The Nonprofit’s Guide to Email Marketing

If you work at a nonprofit organization (NPO), then you're already quite familiar with the unique set of challenges nonprofits face when it comes to building an effective and sustainable marketing strategy. 

With scarce resources, relatively limited staffing, and leadership attention spread thin across numerous areas, investing in cohesive marketing efforts can often take a backseat to more pressing matters.

But having a marketing strategy is absolutely crucial to bringing in new donors and ensuring your organization gets recognized by the right people. And the most effective (and accessible) marketing tactic NPOs can put their effort towards is email marketing.

Email marketing is far from dead -- and this is especially true in the world of NPO marketing, where personalized messaging and relationship building are keys to success. Plus, building an email strategy is usually less expensive and time consuming than other strategies.

In this post, you'll find out how your nonprofit can stay connected with donors and bring in excited new prospects through email marketing.

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Why does email work for nonprofits?

Studies show that email continues to offer the highest return on investment of any outreach strategy, making it just about as close to a sure bet as you can get. McKinsey reports that an email marketing campaign can deliver a return of $40 for every $1 spent. This makes email the channel with the highest ROI that nonprofits can use to reach prospective donors.

Additionally, since 91% of all US consumers still use e-mail daily, email can enable NPOs to reach audiences that might not otherwise engage with their marketing efforts on social media networks. 

Email Marketing Best Practices for Nonprofits

Commit to Regular Sends

Nonprofits are often stretched for resources, and it's easy to set marketing aside for matters that seem more pressing. However, regular email marketing is one of the most effective ways to grow your organization. A content schedule for your emails can keep you on top of them so you can steadily grow your donor base.

Making email sends an "always on" part of your marketing strategy will play a big role in your success on the channel. "Always on" doesn't mean that you're bombarding your email list with constant messages -- it means that you're committed to consistency in how often you send your emails.

Sending informative emails on a predictable schedule (instead of only when you're actively running a campaign or seeking donations) will help nurture your audience towards deeper forms of engagement (like donating or attending an event) in the future. Remember: the goal is building long-term relationships. 

Setting the right cadence for your emails is important to keep the members of your list engaged with your organization. When you're first starting out, this requires a careful balancing act, as you don't want to send too few emails but you also don't want to veer into potential spam territory. More on that in the next section.

Be Wary of Spam Folders

If regular email sends are a new part of your strategy, and your audience is only used to hearing from you on a less-frequent, one-off basis, starting to send more emails on a more frequent basis could trigger some users' email clients to send you to the spam folder. 

Email deliverability can be a complex subject, but here are a few important things to remember if email is becoming a more regular marketing outreach tool for your NPO:

  • Don't directly embed forms or include attachments in your emails (linking out to web pages with forms is a better practice).
  • Send your emails from a recognizable address -- if you can, avoid sending from a [email protected] address. Use a name your readers will recognize.
  • Lead with informative subject lines instead of direct calls for donations (you can check out our blog post on picking great email subject lines here).
  • If you're starting a new email project and are sending emails to a list that isn't used to such frequent sends -- let them know what's going on! Tell your readers that you plan to start sending more informative emails, and most importantly, give them the opportunity to opt out. It might seem counterintuitive in the short term, but cleaning disengaged folks off your email list is important to the long-term health of your email program. 
  • For more tips on improving your email deliverability, check out our blog post on the subject here

Leverage Personal Connections with Your Audience

Your nonprofit's cause is (hopefully) personal to everyone on your email list. Personalizing your emails is one technically simple -- but potentially super powerful -- step that you can take to utilize that personal connection to attract donations and deepen engagement with your organization. 

First, make sure you're using an email tool that enables personalization. It might be an investment upfront, but having access to personalization features will greatly improve the value your audience gets out of your email sends. 

Worried about coming off as creepy or not sure where to start? Rachel Leist, the Senior Director of Automation at HubSpot, advises folks new to email marketing personalization to focus on personalizing emails based on actions your email recipients have taken on your website, instead of any personal data you may have collected about them in your contact management system.

Leist explains, "A good rule of thumb is to personalize around actions someone took on their website. Personalize around things like pages that were visited, topic of recent conversion, and of course name and company. If a person receives an email that refers to an action they took on your website, they will not be as nervous as they would if you were personalizing around specific personal information you happen to have on them."

