Email is where real donor engagement happens, even in a crowded digital world.
It might be easy to assume that email is now old-fashioned, pushed out of the spotlight by the interactivity and quick hits of social media. But 61% of consumers say they prefer brands to communicate with them via email.
While social media ads can certainly help you acquire new donors and secure gifts, they’re tricky to get right and can be costly in the meantime. And even taking an organic approach to build your presence and social media following over time may yield decreasing returns as audience reach steadily declines. Recently, just one week following a Facebook/Meta algorithm update, brand pages saw a 44% decrease in reach on average. Content algorithms are becoming hurdles to navigate rather than helpful ways to reach passionate audiences.
However, email marketing has never stopped being a primary channel for nonprofits to reach their audiences.
An effective email list is made up of individuals with proven affinities for your mission and work, making them a more reliable audience for your asks. Email is direct, customizable, and relatively easy to manage, even for smaller teams.
But for many nonprofits, email isn’t a strategic priority. It’s been found that some nonprofits spend roughly 96% of their marketing dollars on social media ads. Why the lack of emphasis on email?
The social media buzz certainly plays a role here, and email also requires upfront and ongoing work to show results. But with some research on email best practices and careful thought about your email lists, your email strategy will pay dividends. This guide will get you started. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- The Value of Email Marketing and Fundraising
- Determining the Value of Your Current State
- Maximizing the Value of Email: 4 Key Components
- The Role of Email in Your Broader Strategy
- Building Your Nonprofit’s Email List
The Value of Email Marketing and Fundraising
First, let’s lay out some context. Email drove 15% of online revenue for nonprofits in 2021, and email list sizes grew by 7%, steadily increasing over the previous two years’ growth rates.
For context, email is among the top-performing individual online fundraising channels for nonprofits. Between social media, direct online donations and pledges, peer-to-peer fundraising, and not to mention the explosion in popularity of virtual events, the online fundraising landscape is more diverse than ever. Email remains a consistently high performer, but we believe there’s still a ton of potential for growth that most nonprofits have yet to tap into.
Why is email so valuable for nonprofit marketing and fundraising? It brings several key benefits that other marketing channels can’t match:
- Email is a preferred communication channel by most consumers and donors.
- Email can be highly personalized to segments of your audience and to individuals, making it easier to tap into their unique motivations for giving while providing a more one-on-one communication experience.
- Email is easily automated, tested, and tracked, saving you time and helping you generate more useful performance insights quickly.
- Email is nonsynchronous, meaning a donor can read your message whenever they have the time, whereas phone calls and social media ads are easily missed in the moment.
A thoughtful email strategy backed up with effective email lists can create a reliable donation pipeline for your nonprofit. The medium’s customizability doubles as a way to deepen relationships with supporters through messages tailored to their interests and histories.
Understanding the Challenges of Email
However, as with any marketing channel in today’s interconnected environment, email fundraising also brings a few challenges that are important to recognize. A complex range of factors can influence the performance of any given email campaign. The 2022 M+R Benchmarks Study found that:
- Clickthrough rates for fundraising emails dropped by 7.1% over the past year, and clickthroughs for advocacy emails dropped by 9.2%.
- Response rates for fundraising emails dropped by 11%, down from particularly high performance immediately following the onset of the pandemic in 2020.
- Open rates for nonprofit emails increased dramatically, perhaps artificially, a trend that’s likely attributable to an Apple iOS update in September 2021.
Here we’re likely seeing a cooling down of the flurry of nonprofit support generated in 2020-2021 as well as the impact of tech platforms’ decisions. However, these trends don’t overshadow the power of email—its benefits are still rarely realized in other marketing channels.
What these kinds of challenges do underscore is the importance of anchoring your strategies in best practices and developing a high-quality list of supporters. Strong email content and well-cultivated and segmented email lists will always help to reduce the impact of these fluctuations. In other words, there are a lot of bad emails out there, and it’s easier than you might think to cut through the clutter.
Determining the Value of Your Current Email Marketing Strategy and Lists
How do you get started creating high-performing emails and rising above the fray to stand out in donors’ inboxes? By understanding the current state of your email marketing efforts.
Generating value with email is all about the numbers—determining optimal list sizes and email frequencies to maximize ROI and balancing that against potential unsubscribes. To get a grasp on how valuable email currently is to your nonprofit, try answering these questions:
- How are your email lists currently sourced?
- Do you use different email lists for different purposes like fundraising and advocacy?
- Are they kept fully separate or combined for different types of campaigns?
- How are you currently measuring the value generated by email? Total donations raised through email marketing, cost per acquisition, or some other metric(s)?
- Do you account for the value of non-donation actions taken via email, like social shares or other sign-ups?
