10 Email Marketing Best Practices for Nonprofits

This is the second post in a blog and webinar series called 101 Digital Marketing & Fundraising Best Practices for Nonprofitswritten and presented by Heather Mansfield. To be alerted of updates to the series, please sign up for Nonprofit Tech for Good’s newsletter. Thank you!

Related Webinar: Website & Email Marketing 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 while 25% say social media, 17% website, and 13% print. In fact, email messaging raises 14% 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 email design strategy.

Forty-nine percent of email is opened on a mobile device, so first and foremost, your email campaigns (newsletters, fundraising appeals, event invites, welcome emails, thank you emails, volunteer 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 email design trends are compatible with desktop email design. What looks good on a mobile device often looks even better on desktop and laptop computers, and all email marketing services now offer easy-to-use responsive email templates. If you need help with template set-up and design, there are affordable and skilled freelancers  for hire.

To stay current on email design trends, a good first step is to subscribe to large nonprofits similar to yours in mission and programs and then study their email campaigns. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has a simple, yet functional design.

2) Regularly publish a newsletter and fundraising appeals.

The term “e-newsletter” comes from the late 1990s when nonprofits first began offering their print newsletters in electronic format i.e., electronic 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 meant to be read in their entirety, and like print newsletters, e-newsletters in the late 1990s and early 2000s were sent quarterly.

Email newsletters

Today, email newsletters are shorter in length than e-newsletters, sent more often, and most importantly, designed to send traffic to your website. Newsletters can include a call to action (make a donation, save the date, follow on social media, etc.), but the primary purpose of a email newsletter is to communicate one to five program updates and inspirational stories. A good newsletter example to study and learn from is the Audubon Society.

A screenshot of an email newsletter by the Audubon Society that features three stories.

Email fundraising appeals

While email newsletters are meant to educate, the sole purpose of an email appeal is to inspire subscribers to make an online donation. When writing an email fundraising appeal, follow a simple framework: 1) communicate the problem that needs to be solved; 2) explain how your nonprofit can solve the problem; and 3) ask for financial support to help solve the problem together.

A screenshot of an email fundraising appeal from the Audubon Society that features large monthly donors buttons.

3) Send newsletters and fundraising appeals more often.

According to the Nonprofit Tech for Good Report, 41% of nonprofits send email newsletters monthly. Monthly is a good frequency for most nonprofits, but for those nonprofits that have the content, it’s worth experimenting with sending a newsletter every two or three weeks. Your nonprofit may lose a few subscribers, but an increase in engagement and traffic to your website is worth it.

If your nonprofit sends newsletters quarterly, then start sending them monthly. Quarterly email newsletters are relic from another millennium.

Nonprofit Tech for Good has over a million followers on social media, but our 10,000+ email subscribers result in our highest website traffic days. For your reference, after a year of experimenting with days and frequency, Nonprofit Tech for Good has settled on a weekly newsletter sent every Monday morning and a featured resource or webinar email sent every other Wednesday – an average of six emails a month.

A graph that shows 14 days of website traffic for Nonprofit Tech for Good with the days emails were sent resulting in the most website traffic.

4) Maximize your email footer.

On average, 1.5% of clicks-throughs in Nonprofit Tech for Good’s email campaigns come from our footer. That may sound like a small amount, but the links in our footer are important calls to action and every click-through is valuable.

Footers are easy to add to your email templates and should feature your most important calls to action. The National Wildlife Federation uses a green background in their footer to draw attention to a “Donate” button and social media icons.

A screenshot of a footer from the National Wildlife Federation that features a "Donate" button and social media icons.

5) Prioritize click-throughs over open rates.

Email open rates are no longer a reliable metric. Bots inflate opens and Apple now pre-loads email data regardless of whether a user opens an email. The best way to know if subscribers are engaging with your email campaigns is to track your click-through rates. Open rates are not irrelevant, but they are just no longer accurate.

Currently, the average click-through rate for the nonprofit sector is 2.6%. In the years ahead, nonprofits should prioritize email design trends and content that inspires subscribers to open and click links within your email campaigns.

Email personalization

Email personalization can be as simple as using a [First Name] tag in an email subject line or as complex as using artificial intelligence to automatically segment your subscribers into lists based on what kind of content they click most often and what time they click your emails.

Subject lines

With 49% of email opens occurring on mobile devices, subject lines need to be 60 characters or less to avoid being truncated in mobile email clients. Numbered lists, questions, personalized subject lines, and using action verbs are tried-and-true best practices for email subject lines, but don’t be afraid to experiment and get creative. Including an emoji or two in your subject line has been proven to help open rates as well.

Call-to-action buttons

Call-to-action best practices encourage limiting the number of CTAs per email to one or two. Newsletters can include multiple “Read More” CTAs, but fundraising appeals, event invites, welcome emails, thank you emails, volunteer emails, etc., should focus the subscriber on taking the action that your nonprofit is requesting.

