out a couple of incentives, until you find one freebie that really resonates with your audience members. The proof of course will come when you see a boost to your nonprofit email list.

Pick an idea from your brainstormed list, create that incentive, and advertise it on your site with an opt-in landing page or member registration form. Track the results and see how your audience responds.

When you find the right incentive for your audience, you’ll notice a spike in the amount of new emails you receive.

Overall, my advice is to keep testing out ideas until you find an incentive people can’t wait to sign up for.

4. You Gotta Have Friends…: Friendly Forums

Once you’ve created a landing page, and have a great lead magnet to hook new audience members, you can share it all over the place.

Note that when I use the term “friendly forum,” I mean any person, organization, business, or community that you have a relationship with who wants or is able to help you.

So, in addition to online forums, you can fully exploit your organization’s goodwill in the larger community by asking other nonprofits, coalition partners, and businesses to help publicize your landing page. They can do this in their newsletters, on their postcards, or on flyers at their events.

Tons of people involved in your organization are on social media or in forums, coalitions, boards, community projects, bulletin boards, chat rooms, groups, online event discussions, and other venues.

Just like the LinkedIn idea I mentioned before, ask them to use their network to expand your organization’s reach. You should tastefully ask your staff, board, volunteers, and others to post the link everywhere. They can put it in electronic signatures, online profiles, vacation responder emails, and much more.

Doing a lot of offline promotions too? You can also shorten the link with a URL shortener like and put the link on your printed products like business cards, brochures, gala programs, and on signs in your office. Ideally people won’t be annoyed by the promotion because you are giving something away for free.

If nonprofits used LinkedIn, landing pages, lead magnets, and friendly forums year-round, their email lists would grow by the hundreds and probably thousands each year.

And the even cooler part?

The bigger your email list gets, the easier it is to then grow that list!

Scale helps to grow more scale, because a larger universe of people are now sharing your content (and landing pages) and because more people will want to collaborate in list building activities with you.

5. Email Hygiene: Keep Your Email List Clean and Healthy

Now that you’ve collected addresses for your email list, there’s one more step you shouldn’t skip: making sure it’s clean at all times.

Otherwise, you might see an increase in hard bounces, which happens when an email returns to the sender because the recipient doesn’t exist. This hurts your sender reputation and can eventually lead to your account getting blacklisted. Besides, you might deal with low open rates, which also needs fixing to keep your list healthy.

Here’s what you can do:

1. Use an email verification service. This is the fastest way to check if an email is valid. Services like or Hunter are easy to use but may differ depending on the features offered.

Some of them have a freemium plan, which gives you a way to test the tools’ capabilities and allows verifying a specific number of emails. For example, the services mentioned above offer up to 50-100 verifications per month. This should be enough if you’re just starting out with your email list.

2. Make it easy to opt-out. If you don’t include an unsubscribe link, your letters can be sent to a Spam folder, and ISPs may block or filter them. You can place it at the end of the email.

3. Remove inactive subscribers. I suggest doing it every six months. After all, why keep sending emails to people who are clearly not interested in your content?

Track recipients who have not opened or clicked an email in a long time. You may try to re-engage them and regain their interest. But if this doesn’t work — don’t be afraid to say “bye”!

Fired up for more? Check out my webinar with WildApricot on 8 Super Easy Tips to Skyrocket Your Email List.


SeanKosofsky-low-rez-8180 (2)Sean is the Non-Profit Fixer! He has worked in nonprofits for over 27 years, including as executive director for five political and charitable organizations. He has worked in policy, communications, grassroots advocacy, direct service, development, management, and served on numerous boards. He has raised millions of dollars for non-profits, candidates, political campaigns, and other initiatives.

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