Many variables impact the ultimate value of your email lists and the performance of your campaigns. It’s tricky to assign a simple dollar amount to individual email addresses.
We’ve developed a tool that can help. Use the Care2 Email ROI Calculator to get a quick sense of the value your list is currently delivering and what an optimized email strategy might look like for your nonprofit, including our estimate for the lifetime value of a single email address. Using this tool also helps you avoid some common pitfalls that come with the complexities of email ROI, namely donor lifetime values and projected dropoffs/unsubscribes.
To calculate your ROI, you’ll need this information:
- The size of your current email list
- The number of email appeals you send annually
- The average number of donations received per email appeal
- Your average donation size
- Your unsubscribe rate or the percent of your email list that goes inactive in a year
Not currently collecting this information? That’s a sign that your email list could be generating more value for your mission! Start collecting and tracking this data if you don’t yet have a structure in place for doing so. Once you’ve got a clear picture of your current performance and how it can improve, you’ll be well-equipped to get started improving your email strategy.
Maximizing the Value of Your Email Fundraising: 4 Key Components
So you understand the value that email can bring to your nonprofit. How do you get started generating that value? You’ll first need to understand the key components of an effective email strategy.
Let’s explore four email essentials—engaging content, segmentation, deliverability, and data hygiene—and tips for improving your approach to each of them.
Your nonprofit’s emails should engage your audience.
Nearly 200 million emails are sent every minute, and it’s easy to ignore or quickly delete those that don’t stand out. If it’s not immediately clear what an email is about, how it relates to you, or why you’re receiving it, it’s likely to get tossed. In fact, Americans only open roughly half of the emails they receive and find only 31% of received emails to be actually useful.
In other words, a well thought-out email strategy and burgeoning list of high-quality addresses can only benefit your nonprofit if people actually open and read your messages! The quality of your email content trumps everything else.
But what does an engaging email look like exactly? They share a few characteristics:
- A catchy, relevant subject line. This first glimpse that supporters get of your message should make it crystal clear what you’re reaching out about. An urgent request for support? An update on an issue or advocacy movement that they care about?
- Concise, purposeful content. The content of an engaging email is to-the-point and focused—no long-winded messages that blend multiple objectives or types of asks. Readers should get an immediate sense of what the email is about above the fold, or without needing to scroll down to read more.
- An impactful story. Marketing is all about storytelling, and for nonprofit emails, this story needs to connect readers to your mission and clearly illustrate how their support drives the story forward. Within a concise, focused email, you should tell a quick story that accomplishes these goals.
- Bold but simple visual design. Complex visual designs can slow down email load speeds and distract from your message. Emails should clearly reflect your nonprofit’s or campaign’s visual brand without getting in the way.
- A clear next action. Effective marketing or fundraising emails are anchored by clear calls to action. This is the specific next step that you want readers to take after opening your email and getting hooked into the story you’re inviting them to join. A prominent button or link pointing directly to this next step is best practice. Of course, you can include links to your homepage, other relevant pages, and your social media profiles, but ensure they don’t detract from your main CTA.
Emails that have these characteristics make it easy for readers to engage with them. They anticipate readers’ wants and needs, and they’re respectful of readers’ time and attention—essential considering how cluttered most of our inboxes get on an average day!
Beyond these best practices for email content, there are broader steps you can take to boost the engagement value of your email strategies and campaigns overall, too.
First, diversify the types of emails you’re sending to supporters and potential donors. Repetitive donation appeals can get quickly tuned out if they’re not balanced with mission updates, advocacy alerts, expressions of gratitude, and volunteer opportunities.
Next, create one or more organized email calendars. These should lay out when you’ll send which messages and for which purposes. They can be created for individual email campaigns that are part of a specific fundraising or advocacy push or for your more general ongoing stewardship and outreach efforts. Calendars are a must because they allow you to quickly see what’s going out when, meaning you can avoid overwhelming supporters with too many emails or losing their attention by sending too few.
Segmentation allows you to focus your messages and maximize impact.
If engaging content is the tentpole holding up your entire email strategy, segmentation is the frame that gives it shape and allows it to serve its intended purpose.
Segmenting your email recipients into discrete groups with shared characteristics, motivations, and past involvement helps you maximize the results of an email campaign. With a clear sense of what you’re trying to accomplish and who you’re talking to, you can better tailor your messages to boost the number of recipients who follow through with your call to action.
For example, you may push tailored emails to supporter segments like:
- Prospective donors interested in your mission or a relevant advocacy issue
- One-time donors who would appreciate updates on the impact their first gifts had
- Lapsed donors who can be reminded about how their support furthers your mission
- Mid-level and major donors and prospects who need more personalized outreach
- Local donors and volunteers who’ve attended your events in the past
For fundraising purposes, effective segmentation will boost your results all around—higher open rates, clickthrough rates, conversion rates, and ROI (more on these metrics below). This is because you’re sending focused emails to segmented lists of supporters who are most likely to be motivated by that particular ask. Cutting out those recipients who are unlikely to be interested not only saves them a potential annoyance but also saves you time and money.