Segment Your Database

A segmented email list can help you ensure that the right person receives the right email at the right time. While everyone on your email list believes in your organization, you don't need to send every email to them. Each person in your database is at a different stage on their journey with your organization, and the emails they receive should reflect that.

For example, someone who has donated $5 to your organization in the last year is probably not as engaged as someone who has donated $1000 to your organization in the last month.

Factors like donation amount, events attended, and actions taken on your website or social media channels can all be important indicators of engagement level, and shouldn't be ignored when you're sending out emails.

More engaged audience members will likely respond more positively to more frequent emails, while folks with fewer touch points should received fewer emails giving them more basic information about your NPO. 

Test, Analyze, and Adapt Accordingly

Finally, running an email program is not a "one and done" marketing strategy. You can't just set it up and keep doing the same thing. It requires you to take note of key performance indicators and make changes to your approach periodically based on those factors. 

While industry benchmarks can be a useful starting point of comparison when you're just beginning to flesh out your email strategy, remember that not all NPOs are the same, and not all NPO audiences are going to respond the same way to emails.

To start, keep track of a few key email metrics, measure them with each email send, and look for trends over time. Our article on email marketing metrics for beginners offers a helpful starting place if you're not sure what to track.

Examples of Nonprofit Fundraising Emails

Want to put together an effective fundraising email? Check out some examples to get a sense of what yours can look like.

Alzheimer's Association

This email from the Alzheimer's Association requests donations but also outlines several other ways that its supporters can act for its cause. However, the request for a donation remains the focal point of the email, with a call to action to donate and a button allowing the reader to do so featured prominently in the middle of the email.

The Trevor Project

When folks first sign up for your emails, it's a good indicator that they're feeling engaged with your mission. Check out this automatic welcome email from the Trevor Project that introduces the organization to a new subscriber and requests a donation at the end. Your audience wants to help - don't make them wait!

The International Rescue Committee 

The International Rescue Committee faces the urgent task of assisting people in conflict zones and disaster areas. They waste no time in showing how subscribers can help its mission. In this email, the IRC tells the recipient what steps they can take to make a concrete impact on their work.

The IRC knows that each of their subscribers is ready to take on a different level of commitment, so they recommend different actions that people can do to support them, from signing up for texts to starting a fundraiser.

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

Check out this email from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art for a different spin on fundraising. Unlike most nonprofit emails, this one looks like it could have come from a department store. If your nonprofit has merchandise to sell, consider taking a cue from retailers and create emails that showcase your products for a good cause.

Free Email Marketing Software for Nonprofits

Want to use professional email software for your nonprofit without breaking the bank? There are several free versions of professional marketing software that you can use. Check out what some of the most popular programs offer to find the right one for your needs!

HubSpot Email Marketing Software

HubSpot offers a free version of its paid email marketing software that integrates with its also-free CRM software. Users can run a sophisticated marketing campaign and get access to forms, landing pages, and Facebook, Instagram, Google, and LinkedIn ads, as well as templates They also have access to contact management and live chat capabilities to optimize the experience for each subscriber. There are also traffic and conversion analytics capabilities for campaign optimization..


Want to reach lots of people with beautiful, personalized emails? Sender could be just right for you, as it has extensive HTML editing and personalization capabilities. Sender also has impressive analytics capabilities that allow you to track the delivery and opening of individual emails. Sender also helps you build individual profiles of your recipients to further optimize your strategy.


If you're looking for variety in your emails, Sendinblue has you covered. This program includes over 70 responsive templates for emails that can be designed for any screen. The free version also gives you the ability to send 300 emails a day. You also have the ability to use A/B testing to find the right email content that works and segmenting options to make sure the right person receives it.


SendGrid specializes in email campaigns that are tailored to individual preferences. Its free version gives you access to a wide range of personalization tools, including APIs, Webhooks, STMP Relay. You'll also have granular control over who receives your emails with a wide range of delivery optimization tools. There are also sophisticated email editing and analytics tools that allow you to optimize them for your target audience.

You don't need to be a professional marketer to get professional results from email marketing for your nonprofit. However, you do need to set some time aside to do it. The good news is that there are few other investments you can make in your organization that will pay off like email marketing. Get started today if you haven't already and you could generate more buzz for your organization than ever before!

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Originally published Dec 23, 2020 7:00:00 AM, updated December 23 2020


Nonprofit Marketing

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