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 Nonprofits, written and presented by Heather Mansfield. Please sign up for Nonprofit Tech for Good’s email newsletter to be alerted of new posts. Thank you!

Related Webinar: Website & Email Marketing Best Practices for Nonprofits

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 raised 19% of all online revenue in 2020. Despite the popular myth which asserts that email is dying, the truth is that email use is growing with all age groups, worldwide.

1. Embrace a mobile-first design strategy.

Sixty-two 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, instead of delete.

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 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 for your email campaigns, 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 you like. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is a simple, yet functional design and it’s worth noting that video can increase click-through rates by 65%, so be sure that your email campaigns link to the video is embedded on your website – rather than linking to a third-party video hosting platform:

A special note to the nonprofits worldwide 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, and they will not open them. Tens of thousands of nonprofits worldwide come online for the first time every year and a large number of them are launching email campaigns using BCC simply 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 e-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 a large amount of news content taken directly from their print edition. Like print newsletters, e-newsletters in the late 1990s and early 2000s were mostly sent quarterly.

Today, the term “e-newsletter” has stuck around, but their purpose is much different. E-newsletters are sent more often and serve as regular  reminders about the good work that your organization is doing. Through links (underlined text or buttons), e-newsletters send subscribers to your website where they can read the full story and become inspired to take action (donate, sign an online petition, follow on social media, etc.). By definition, your e-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.

For your reference, Hubspot lists 15 of the best e-newsletter templates free for download with a multi-story template named Pook by Litmus at the top of the list:

Email fundraising appeals are different. The focus is on one story and one call-to-action (both above the fold) and the theme is usually as follows: There is a problem, your organization 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 pollinators:

The header image contains a “Donate” button and an “Act Now” link and both take the reader directly to NWF’s primarily donation page. The email itself contains eight underlined text links and one button link – all go to NWF’s primary donation page. There are no other CTAs or distractions:

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

As discussed in 10 Website Design Best Practices for Nonprofits, your website should prominently feature a “Donate” button, an e-newsletter opt-in, and social media icons. The same concept is true for your email campaigns – prominently feature a “Donate” button and your social media icons in the footer and/or header. For example, The Jane Goodall Institute:

Email Header:

Email Footer:

It’s worth noting that because this is a fundraising appeal, the header only contains a “Donate” button and no social media icons in order to not distract the subscriber from the primary purpose of the email – to get the subscriber to make an online donation.

4. Experiment with sending your email campaigns more often.

Large nonprofits send an average of 59 emails per year to their subscribers (an average of 4.9 emails per month). Of those, 25 are fundraising appeals. For large nonprofits, that’s a good pace of sending email campaigns.

Small and medium-sized nonprofits are more cautious about email and send out email campaigns much less often. According to the 2019 Global Trends in Giving Report, 77% of small and medium-sized nonprofits worldwide send email campaigns quarterly, monthly, or not at all:

Sending email campaigns monthly or quarterly is a lost opportunity to inspire your subscribers to give, volunteer, or attend an event and to drive traffic to your website and grow your social media communities.

If your nonprofit sends e-newsletters to your subscribers quarterly, start sending it monthly. If you send your e-newsletter monthly, increase the frequency to twice monthly. If you only send email fundraising campaigns quarterly and at the end of the year, double the number of email fundraising appeals you send. If a subscriber unsubscribes because you sent one too many emails, then they likely were not that interested in supporting your organization. The time invested in ramping up your campaigns and the content strategy behind it is well worth it in terms of return on investment (ROI).

When to send your email campaigns? According to 14 different studies, the best time to send email campaigns is on Tuesdays at 10 am. The problem with these studies, however, is that if a large number of nonprofits all began sending their email campaigns on Tuesdays at 10 am, then it would no longer be the best time to send email because your subscribers would be flooded with emails on Tuesdays at 10 am.  To find the best time for your organization, experiment, test, and don’t be afraid to go against conventional wisdom.