To see the best results with email segmentation, you’ll need an email list that is large enough and that has enough accompanying data to be able to be split into smaller groups. We’ll review how to build your email list with the help of vendors below.
Effective email fundraising is built on deliverability.
Of course, your emails have to get to the right people’s inboxes to be opened and read in the first place. This is where email deliverability comes in.
Internet service providers (ISPs) institute controls and hire third-party operators to help prevent spam emails from reaching recipients. These deliverability rules save us from countless malicious messages and garbled automated emails on a daily basis. After all, spam accounted for over 45% of all email traffic in December 2021, which is down considerably from its all-time high but still shocking.
However, these controls also present a challenge for organizations that rely on email to reach supporters and drive results. And the spam filters of the big email providers are only getting more stringent as spammers continually evolve their tactics. It’s likely that 30-40% of your subscribers use Gmail with another 20-30% using a Microsoft service—pleasing their spam filters and blacklist operators is essential for success.
So how do you ensure the deliverability of your emails? Start by understanding what causes senders to look like spammers. Email providers rely on these signals:
- Content. Does the actual content of the email, including its links and images, appear to serve an actual, non-malicious purpose?
- Sender reputation. Have the servers and IP addresses associated with the email been the subject of complaints or blacklisting in the past?
- Recipient behavior. Do recipients actually open and engage with emails from this sender?
- List health. Does the email list consist of actual, active users, or does it include dead accounts and hard-bouncing addresses?
Ensuring your emails pass the filters with flying colors is fairly straightforward—follow best practices for creating engaging, truly useful emails. Send them with purpose and with express or implicit permission. Essentially, don’t look or act like a spammer.
But relatively recent changes in the industry have magnified the importance of list health and data hygiene in particular. The quality of your email list both initially and over time can significantly impact your deliverability to all of your recipients. Working with email experts and reputable vendors will be your best bet to ensure you’ve got a healthy list that yields results, not blacklistings.
We highly recommend learning more about the specific types of toxic addresses to remove from your list and how to keep it clean with our guide: The New Rules of Email Deliverability.
Data hygiene can make or break nonprofit email fundraising.
As mentioned above, the hygiene of your email lists is critically important for deliverability. Removing outdated, inaccurate, and toxic addresses can make a huge difference in ensuring not only that your emails are delivered but that you’re able to create truly effective and targeted email segments for campaigns.
But what about your broader approach to data and other forms of data hygiene? Data, collecting it, and keeping it clean should be integral parts of your email strategy. After all, digital forms of outreach and marketing like email can and should generate a lot of useful data.
You need an infrastructure for data collection and analysis, namely a CRM integrated with your email service provider, schedulers, and any other relevant tools in your email tech stack. You also need to know what you’re looking for in your data as it’s generated over time. Understand email KPIs like open rate and clickthrough rate, and consider the metrics that will factor into the ROI of each new campaign you launch.
Then, keep your email data clean over time, including the list of addresses itself and the engagement data associated with each address. These data hygiene best practices will help:
- Revisit your segmentation strategies with each new campaign.
- Conduct regularly scheduled data audits and backups.
- Set up integrations across your systems when possible, and ensure that incoming data is recorded in proper formats and isn’t redundant.
- Establish concrete data entry protocols for both automated and manual input processes.
- Seek professional help as needed to build or improve your data infrastructure, build custom integrations, or conduct migrations.
Keeping your data clean keeps it a valuable asset rather than an encumbrance (or worse, a complete liability for your email deliverability). Data hygiene is a wonderful and easily overshadowed investment in your nonprofit’s ability to grow—maintain and actively use it!
The Role of Nonprofit Email Marketing in Your Broader Strategy
Looking at the bigger picture, how should a robust email strategy fit into your broader marketing efforts?
Email should be the cornerstone of your multichannel marketing strategy for all of the reasons discussed above—it’s most donors’ preferred channel, it’s direct, and it’s easily personalized and automated. Email should anchor the process at key points in their journeys, like learning more about your nonprofit for the first time and being asked for a donation.
The Roles of Other Nonprofit Marketing Channels
Other marketing channels can effectively engage your supporters in other ways, and you should use them to keep your organization on supporters’ minds and to drive extra engagement with your brand.
Social media is a great example. It’s extremely useful for creating near-constant touchpoints with supporters and reaching their circles of friends, family, and colleagues. But while it makes an excellent addition to a well-rounded marketing strategy, it shouldn’t be your sole or central engagement channel for two key reasons:
- Algorithm battles and the difficulty of organic growth. Average nonprofit Facebook audience size grew just 1% from 2020 to 2021.
