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The Essential Guide to Nonprofit Email Marketing

Tatiana Morand  06 December 2019  4 comments

nonprofit email marketing


If you’re anything like most office-dwelling professionals, you likely start your workday wading through dozens and dozens of emails. 

You may read some, but you probably spend more skimming subject lines and clicking the next arrow. 

And you may even start to second-guess hitting all those subscribe buttons over the years.  

So, when your organization is the one sending out emails, how can you ensure you’re breaking through the inbox noise and actually getting read? 

If you do it right, nonprofit email marketing can be a powerful platform to connect with your audience and eventually convert them into members, donors, and engaged constituents… 

But if not, your email will be the one that gets skimmed and deleted. 

But don’t worry: with a solid nonprofit email strategy, you can defeat spam folders, amplify your message, and reach new audiences. 

In this post, I’m going to give you the top nonprofit email marketing best practices and answer your most pressing questions: How will my emails stand out? What kind of emails should I write? How often should nonprofits send emails? 

Specifically, I’m going to cover: 

  1. What Should Be In Your Nonprofit Email Marketing Strategy

  2. 4 Great Types of Nonprofit Emails You Can Send

  3. The Top 5 Nonprofit Email Marketing Services

I’ve also included quotes from nonprofit marketing experts to help inform your strategy. 

What Should Be In Your Nonprofit Email Marketing Strategy

1. Build Your Email List

You probably put a lot of time and effort into crafting each and every email, so the last thing you want to do is send them into the void (or into a grand total of three inboxes). 

That’s why a good email marketing strategy starts with building a healthy email list.

And how can you do that? 

Focus on attracting people that will find great value in your email, whether they’re passionate about supporting your mission, or want to stay up-to-date on your issue or industry.

One tried and true method is incentivizing audiences to join your list. Create a free giveaway, also known as a lead magnet, that’s a valuable resource for people in your field. This may be an infographic, a white paper, or a toolkit of resources: anything that someone would be willing to give up their email to receive. 

For example, if you want to attract small business owners to join your membership, you could provide a downloadable checklist on how to form an LLC, or a simple marketing guide to increase their profits. 

Or, if your most likely donors are dog owners, you can create a checklist that covers when you should bring your pet to the vet. 

Another way to build your list is to simply ask at every possible opportunity. 

Bring a tablet to events, and promote your sign-up page across all of your digital channels. Be sure it is easy to sign up on your website, and don't underestimate the success of an email subscribe pop-up.

Read More: 7 Irresistible Incentives to Grow Your Nonprofit Email List

2. Steer Clear of the Spam Folder

Over half of the emails we receive are spam, and email providers like Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook are reacting strongly. One of the most significant nonprofit email marketing hurdles to overcome is not landing in subscribers’ spam folders.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to avoid your emails being labeled as spam.

In short, every single email address on your list must be permission-based. Subscribers should have an existing relationship as a customer, donor, or member (implied permission), or someone who expressly permits you to send them an email, for example by entering their email address in a subscribe form (explicit permission). 

Email marketing services take these laws and policies very seriously. If you don’t, your emails at the least will be marked as spam, and may also result in your account being terminated.

  • Creating personal emails that blend in with emails from coworkers, friends, and family is another way to ensure your emails get opened. Take a look at this email from the Action Network that may as well be from an officemate. 

Sending more personal emails means sending from real people as opposed to a "no-reply" email address. Designs should be modest and minimal, and it’s time to forgo animated GIFS, emojis, and numerous links — just like you would if you were sending a quick note to a friend. 

Jason Jensen, owner and marketing consultant of The Digital Nonprofit, agrees. According to him, “When at all possible, move towards simple, automated, text-based emails vs infrequent, image-based newsletters. It's been proven time and again to be more effective. One easy win in this regard is automating a "welcome" email followed by an appeal whenever someone joins your list.” 

  • As Jason said, we also recommend setting up an automated welcome email for new subscribers. This lets them know what to expect from your emails, and gives you an opportunity to encourage them to add your address to their contact list.

  • Don’t inundate your subscribers with emails. They may mark your email as spam if they feel they’re getting too many messages from you — and if you need a benchmark, the average nonprofit sends out 59 emails a year

3. Don’t Ask for Too Much Too Soon

Getting someone's email is just like going on a first date. 

Most people wouldn't ask someone to commit to marriage right away. (And if you would, maybe you have more to worry about than email marketing…) 

Similarly, it's not the time to ask for donations quite yet.