5. Personalize your email campaigns and write short subject lines to maximize open rates.

According to Campaign Monitor, the average open rate for nonprofit emails is 20.39%. 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 (which can increase open rates by as much as 29%) or as complex as using artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically segment subscribers into different lists based what kind of content they click, what time they open your email, 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, transactional email experience with your organization that will ensure maximum open rates and subsequent engagement through calls-to-action.

Also, subject lines can make or break your email campaign open rates. Use A/B testing to experiment with subject lines and limit characters to 50 or less. With most 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. Adding an emoji periodically has been proven to help open rates too!


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

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 e-newsletter is a prime opportunity to convert your new subscribers into social media followers, volunteers, donors, and/or e-activists. If they are making the effort to subscribe to your list, odds are they will be responsive to an additional call-to-action. Here are two examples from the Best Friends Animal Society and the International Rescue Committee:

7. Create a welcome email.

For this blog post, Nonprofit Tech for Good subscribed receive emails from 30 large national nonprofits and fourteen sent a welcome email within 48 hours. 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 62.1% which is significantly higher than the average open rate of 37.9% for our weekly e-newsletter.

All that said, there is a wide 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. Here are two examples from Water.org and Oceana:

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

An unengaged subscriber is one that has not opened an email from your organization within the last six months. Subscribers stop opening 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 open your emails, but it also harms the overall deliverability of your email campaigns by, over time, decreasing your overall open rate.

According to the 2019 Email Deliverability Benchmarks Study, nonprofits are losing as much as 20% of their annual revenue due to their email campaigns being sent to spam folders:

Even more troubling is that the 2020 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 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 in the past. If they don’t open that one, 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 opens, then delete those subscribers from your list. Doing so will instantly increase your open rate and improve your deliverability.

That said, it’s worth noting that a subscriber opening your email can be misleading in terms of judging engagement. 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.

In truth, the best way to know if your subscribers are truly engaged is to research whether they have opened and clicked inside one 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 one of your emails within the last six months or even the past year. Nonprofit Tech for Good ran this segment two months ago and found that a whopping 12,000 of our subscribers (out of 22,000 total) had not clicked inside one of our weekly emails in over a year. We attempted to re-engage and we were able to do so with 300 subscribers and then took a deep breath and deleted the other 11,700 subscribers. Since then, our open rate has doubled, click-throughs have increased due to higher deliverability, and we’re saving a $140 a month.

9. Prioritize growing your email list in 2021.

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 the up-and-coming 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 2021, 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 have the ability to 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 basic means of growing your email list that all nonprofits can implement:

– Add an e-newsletter sign-up box 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 your e-newsletter opt-in in your website’s primary navigation bar and footer, such as The International Center for Research on Women:

– Add a pop-up to your website.

Nonprofits fear that pop-ups are too intrusive, but they work! Nonprofit Tech for Good began using Journity in October 2019 and now 50% of our new subscribers come from our pop-up. That’s why most large nonprofits now use them, such as charity: water:

Create a social media promo graphic.

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

10. Take email security seriously.

Email spambots and phishing attacks are on the rise. It’s essential that you take email security seriously, both internally and in your email marketing efforts.

In 2019, over 5,000 fake email accounts subscribed to Nonprofit Tech for Good’s email list through a free third-party MailChimp WordPress Plugin which was a costly and time-consuming mistake. All 5,000 managed to get through a double opt-in requirement and all opened the welcome email, but no other email after that. That’s how advanced email spambots have become.

In addition to requiring a double opt-in, add a captcha to your email sign up forms and stay away from free email sign up plugins and apps. Also, get cybersecurity training for your nonprofit staff. Nonprofit Tech for Good recommends ILLUSIO and NTEN.

101 Digital Marketing & Fundraising Best Practices for Nonprofits is a blog and webinar series (written and presented by Heather Mansfield) on website design, email marketing, online fundraising, and social media best practices for nonprofits, NGOs, and charities worldwide. Those who register and attend all three webinars in the series will earn a Certificate of Completion in Digital Marketing & Fundraising from Nonprofit Tech for Good.

10 Email Marketing Best Practices for Nonprofits
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