10 Email Marketing Best Practices for Nonprofits

This is the first post in a blog and webinar series called 101 Digital Marketing & Fundraising Best Practices for Nonprofitswritten and presented by Heather Mansfield. Please sign up for Nonprofit Tech for Good’s newsletter to be alerted of new posts and resources related to the series. Thank you!

Related Webinar: Website & Email Marketing Best Practices for Nonprofits
Related Certificate Program: Certificate in Digital Marketing & Fundraising

According to the Global Trends in Giving Report, 26% of online donors say that email is the tool that most inspires them to give (social media 25%, 17% website, 13% print). In fact, email messaging raises 15% of all online revenue. Despite the popular myth which asserts that email is dying, the truth is that email use is growing among all age groups, worldwide.

1) Embrace a mobile-first design strategy.

Forty-six percent of email is opened on a mobile device, so first and foremost your email campaigns (e-newsletters, fundraising appeals, event invites, welcome emails, thank you emails, etc.) must be designed to be easily read on smartphones and tablets. If an email displays poorly on a mobile device, no matter how good the content is, it’s likely to be deleted in under three seconds and as many as 15% of users will even unsubscribe.

The good news is that modern design trends for mobile email are also compatible with desktop email. What looks good on a mobile device often looks even better on desktop and laptop computers, and all email marketing services now offer responsive email templates. If your organization does not have an in-house designer with the skills to customize and create your own email templates, it is well worth the investment to hire a professional email designer.

To stay current on modern design trends for email, a good first step is to sign up for the email campaigns of large nonprofits similar to yours in mission and programs, and then study their design and implement the design elements that you like. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has a simple, yet functional design.

It’s also worth noting that video can increase click-through rates by 65%, so be sure that your email campaigns occasionally include a screenshot of a video that ideally links to the video hosted or embedded on your website, rather than linked to a third-party video hosting platform.

Pancreatic Cancer Action Network email designed for mobile devices.

A special note to nonprofits who are new to email marketing: Never send email campaigns via BCC and never send PDF attachments via BCC email. Doing either will likely get your domain blacklisted as a spammer and by not using an email marketing service, you won’t be able to track the success of your email campaigns. With the rise in cybercrime and email phishing, today’s email users do not trust BCC emails, especially those with attachments.

Tens of thousands of nonprofits worldwide come online for the first time every year and a large number of them are sending email campaigns using BCC because they are unaware of the alternatives or do not want to spend financial resources on an email marketing service. BCC is an absolute worst practice, please don’t do it.

2) Feature one to four news stories in your newsletter and focus on one story in your fundraising appeals.

The term “e-newsletter” comes from the late 1990s when nonprofits first began offering their print newsletters in electronic format i.e., e-newsletters. In those early years, e-newsletters were designed to look like print newsletters and contained large amounts of news content copied and pasted directly from their print edition. e-Newsletters were designed to be read in their entirety, and like print newsletters, e-newsletters in the late 1990s and early 2000s were mostly sent quarterly.

Today, the term “e-newsletter” is synonymous with “newsletter” and their purpose and design have changed significantly. Newsletters are shorter in length and are now sent more often to serve as frequent reminders about the good work that your organization is doing. Through links (underlined text or buttons), newsletters are designed to direct subscribers to your website where they can read the full story and become inspired to take action (donate, sign up to become a volunteer, follow on social media, etc.).

By definition, your newsletter is an email campaign primarily for news stories and updates. It can include a call-to-action, but the primary purpose is to educate and connect with your supporters on a regular basis. For your reference, Hubspot lists 17 of the best newsletter templates to spark your creativity.

Email newsletter template ideal for nonprofits.

Email fundraising appeals are different. The focus should be on one story and one call-to-action and the theme is usually as follows: There is a problem, your nonprofit can solve it, and you need financial support to do it. For example, here is a recent email fundraising appeal from the National Wildlife Federation about the urgent need to save sea otters.

An email fundraising campaign that asks donors to help save sea otters - a keystone species

The header image contains a “Give Now” button that takes the reader directly to a donation page customized with an image of sea otters and the email includes six underlined text links and one button that all link to the same donation page. There are no other CTAs or distractions.

Well-designed donation page on the National Wildlife Federation website.

3) Prominently feature a “Donate” button and social media icons in your newsletter.

As discussed in 10 Website Design Best Practices for Nonprofits, your website should prominently feature a “Donate” button, a newsletter opt-in, and social media icons. The same concept is true for your newsletter – prominently feature a “Donate” button and your social media icons in the header and footer. For example, below is the weekly newsletter for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Newsletter Header:

Newsletter header for a St. Jude email campaign that features a Donate now button

Newsletter Footer:

Newsletter footer for a St. Jude email campaign that features social media icons

4) Experiment with sending your email campaigns more often.

According to the 2023 Nonprofit Tech for Good Report, 68% of nonprofits worldwide send newsletters. Of those, only 68% send email campaigns monthly or less which is a lost opportunity to engage your donors and supporters.Graphic that displays how often nonprofits send email newsletters

If your nonprofit sends newsletters quarterly, start sending them monthly. If you send your newsletter monthly, increase the frequency to twice monthly. If a subscriber unsubscribes because you sent one too many emails, then they likely were not interested in supporting your organization anyway.