Instead, take some time to show new subscribers why your mission is important, and build a relationship. 

One of the best ways we’ve found to woo them is by creating an automated welcome series for new subscribers. You can create three to four emails that are triggered to send a few weeks apart. Start with a warm message from your CEO, and follow up with stories of impact, resources, and links to social media channels and your blog. 

You can also do this by showcasing some behind-the-scenes information that will help new subscribers feel more connected to everything you’re working on. 

“People join nonprofit email lists because they’re connected to something: a cause, a mission, or a collaboration,” says Stacy Miller, Senior Director of Communications at Auto Care Association

“Don’t fall into the trap of operating corporate-style communications – share the names and faces behind the brand in your email marketing to grow open rates and gain trust from your constituents.” 

You can think of it as slowly revealing more personal information to someone you're just getting to meet." 


"Nonprofits need to approach email marketing like a relationship with a new friend," says Deanna Cook, Marketing & Communications Consultant in the nonprofit sector. 


"They should be reaching out consistently, sharing what's going on behind-the-scenes, and building trust before they ever ask for donations, sponsorships, or volunteers." 

That's because sharing more about your mission by revealing the faces and stories behind it can help build trust, and make subscribers more likely to stick around for the long haul. 


New Member Email

4. Share This Kind of Content 

When you’re writing nonprofit emails, ask yourself these questions: 

  • What kind of news do subscribers want to be up-to-date on? 

  • What kind of stories will inspire them? 

  • What new activities in your organization will be exciting for them to know?

The answer will differ depending on how they came to join your email list. 

For example, donors to your latest campaign will want to know how their funds are being used, whereas new members will just want to know where your next general meeting is taking place. 

That’s why segmenting your audience is so important, says Emily Weisgrau, President of Weiswood Strategies

“Don't just personalize, segment! Personalization is a no-brainer, and email marketing tools make it easy to include the recipient's name in each email. But sending the same email to everyone in your database is a mistake. Use your data to segment your lists, which might include current annual donors, monthly donors, lapsed donors, volunteers, non-donors who are otherwise engaged, etc. Customize your message to each audience. It's more work, but it's donor-centric, and it's worth it.” 

Regardless of what email marketing service you’re using, you should be able to segment based on relationships, interests, age, and geolocation.

5. Optimize for This Platform

Do you open emails more often on your desktop, or on your phone? 

According to Litmus, mobile is the most popular reading environment, with 42% of all emails being opened on smartphones or tablets. 

There's no turning back; your email must be responsive and optimized for mobile. 

Here are a few things you can do to ensure emails are mobile-optimized:

  • Make your subject lines short, so that all characters are seen. Take advantage of preheader text if you need more text. You have minimal real estate on mobile to grab your reader's attention.
  • Your messages should be concise and easy to read. Make sure the most valuable content and calls to action are up top, so readers aren't distracted from what you intend for them to do. 
  • Be sure to break up text, avoid long sentences, and leave breathing room between paragraphs. 
  • Images should be minimal and optimized for mobile. Less is more!

  • Use buttons instead of links. It’s easier to click from a button than a link on small screens.


And while you’re doing this, don’t forget to look at best practices in other areas that impact the likelihood of your message being received, such as making it accessible for all readers. 

“Use headers, alt-text, font size of at least 15 pts, and beware of color choices,” says Emily Weisgrau, President of Weiswood Strategies

“All of these can impact the readability of your email for someone with a visual impairment. You could be excluding a small but significant portion of your audience by not building your emails in the most inclusive way.” 

6. Look at Your Insights

One of the most useful parts of using an email marketing system is the ability to look at insights and  analytics. 

You can look at open and click rates, the amount of time people engage with your emails, and the best days and times that your subscribers are reading emails ⁠— all of which can inform your email strategy. 

For example, If you tend to send emails on a Monday afternoon, and your analytics show that open rates are strongest on Tuesday mornings, schedule your emails for Tuesday morning. 

Or if more readers are clicking links to blog posts than news links, then focus on creating and sharing compelling stories. 

Keeping an eye on your metrics overall can also help you know whether your strategies are getting more effective overall. For example, if your clickthrough rate has decreased over the past year, it might be time to start trying out different email formats or testing out different kinds of subject lines. 

Looking at industry benchmarks can also help you know whether your efforts are on track. For example, MailChimp says that the average nonprofit email open rate is 25%, with the click rate hovering around 3%. 