Also, button-based CTAs can significantly improve click-through rates. As a best practice, follow the lead of Human Rights Watch and use hyperlinks and buttons in your email campaigns because some email clients distort how buttons are displayed.

A fundraising email from Human Rights Watch with minimal text and large button call-to-actions.

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!

A screenshot of the "Certificate in Digital Marketing & Fundraising" offered by Nonprofit Tech for Good.

6) Create a “Thank You” landing page.

A “Thank You” landing page is a page on your website where new subscribers are sent immediately after subscribing to your newsletter. As new subscribers, they are likely to be more responsive to prompts to learn more about your mission and programs and to get more involved. After subscribing to the Grand Canyon Conservancy, new subscribers are asked to follow the nonprofit on social media.

A "Thank You" landing page that asks new subscribers to follow the Grand Canyon Conservancy on social media.

7) Create a “Welcome” email or series.

The average open rate for welcome emails is 50% – twice that of other email campaigns – so in addition to a “Thank You” landing page, nonprofits should create a welcome email or series for new subscribers. In their “Welcome” email, the Grand Canyon Conservancy again asks their new subscribers to follow them on social media. Alternatively, your nonprofit could choose to feature a video about your work, a short message from your executive director, or information about how to become a volunteer.

A "Welcome" email from the Grand Canyon Conservancy that asks new subscribers to follow the nonprofit on social media.

8) Delete unengaged subscribers.

An unengaged subscriber is one that has not opened and clicked an email from your nonprofit within the last six months. Subscribers stop engaging either because your emails go to their spam folder or they are no longer interested and haven’t taken the time yet to unsubscribe.

It’s expensive to send emails to unengaged subscribers and doing so also harms the overall deliverability of your email campaigns. Your sender reputation with email servers is based on your open and click-through rates, and because unengaged subscribers do not open and click your emails, not deleting unengaged subscribers increases the likelihood that more of your email campaigns will be filtered 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.

An infographic that communicates that spam filters cause nonprofits to loose 20.18% of their fundraising revenue.

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 subscribers who have not opened and clicked an email within the last six months or longer. Once you’ve segmented these subscribers, send them a re-engagement email. If they don’t open and click that email, send a second re-engagement email a week later. If both emails fail to re-engage, then delete them from your list.

9) Prioritize growing your email list in 2024.

Unfortunately, many nonprofits de-prioritized email marketing during the rise of social media in the 2010s, but with organic reach on social media now at an all-time low, growing you email list should be at the top of your priority list for 2024.

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

As discussed in 10 Website Marketing Best Practices for Nonprofits, the easiest way to add a newsletter opt-in to every page of your website is by featuring a newsletter call-to-action in your website’s primary navigation and footer. If your nonprofit plans to use personalization in email campaigns, include “First Name” and “Last Name” fields in your opt-in forms. It’s also a best practice to turn double opt-in for all email forms on your website.

A screenshot of the home page of the nonprofit, Play Like the Girl that features a "Get Our Newsletter" button in the navigation menu.

A screenshot of a footer for the website, Play Like a Girl, that features an email newsletter opt-in and social media icons.

2. Add a pop-up to your website.

Nonprofits fear that pop-ups are too intrusive, but they work! Nonprofit Tech for Good has two pop-ups on our site: 1) a blue pop-up that displays in the middle of our website after 30 seconds, and, 2) a grey bottom-bar pop-up that appears after one second. The blue pop-up accounts for 42% of our new subscribers, the opt-in on our sidebar accounts for 36%, the grey bottom-bar pop-up accounts for 17%, and the footer opt-in accounts for 5%.

A screenshot of Nonprofit Tech for Good that features our pop-up.

3. Create a newsletter landing page.

To convert social media followers into newsletter subscribers, your nonprofit needs a newsletter landing page and social media promo graphics that pitch your newsletter. As organic reach on social media continues to decline, make a concerted effort in 2024 to promote your newsletter on social media every other week or at least monthly.

A newsletter landing page for Play Like A Girl that feature an email opt-in and a screenshot of their email newsletter.

10) Set up SPF, DKIM, DMARC, and BIMI records.

Publishing high-quality email campaigns that people want to open, read, and click is your first defense against being filtered into spam folders. Turning on double opt-in for all email forms and pop-ups also help as does regularly deleting unengaged subscribers.

On the technical side, setting up email authentication records for your domain is an absolute must:

  • Sender Policy Framework (SPF)
  • DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM)
  • Domain-Based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC)
  • Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI)

Your nonprofit can set up or verify these records with the domain registrar that hosts your domain, and if you are unsure whether your records are set up correctly, start with a SPF record test and a DKIM record test. If your domain fails either test, contact your system administrator ASAP. If you do not have IT support at your nonprofit, contact your email marketing service provider for guidance or consider hiring an expert on Upwork.

Post Updated: January 15, 2024

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!

A screenshot of the "Certificate in Digital Marketing & Fundraising" offered by Nonprofit Tech for Good.