Furthermore, also according to the 2023 Nonprofit Tech for Good Report, a whopping 67% of nonprofits only send email fundraising appeals quarterly which is definitely hurting their online fundraising strategy. At a minimum, nonprofits should be sending email fundraising campaigns every other month.

Graphic that displays how often nonprofits send email newsletters

When to send your email campaigns? According to 14 different studies, the best time to send email campaigns is on Thursdays at 8 am. The problem with such studies, however, is that if a large number of nonprofits begin to send their email campaigns on Thursdays at 8 am, then this date and time would no longer be the best practice to send emails because your subscribers have now become flooded with emails on Thursdays at 8 am. To find the best time for your organization, experiment, test, and don’t be afraid to go against conventional wisdom.

5) To maximize open and click-through rates, personalize your email campaigns and write short subject lines.

According to Campaign Monitor, the average open rate for nonprofit emails is 26.6% and the average click-though rate is 2.7%. To be above average, your nonprofit needs to master personalization, well-written subject lines, and of course, consistently publish and curate interesting news updates, inspirational stories, and visual content.

Email personalization can be as simple as addressing a subscriber by their first name in the subject line which can increase open rates by as much as 26% or as complex as using artificial intelligence to automatically segment subscribers into different lists based what kind of content they click, what time they open your emails, or even what words in subject lines tend to make them open emails the most often.

Today email personalization is basic, but in the next 5-10 years, email marketing services will evolve so that each one of your subscribers will have a unique, personalized email experience with your organization that will ensure maximum open and click-through rates.

Subject lines can also make or break your email campaign open and thus click-through rates. Use A/B testing to experiment with subject lines and limit characters to 60 or less. With 46% of opens occurring on mobile devices, subject lines need to be short to avoid being truncated in mobile email clients.

Numbered lists, questions, personalized subject lines, and one-word statements are the tried-and-true best practices for email subject lines, but don’t be afraid to experiment and get creative. Including an emoji in your subject line periodically has been proven to help open rates as well.

Screenshot of Emojipedia.org home page


Finally, on the subject of open rates, it’s important to note that beginning June 7, 2021, Apple Mail began alerting users that they can opt-out of having their IP address tracked, thus their email open activity. As a result, open rates have become a less reliable benchmark. Moving forward, click-throughs in email campaigns are the most important metric to monitor.

Packed with practical advice and customized for nonprofits on a limited budget, the Website & Email Marketing for Nonprofits webinar stresses the importance of website and email marketing for fundraising.

The webinar is the first in a series of three to earn a Certificate in Digital Marketing & Fundraising from Nonprofit Tech for Good.

6) Create a “Thank you for subscribing” landing page that features calls-to-action.

The page that new subscribers land on after subscribing to your newsletter is a prime opportunity to convert your new subscribers into social media followers, volunteers, and donors. If they are making the effort to subscribe to your list, odds are they will be responsive to an additional call-to-action. Below are two examples from the International Rescue Committee and the Humane Society.

A Thank You web page for the International Rescue CommitteeEmail newsletter sign up landing page for the Humane Society which features a donation page

7) Create a welcome email.

For this blog post, Nonprofit Tech for Good subscribed to receive emails from 30 large national nonprofits. Of those, only 14 sent a welcome email. If a little less than 50% of large nonprofits are sending welcome emails, then it is likely that the rate is much lower for small and medium-sized nonprofits.

Email marketing services offer the functionality to easily create a welcome email for new subscribers as well as the ability to create a “Welcome” email series” – and subscribers do pay attention to welcome emails! The open rate for Nonprofit Tech for Good’s welcome email is 62.6% which is significantly higher than the average open rate of 44.2% for our weekly newsletter.

All that said, there is a variety of content to feature in your welcome email: a video about your work, a short message from your executive director, an urgent call-to-donate, or simply a welcome and request-to-follow on social media. Below are two examples from Water.org and the Humane Society.

Welcome Email for subscribers to Water.org - a nonprofit that provides clean drinking water.

An email confirmation email from the Humane Society that features a call-to-follow on Facebook and prompt to sign up for text alerts.

8) Attempt to re-engage unengaged subscribers and delete unengaged subscribers.

An unengaged subscriber is one that has not opened and clicked an email from your organization within the last six months. Subscribers stop engaging with your emails for several reasons: your emails are going to their spam folders, their email address is no longer in use, or they are simply ignoring your emails because they are no longer interested.

Not only is it costly to be sending emails to hundreds or even thousands of people who do not engage with your emails, but it also harms the overall deliverability of your email campaigns by decreasing your average open rate thus increasing the likelihood that your emails are being sent to spam folders.

According to the 2019 Email Deliverability Benchmarks Study (the most recent edition), nonprofits are losing as much as 20% of their annual revenue due to their email campaigns being sent to spam folders.

Infographic explaining charitable giving in the United States.

