Email marketing is among the most important promotional tools nonprofit organizations have at their disposal. In fact, it might just be the most important.

That sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s far from that. When profit is not your goal, you need to be able to effectively reach prospective donors and other key audiences on a more limited budget. ROI becomes especially important, as does the personalized messaging aspect that email brings with it.

And yet, it can be difficult to manage if you’re not an expert in the field. So let’s get started on turning that around. After this comprehensive guide to nonprofit email marketing, you’ll know how to turn those digital messages into a core communications asset for your organization.

Man sending an email for his non-profit

Why nonprofits need an email marketing strategy

Let’s start with the basics. Any guide to email marketing has to start with a simple distinction between nonprofit and for-profit entities. Marketing for a nonprofit organization places a greater emphasis on awareness and loyalty. It’s less about the immediate sale, and more about the long-term relationships with your audiences that pay off in both donations and ambassadorship down the road.

Getting to that point can be challenging to achieve. It’s not as simple as placing a few ads and calling it a day. Instead, you need long-term strategies designed to build those long-term relationships.

That’s where email marketing enters the picture. In short, it’s a channel designed to continue communicating value to your audiences across longer time frames, and with more substance. The average Facebook ad cuts off at 50 characters, but the best email marketing messages average just around 100 words.

That’s enough time to make your case. The distribution method, meanwhile, enables you to leverage your existing contacts and make sure you provide information to both prospective and existing donors and stakeholders. That’s what makes email marketing such a perfect fit for nonprofit organizations.

Start with the system: Finding the best email marketing tools for nonprofits

Before you even start to think about your strategy, messaging, or audiences, you need the right systems in place.

Email marketing tools can vary widely. A simple Gmail client allows you to send one-to-one messages, but you’ll likely need a more comprehensive marketing solution. That’s when CRM systems enter the equation.

What is the best CRM for nonprofit email marketing?

CRM, short for customer relationship management, has become an invaluable part of modern email marketing. It’s the connection between a customer database that stores valuable information about your individual contacts, and a communication tool designed for outreach.

Of course, there are hundreds of potential solutions on the market today. So how do you find the right one? More specifically, how can you find the best CRM tool not just for nonprofits in general, but your vertical and situation specifically?

The right tools are affordable on tight nonprofit budgets, and intuitive to use for staff that might not be marketing experts. They also have a comprehensive support system designed to train and improve your email marketing skills over time. Here is a great list of top nonprofit email marketing tools:

  1. Zoho Campaigns shines in its ability to gather information about your contacts and leverage those into more segmented campaigns.
  2. MailChimp is known for its intuitiveness and user-friendly software package. The templates especially can give you a running start.
  3. Campaign Monitor is a bit more in-depth and complex, but offers great reporting features. We’ll get into why those matters further down in this guide.
  4. MailerLite is a straightforward tool that’s great if you’re just starting out. It’s almost impossible to get confused in its interface, but the tool lacks some advanced features of its competition.
  5. SendGrid is a great tool for personalized emails that speak directly to individual donors rather than larger segments of your audience.

Other top CRM and email marketing tools for nonprofits include SalesForce (and SalesForce Marketing Cloud), ActiveCampaign, GetResponse, and ConstantContact. Don’t be afraid to check out a few free trials before you settle on the software that makes the most sense for your needs and situation.

Can you get free software packages as a nonprofit?

Nonprofit organizations, provided they can prove their status, tend to get good deals on marketing software. That’s true for email tools as well; Campaign Monitor, for instance, offers a 15% nonprofit discount on all of its rates. However, most software packages aren’t free, with one notable exception.

MailChimp is not technically free for nonprofits at all levels. However, MailChimp is free for nonprofits with less than 2,000 email subscribers, making it the perfect entry solution in many cases. For up to 2,000 contacts and 12,000 email sends per month, there is no cost associated with it. After that, you get a 15% discount on all its rates.

Set up your strategy: Building an email marketing automation campaign

Based on the above, you can find an email platform that works for you. Next, it’s time to start building your first campaign. Or, more specifically, you need to set your strategy. That depends on a few crucial steps and answers, which we’ll cover below.

Define your email sequences

Good email marketing efforts are never one-off messages. They’re always connected to a larger goal, whether that be welcoming new subscribers or encouraging loyalty among existing donors. Each of these sequences should be its own mini-campaign, consistent within itself and in the broader context in which it lives.

The first step in building a strategy is to think through what types of sequences you might need to build, and what they’ll look like:

  • A welcome sequence for new subscribers, inviting them behind the scenes and allowing them to get to know your organization.
  • A thank you sequence to new donors, showing your appreciation as well as how their donation will make an impact.
  • An event-based sequence ahead of important dates, educating your audiences and encouraging them to sign up.
  • A loyalty sequence, designed to get lapsed donors back on your side.
  • An end of the year donation sequence, created to capture audience donations at the busiest time in holiday giving.