7. Keep it Coordinated

Email doesn’t exist in a vacuum. 

While potential donors or members are opening them, they’re also seeing your content appear on social media and getting letters from you in the mail. 

So, for greater odds of success, get all your channels to work together. Not everyone will respond to an appeal though every channel, so making a coordinated push will help you cover all your bases. 

Plus, each channel can support the other. Getting a direct mail appeal might remind a forgetful donor that they had gotten an email from you they’d been meaning to respond to. 

But how can you coordinate them all? 

“You might want to start from your direct mail piece and build an email campaign with the same impact story. Be sure to also take the imagery and copy from your emails and repurpose them into more digestible bite sizes to use on social media. We advise syndicating the same messaging and imagery across social, but tailoring them specifically to make it shine for each channel,” says Lisa Ng, co-founder of Doing Good Digital

This is especially given important that email messaging drove 13% of nonprofit online revenue in 2018. Email gives you longer form than social media, and allows for immediate online donations that a direct mail appeal cannot.

And how should you plan out the timing? 

“Time your campaign so your direct mail piece goes out first, followed by an email series and complimented by social media and paid ads,” recommends Lisa. 

4 Great Types of Nonprofit Emails You Can Send

You know who you’re sending emails to, when they’re most likely to open them, and how you should be formatting them. 

So what kind of emails should you actually be sending?

It depends on what you want your audience to do. 

Do you want them to learn more about your issue? Do you want more members, or for current members to join an event? Are you hoping for a donation or petition signatures? Or do you just want to keep them in the loop about your organization’s plans? 

Here are four types of emails that will help you reach your goals. 

1. Newsletters: Update and Educate

The most typical kind of nonprofit email is a good 'ol newsletter. These are structured to raise awareness on an issue, provide resources, and update readers on activities going on in the organization.

Since this is the most typical and recurring type of email, you can save yourself some time by creating a template that will allow you to roll these out regularly. 

That may include a branded header or hero image, and text and photo blocks that you can easily update — and remember, simple is the way to go! 


Need inspiration? Check out this WWF email newsletter.


wwf nonprofit email marketing

This newsletter is packed full of news that an environmentalist would love to read. At the same time, it’s designed in a way that is not overwhelming, including simple images, short but informative headings, and links to read more. 

2. Appeals: Call to Donate

What makes an excellent appeal? Stories do. 

“Making your communication more personal will increase the emotional appeal, and thus the likelihood of a donation. Saying you want to feed, cloth, or educate Susie, a 5th grader in your district, is more powerful than saying you're raising money to help kids in general,” says Brian Dooley, the founder of Independence Digital.

Don't overwhelm your readers with stats and numbers, and all of the programs your organization implements. Share a story about a problem you solved for one person or family. Let your readers know that their support will enable your organization to reach many more people like the one you are featuring.

Need inspiration? Check out this World Vision email appeal. Readers meet a real person, 5-year-old Kamama, whose life was changed when World Vision brought clean water to her village. This message was relayed with one powerful image and six simple sentences. The call to action is not to “Donate”, but to “Give Clean Water”. Readers know exactly what problem they are solving when they give a gift to World Vision.

world vision email appeal


Quick warning, though: don’t overlook the other types of emails I’ve listed in order in favour of these ones. 

“The tip I give almost every nonprofit who has an email list is to not neglect the list all year and then email every week asking for donations from November through December,” says Amy Shropshire, Managing Director of Marketing at CASK Communications. 

“Yes, it takes precious time to plan out a communications strategy and build useful and compelling content throughout the year, but it goes a long way to creating a community that is involved in your work throughout the year.” 

3. Advocacy: Call to Act

You know you can’t change the world all on your own — sometimes you need a bit of help from your supporters. 

That’s where advocacy emails come in. They’re intended to equip passionate people to act on issues they care about and support your cause. 

A successful advocacy email not only concisely explains the issue, but gives a very clear call to action. The easier you can make it for your readers to support you, the more likely they’ll do it. 

Need inspiration? Check out this Plan International's advocacy email. This email’s design is simple, but striking and modern.

plan international advocacy email


Plus, subscribers who are passionate about gender equality get numerous ways that they can take part, from starting a campaign to following its activist community on WhatsApp. 

Giving them options means that no matter how much time and effort they’re willing to devote to the cause, there’s something they can do to help. This encourages subscribers to see that taking even a small action can help contribute to changing the world. 