- The logistical challenges of contacting supporters outside of the social media platform where you reached them. Translating success in one place to your other channels can be an uphill climb that diminishes overall value.
Instead, use social media to keep the engagement engine running in the background. Share clickable and shareable musings, advocacy updates, announcements, and polls. Launch peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns to expand your visibility and generate some revenue. Direct supporters to content on your website (rather than creating lengthy original posts on Facebook). There are all kinds of ways to use social media to your advantage.
Advertising through digital display ads and retargeting is also increasingly popular with nonprofits. On average, nonprofits increased their digital advertising budgets by 19% in 2021.
This is part of an ongoing trend towards a greater reliance on digital advertising. Within this trend, more emphasis is now going towards retaining online donors (retargeted ads) vs. acquiring them (purely outbound display ads). Many nonprofits are now seeking to lock in their newly acquired supporters from the most energetic and urgent periods of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movements of 2020. It’s an exciting part of the nonprofit marketing sphere, but initial costs and the difficulty of turning a fast ROI can be prohibitive for newcomers. Nonprofits with fewer than 5 employees spend 335.8% less on advertising than those with 5-9 employees!
Other channels like direct mail and phone calls can also be used to great effect—when it makes sense to do so. Just be sure to always consider ROI and your segmentation strategies before diving in. For example, direct mail can get expensive quickly, and phonathons eat up a lot of your team’s time. Don’t commit to glossy mailers or phone call campaigns unless you have a strategy to truly focus your efforts on reaching the supporters most likely to engage with those channels.
So how does email figure into your overall nonprofit marketing ecosystem?
Email is the most direct way to keep supporters connected and engaged with your mission once you’ve caught their attention. It allows you to strategically hold and focus supporter attention, drive donor journeys through tailored messaging, and facilitate key touchpoints in those journeys. In other words, email can hold all of your other marketing channels together as a coherent multichannel strategy.
Building Your Nonprofit’s Email List
Let’s review what we’ve covered so far about the importance of your nonprofit’s email list:
- It impacts the overall value generated by your email campaigns.
- Its size determines how effectively you can segment and target your audience.
- Its hygiene directly affects how likely your emails are to get flagged by spam blockers before ever reaching donors’ inboxes.
To sum it up: A large, clean email list will generate the most value for your nonprofit. You need the email addresses of enough of the right people in order to make the time and resources spent on email fundraising worth it—quantity and quality are necessary to maximize results.
So where do you get email addresses to add to your list? Nonprofits can take steps to begin tackling both the quantity and quality aspects of email list growth the old-fashioned way.
This entails organically growing your visibility and striking a careful balance of donor acquisition and retention. By steering supporters towards donating and signing up for your emails over time, you can build a quality list. However, this approach is difficult and time-consuming, and it’s part of why so many nonprofits undervalue their email strategies in the first place.
Today, many organizations are taking the route of focusing heavily on social media engagement and scraping email addresses from there. This approach can be unreliable as it can easily take more time and resources that outweigh its potential value.
The most reliable and effective way to build a large, high-quality email list relatively quickly is by partnering with reputable third-party vendors.
At Care2, this is our specialty. We can help deliver fresh, engaged, nontoxic addresses of people with proven interests in your cause. Our email lists are tailored to your mission and give you the immediate, stable foundation you need to start seriously growing your community. Learn more about how we help nonprofits recruit passionate new donors and advocates to join their causes.
Of course, even with supplemental help, you should still work to organically foster engagement, increase your visibility, and secure new email signups. You’ll also need to put in the careful work of creating engaging, compelling emails. The support of an external partner serves to cut out much of the work of list building and hygiene—it gives you the ongoing boosts you need to start seeing actual email results and snowballing returns.
Learn more about Care2 and the difference that a professional jolt to your email strategy can make for your mission by exploring our case studies. For example, we help the Environmental Defense Fund secure tens of thousands of new advocates and supporters each year.
Email can be a hugely beneficial marketing and fundraising channel for nonprofits, but it’s often neglected. That’s because it might not be understood as an investment in the same ways that other, often splashier marketing channels are.
Yet email is still the top-performing online fundraising channel for nonprofits (accounting for 15% of all online revenue in 2021), and list sizes are steadily growing year over year. There’s no reason why your own organization can’t tap into the immense and growing potential of this easily scaled and automated channel to raise more support for your work.
Learn more about email best practices and how email fits into your donor journeys. Intentionally cultivate, grow, and maintain your email lists over time. And remember, you’re not alone—expert partners like Care2 can help you catalyze your email campaigns and forge the online connections you need to take your mission to the next level.