These are just a few examples, of course. Each sequence should consist of anywhere between two and five emails, spaced out appropriately. They should be warm, personalized, and segmented only to the audience types that make the most sense for the situation.

Familiarize yourself with analytics and reporting

With the sequences developed, it’s time to get familiar with the numbers behind your campaigns. Get to know these typical email success metrics:

  • Delivery rate: the percentage of your email list that actually received the email. A 99% or higher rate denotes a good, clean list.
  • Open rate: the percentage of email recipients who actually opened the message in their inbox. Aim for 30% or more.
  • Click-through rate: the percentage of email recipients who liked the email enough to click on it. Depending on the email, anywhere between 3 and 10% is a good rate.
  • Spam rate: the percentage of recipients who found your email and decided it was irrelevant to them. Minimize this number at all costs.

All email tools highlighted above report on these metrics. Get to know them now — as you run the campaigns, they will tell you what you need to know about the success of your individual messages and more comprehensive sequences.

How often should you send fundraising emails?

As those metrics will show, how often you send fundraising emails can make or break the success of your email campaign. Generally speaking, aim for no more than one to two emails per week from your organization to any given member of your target audience. Per year, that number comes out to about 50 emails in 365 days.

Any more than that and you risk alienating them or reducing the relevance. Less, and they might forget about you. Finding that golden middle is crucial to help in the success of your fundraising emails.

Coordinate your communications

Finally, it’s important to realize that email marketing for nonprofits can never exist in isolation. Your audiences will hear from you through a variety of other channels, as well. Keep that in mind as you build your campaigns. Ideally, the emails they receive from you should complement what they might receive in the mail, on social media, or through personal communications.

Build the messages: Best practices in nonprofit email messaging

You have a strategy in place. Congratulations! Now, it’s time to get granular. That means building the actual messages — the words (and graphics) that will find their way to your audience. 

How to ask for donations via email

Let’s start with the basics. How do you write a good fundraising email? It has to be about more than just asking for donations. Instead, follow these best practices to success:

  • Get the subject line right. Tell your audience exactly what they can expect in the message, including an actionable verb that foreshadows the call to action you’ll make in the email itself.
  • Keep your emails to the point. If you’re asking for donations, that should be the singular topic to focus on. A welcome email is written entirely differently. Don’t try to cover multiple topics in a single email.
  • Pay attention to email length. The ideal marketing email is between 50 and 125 words. That gives you enough space to make a good case without getting so long that your audience stops paying attention.
  • Format for readability. That means short sentences and paragraphs, and bullet points where you can. 
  • Get that emotional impact. Don’t just ask for money — instead, help your audience understand the impact that their donation can make. Don’t be afraid to tug on emotional heartstrings.
  • Finish with a strong call to action. Link directly to your donation page, and make that link obvious in the message. Again, an action verb as part of that donation call can do wonders in stirring action.

How to personalize your messaging

One email best practice is so important that it deserves its own section. We’re talking about personalization, which has become core to success in modern email marketing.

According to one study, personalized emails deliver six times higher transaction rates. Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of email marketers in one survey said their ROI tangibly improved when they used personalization tactics.

The good news is that with the right email marketing tool, it’s actually an easy thing to do. Personalization means leveraging your contacts’ information into the email you’re writing for them. You can do that on both the micro-level (like inserting their first name in the greeting line) and the macro-level (like segmenting emails according to your contacts’ shared preferences, actions, and backgrounds).

But it can get even simpler than that. For instance, making sure that your email comes from a person rather than a generic company account can build affinity among your audiences and makes them more likely to open the message.

How to avoid the spam folder

Finally, make sure you comply with anti-spam regulations no matter where you operate your nonprofit organization. Laws like the U.S. CAN-SPAM Act, the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation, and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) all add stipulations for email marketers designed to protect consumers.

That starts with making sure each of your emails has an unsubscribe link, and honoring the requests of contacts who decide to opt out of your messaging. It also means providing your physical address at the bottom of emails to prove your operations’ legitimacy.

Another way to avoid the spam folder is to avoid so-called spam trigger words, which tend to get caught in email clients. Finally, make sure that your emails are always accessible to avoid them being marked as spam, either automatically or by individual users.

You know the basics. Where do you go next? 

And that’s it! With these basics in mind, you’re ready to begin the process of building and executing your nonprofit email marketing strategy. Of course, you can dig deeper. For instance, you’ll need to learn about best practices to build your contact database, from incentivizing new leads and donors to building trust and credibility with your audience.

In other words, this is just the beginning. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming — you might just need a strategic partner by your side. Contact us to start the conversation about effective and strategic email marketing for nonprofits, and to set your organization on the path of email (and digital) marketing success.