4. Thank You: Show Appreciation & Impact

There is one thing that all seasoned fundraisers can agree on: showing appreciation is crucial to maintaining relationships with donors. 

Saying thank you and showing donors the impact of their gifts motivates them to keep giving, and to spread the word about the great work your organization is doing.

This is particularly important immediately after a donation is made. Sending out a thank-you email is simple to set up in most email marketing platforms, and is an easy way to 

Need inspiration? Check out this example from Cancer Research UK

cancer research uk thank you email


This incredibly personal email is specific about the number of years the reader has been a supporter. It provides a link to former campaigns and attributes strides in research and thousands of lives saved to the specific donor reading this email. 

Including this kind of personalization is a great way to show donors that you truly value their specific efforts, and that they’re not just another face in the crowd. 

The Top 5 Nonprofit Email Marketing Services

Now that you know which kinds of emails to send out… it’s time to start sending! 

But there are a lot of email marketing platforms out there, and it can be difficult to figure out which one is the best fit for your organization.


That’s why I’ve compiled this list of five platforms that are commonly used by nonprofits so you can decide which one best suits your needs. 

1. Wild Apricot's Email & Contact Database

Yes, we have an email marketing platform!


When you integrate our email and contact database software with your membership management software, you will have tons of information on your subscribers⁠—including membership status, event registrations, and donations made.


Wild Apricot provides several professionally designed and mobile-friendly email templates, insights, automated email series, and even a mobile app so you can manage contacts on the go.


Our drag and drop interface also makes it quick and easy to send emails that look professional even for small organizations. 


Here's what it looks like: 

wild apricot Email editor

Interested? Start your free trial now! 

2. SalsaLabs

Salsa is more than an email marketing platform — it's also a full-on CRM. Salsa merged with DonorPro, a marriage that resulted in a robust one-stop-shop constituent engagement and management platform. Its email capabilities include mobile optimization, drag-and-drop editor, automated emails series, and A/B testing.


And remember when we said how important segmenting your audience is? Salsa automatically adds contacts to new lists based on their behavior or activity.

3. MailChimp

You've definitely heard of this one! Mailchimp has a free plan for up to 10,000 emails and 2,000 subscribers, which is great for small or just-starting-out organizations. MailChimp offers an easy drop-and-drag editor, insights, automation series, lead capture landing pages, and A/B testing.


What sets them apart is its capability to integrate with hundreds of other platforms and apps, like SalesForce, Canva, and Eventbrite. Audience segmentation is possible, but not as sophisticated or intuitive as other platforms. Our favorite paid feature is sending out emails at optimized times based on subscriber's data. 

4. Constant Contact

Rivaling MailChimp as a leading email marketing service, Constant Contact provides user-friendly mobile-optimized templates, list segmentation, insights, and lead-capture landing pages.


This service also allows you to build a mobile-responsive donation pages, and drag and drop donation action blocks into any email. Constant Contact has a 60-day free trial and nonprofit pricing.

5. Campaign Monitor

In addition to the basic easy to design mobile optimized templates, list segmentation, and insights, Campaign Monitor also has an incredibly useful spam tester. Our favorite feature is the dynamic content capabilities, which allow you to change text and images based on the subscriber - talk about personalized messaging! While Campaign Monitor does not have a free plan, it has a pay per campaign plan and a very affordable basic plan at just $9/month. 


With a good strategy behind it, email marketing will help you reach many of your marketing goals. Creating simple but compelling and relevant messages to your audience is key. We hope these nonprofit email marketing tactics will kick off your 2020 marketing with a bang. 

Tatiana Morand

Posted by Tatiana Morand

Published Friday, 06 December 2019 at 4:40 PM


  • Victor Perton said:

    Thursday, 02 January 2020 at 11:25 PM
    Thanks, Tatiana. Most useful!
  • Robert D. Hilgers said:

    Sunday, 05 January 2020 at 9:56 AM
    very good
  • Jacqueline B. Ward said:

    Saturday, 11 January 2020 at 2:40 PM
    I really like the new drag and drop interface! When will spell check become available?
  • Tatiana Morand

    Tatiana Morand said:

    Monday, 13 January 2020 at 11:30 AM
    Hi Jacqueline, we're glad you like it! We currently don't have spell check in our roadmap, but feel free to vote for the issue in our Wishlist if you'd like to get it added: https://forums.wildapricot.com/forums/308932-wishlist/suggestions/33796675-spell-check-for-email

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