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Brock Warner 11 min read

Brushing up on your email marketing fundamentals!

Email marketing, put simply, is the use of an email platform to send a message to a large group of people that have opted-in to communications from your charity.

This is distinctly different from using a website or program (Personal Gmail, Outlook, etc.) to send messages to individuals on behalf of yourself.


There are some workarounds and plugins like GMass that can help a personal account function like an email marketing platform, but these will rarely be scalable or cost effective if you’re looking to reach large groups, integrate with a donor database, and use well-designed email templates.

An underpinning of all effective email marketing programs is permission. Without permission from your audience to communicate, you’ll be violating one or more anti-SPAM regulations that come with a hefty fine (yes, even if you’re a charity), not to mention the fact that you’ll erode trust and credibility with the general public.

It is well worth brushing up on the regulations within your country, be it the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL), General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM) in the USA, or the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in California.

When you hear the term ‘opt-in’, it is referring to permission from an individual to be sent mass emails from your charity. A sender is only required by law to gain permission once. Ideally you will always collect explicit permission from an individual, which could mean they signed up on a clearly marked form, or they clicked an opt-in box for future communications while completing a transaction of some kind, such as entering a contest, or signing an e-petition. Implicit permission to contact an individual can at times be a valid form of permission, and typically means that an individual has willingly provided their email address to you but without an explicit request to receive mass email communications.

An example of this might be if someone submits the ‘Contact Us’ form on your website, or they are an active volunteer with an email on file. 

Let’s break emails down to their most basic elements. These are present in even the simplest of emails:

  • ’From’ name and email address
  • ’To’ email address
  • ’Reply-to’ email address (if not the same as your ‘From’ email)
  • Subject line
  • Body message, which contains the message you’re sending.

In addition to the components listed above, there are additional optional components of an email that can be added:

  • Pre-header text & links (sometimes called preview text)
  • Header image or text
  • Body images, links, buttons
  • Social media links/icons
  • Footer, often containing contact info, unsubscribe link, copyrights, etc.

While cooking up your creative copy, designs, and tracking, it is critical that you not lose sight of the many important decisions throughout the email development process that might lower the chances of your email being flagged as SPAM by Gmail, Outlook.com, or another similar email service.

The likelihood of an email arriving in an inbox rather than being marked as SPAM is called deliverability. Using a trusted and reputable email marketing platform helps tremendously, as well as only sending to a list of people that have provided permission to receive these emails. One way an email service like Gmail might suspect you don’t have permission to use a list is by the number of SPAM reports it receives on your emails.

But besides these technical considerations, there are some creative and design decisions you can make that will help you avoid those SPAM filters:

  • It should be clear what organization is sending the message.
  • Contact information (email, mailing address, phone) should be included 
  • An unsubscribe link should be easy to find, and easy to use.
  • Any images should have a reasonable file size (no more than 500kb).
  • Avoid special characters (!!!, !?) and ALL CAPS in subject lines.
  • Include links to active social media accounts, using icons if possible.
  • Text should be compelling, but brief. Link away to a website if necessary.

A capable and confident digital fundraiser will also employ: 

Personalization: This means you are incorporating, when available and possible, biographical information about the recipient. This could include their first and/or last name, and possibly their title if you asked for it. This is usually done using merge fields, where a field from your list is pulled into your email. For example, “Dear %FNAME%,” will become “Dear Mary,” if done correctly. It is important to note however that each email marketing system will have a different way of inserting a merge field, so please refer to your specific platform’s how to’s when getting started.  

Customization: This means you are matching content, when available and possible, to the recipient’s known interests. This could include having a version for cat people, and a version for dog people—information you may have collected when they signed up.

Segmentation: Sending different versions to different groups such as lapsed or new donors.

Timing: Sending on a specific day and/or time.

Link Building: Google provides a simple and free URL Builder tool that will allow you to encode each individual link within an email with a unique code, called a UTM (Urchin Tracking Module). If you have linked your donation form with Analytics eCommerce and enabled conversion tracking, this will allow you to see how much money was raised via each link in your email, in addition to clicks. This allows you to gather valuable data about what elements of your email (buttons, body links, images, etc.) are most effective in attracting donations.

Now that you know the fundamentals, you're ready to optimize and track your results. Good luck!


This article is an excerpt from Brock’s bestselling book From the Ground Up: Digital Fundraising for Nonprofits released in September 2020. 


Brock Warner

Brock Warner helps nonprofits with their digital fundraising efforts so that they can unlock new sources of funding for their world-changing solutions. His book "From the Ground Up: Digital Fundraising for Nonprofits" released in September 2020 is a bestseller, with copies sold in over eight countries. Brock Warner has a wealth of experience spanning nearly every major nonprofit sector in North America. As a direct marketer, he managed digital and print campaigns in healthcare, education, multiple Olympic Games, humanitarian and domestic aid, and the environment. As a senior leader on the frontlines, Brock's efforts have largely been in international development, and mental health. Connect with Brock at brockwarner.ca.