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Stephen OKeefe 7 min read

Are Nonprofits Flunking Email Marketing 101?

A new survey of 38 top nonprofits by Care2 reveals that many of these well known organizations are essentially flunking “Email Marketing 101.”  Perhaps the most damning statistic is that, on average, nonprofits are taking eight whole days to email a response to someone who signs up for their email list. The survey also showed that nonprofits are employing a wide variety of approaches – all over the map, really -- to welcome and cultivate new email subscribers, thereby indicating that there still is no widely adopted “best practice” for this situation. Yet another key finding was that most nonprofits don’t display email signup and registration opportunities prominently or particularly effectively on their sites. And the actual copy on the sign-up forms was pretty mediocre, too.


The study was not scientific, and the sample size was limited to only 38 randomly chosen organizations, all with a national footprint and 36 of which have annual revenue in excess of $5 million. Still, we were really surprised by what it showed, especially given how well-known and admired these nonprofits are. For example, 14 of the 38 orgs (that’s 37% of them) sent no automated transaction email confirming a registrant’s subscription through their website. (The email address used for registration was a Gmail account with default Spam and filter settings). Nada. Zip. In one instance, a very well known nonprofit seems to have done this intentionally, waiting until the next day to send a confirmation message. But for the rest, this seems to be the result of poorly configured sign-up forms or lack of integration with their email service provider.  Considering how many nonprofits these days are investing additional resources to provide near real-time communication with supporters via social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, it’s ironic and even shocking that the first engagement opportunity with email subscribers – hardly an exotic technique nowadays -- is being squandered by so many major nonprofits.

[Actually, two of the orgs did not send any response at all, for at least 45 days after our tester signed up for their email list. Talk about not getting a warm welcome!]

Lest you think we are just cranky critics, we did note some commendable techniques being used by a few of the nonprofits in the survey. For example, organizations earned bonus points by conspicuously displaying on their website a place where users could log in to manage their email preferences. Letting people manage their profile this way is recommended, especially if they change their email address. Other organizations did a good job of sending subscription confirmation messages that not only explained why they were receiving emails from the nonprofit, but also provided the organization’s address and phone number, and indicated how often the messages would be sent to subscribers. The message also wisely asked subscribers to please add the nonprofit’s email address to the users’ address books -- to prevent future messages from being caught in spam filters.

The Care2 study showed that nonprofits continue to employ many different techniques when emailing new members.  For this survey, we classified email messages according to five categories:  welcome; newsletter; action alert; donation appeal; and interactive.


Welcome messages were defined as having one or more of the following characteristics:  acknowledges recent registration; provides additional background on the organization’s mission; provides a range of actions the constituent can take on behalf of the organization; or highlights ways in which the member can customize communication based on interests.

Interactive messages were defined as emails that drove the recipient to a landing page where the user was asked to engage with the organization in a unique way – for example, by viewing a video; browsing a map; taking a poll; or signing up to receive text message alerts.

Action alerts were defined as messages in which the primary request was to take action on an advocacy campaign.

Donation appeals were direct fundraising appeals.

Newsletters were the organization’s primary email newsletter.

As the pie chart shows, the most popular (33%) type of first message was a donation appeal. The next most popular (28%) was an action alert, followed by a newsletter (19%), a welcome message (11%) and an interactive message (8%)

One key take-away from this study is that every nonprofit should strive for continuous improvement in their email marketing program, with a particular focus on the welcome process for new website registrants.  Make sure to leverage automation opportunities with subscription confirmation emails -- and within the first 24 hours of the new member's joining your list. Otherwise, your hottest leads just might turn ice cold by the time you try to cultivate them into donors and supporters.

*Stephen O'Keefe is a Frogloop contributor.


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