Even more troubling is that the Nonprofit Communications Trends Report found that 69% of nonprofits say they never stop emailing, even if the subscriber is clearly no longer engaged.

Email marketing services allow you to easily segment your list to discover who has not opened and/or clicked an email within the last six months or longer. Once you’ve segmented these subscribers, send them a re-engagement email or series. For example, re-send them an email that was popular. If they don’t open and click that email, send it again a week later with a different subject line. Then, two weeks later send them an urgent fundraising appeal or something fun and different. If all three fail to inspire click-throughs, then delete those subscribers from your list. Doing so will instantly increase your open and click-through rates and improve your deliverability.

That said, it’s worth noting that email marketing services track opens by adding a tiny pixel image to your email campaigns. If the pixel image is downloaded, then that’s considered an open, but it doesn’t mean that your subscriber read or even browsed your email because some email clients download and display the email with the pixel image in preview panes. It’s also important to remember that Apple iOS allows users to block these pixel images from being tracked, thus their email open activity. As a result, open rates can be both overestimated (pixel downloads in preview panes) and underestimated (no tracking in iOS) at the same time.

In truth, the best way to know if your subscribers are truly engaged is to research whether they have clicked inside any of your email campaigns within the last six months. After you create and run this segment, you may be quite shocked to learn how many of your subscribers have not clicked any of your emails within the last six months or even within the past year.

Nonprofit Tech for Good most recently ran this segment in January 2023 and found that 1,400 of our subscribers (out of 13,000 total) had not clicked a link in any of our email campaigns in over a year. We attempted to re-engage and we were able to do so with 120 subscribers, but then deleted the other 1,280 subscribers.

9) Prioritize growing your email list in 2023.

Unfortunately, many nonprofits de-prioritized email marketing during the rise of social media in the 2010s. Today, email remains a powerful communication tool used by all generations, including Generation Z, and with algorithms on social media now requiring marketers to invest in social advertising to achieve ROI, email continues to also be a very cost-effective tool. In 2023, and until the data proves otherwise, nonprofits must make a concerted effort to grow their email list.

Offering free webinars, gated content (such as research reports or infographics), online contests, and online petitions can grow your email list quickly by hundreds or thousands, but require an ongoing time and financial investment to create the content. If you don’t have the time or financial resources, below are three simple ways to grow your email list.

1. Add a newsletter opt-in to every page of your website.

As discussed in 10 Website Design Best Practices for Nonprofits, the easiest way to grow your email list is to feature a newsletter opt-in to your website’s primary navigation bar and footer, such as Compassion in World Farming.

Primary Navigation Bar:

Compassion in World Farming Homepage


Footer of the Compassion in World Farming Website

2. Add a pop-up and/or top bar to your website.

Nonprofits fear that pop-ups and top bars are too intrusive, but they work! Nonprofit Tech for Good began using MailMunch in October 2019 and now 38% of our new subscribers come from our pop-up and 26% from our top bar.

charity: water Pop-up:

Example of a pop-up on the charity: water website

Nonprofit Tech for Good Top Bar:

Nonprofit Tech for Good Home Page February 2023

3. Create a social media promo graphic.

Less powerful than pop-ups and top bars, but still an excellent way to convert social media followers into email subscribers, social media promo graphics that pitch your newsletter and link to a “Subscribe” page on your website should be shared monthly on your social media communities.

Landing page on the charity: water website that encourages people to sign up for their enewsletter.

10) Take email security seriously.

Email spam bots and phishing attacks are on the rise. Your nonprofit must prioritize cybersecurity in 2023, both internally and in your email marketing efforts.

In 2020, over 5,000 fake email accounts subscribed to Nonprofit Tech for Good’s email list through a free third-party MailChimp WordPress Plugin. Not requiring a double opt-in at the time was a costly and time-consuming mistake. All the bot subscribers opened the welcome email, but no other email after that. That’s how advanced email spambots have become.

Hubspot defines the double opt-in email subscribe process as a user signs up for email marketing, then confirms the subscription via a separate email or landing page to officially be added to an email list. If your nonprofit is still using a single opt-in process, there are three very important reasons why your nonprofit should enable double opt-in:

  1. Email subscribers that have been added to your list(s) via double opt-in are much more likely to receive your emails in their Inbox rather than filtered into spam.
  2. Spam bots subscribing to your email list(s) is unlikely because bots can not complete the double opt-in process, thus reducing the costly and time-consuming fiasco of an email spam bot attack.
  3. A low click rate due to fake or unengaged subscribers harms your email sender reputation.

Nonprofit Tech for Good uses MailChimp for our email marketing and we have now enabled double opt-in. If you are not already subscribed to our list, you can subscribe to experience the double opt-in process.

Post Updated: February 19, 2023

Our Certificate in Digital Marketing & Fundraising program covers the fundamentals of website design, email marketing, online fundraising, and social media for nonprofits.

The program requires the completion of three webinars and costs a total of $100 USD. To earn the certificate, you can attend the webinars live or view the recordings – or a combination of both. Learn more & register!