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Email Marketing for Nonprofits

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Nonprofits are confronted with many of the questions that any other enterprise, small or large, often ponders: How do I connect with my customers? Which communication vehicle will provide my organization with the highest return on investment? How can I determine what my target market wants?

While many of our corporate friends have turned to email marketing to help answer these questions, the concept is comparatively new to nonprofits. Email marketing may not be the silver bullet for every problem, but it provides us with an efficient and affordable tool to communicate with our constituents.

Whether you're launching a membership drive, soliciting donations, or selling tickets to a fundraising event, email marketing can provide the biggest bang for your buck. This article provides information on how to develop successful email marketing tactics and strategies that can be applied both to nonprofits and to businesses.

Step 1: Building your contact list

There are dozens of articles on how to build an effective email list, and most will identify similar strategies:

  • Face-to-face sign-up sheet
  • Paid search
  • Search engine optimization
  • A link to your subscription center on your signature line
  • A link on your online donation or event-registration checkout


These tactics are tried and true. There are dozens of others, but as email marketers know, the biggest taboos are rented or purchased lists. Our goal when helping a nonprofit build its initial contact list is to create a strong group of members who have specifically requested information from the organization.

The Visual Art Exchange (VAE) is a Raleigh, NC-based nonprofit that supports emerging artists in the local community. VAE receives the majority of email sign-ups not from the Web but from visitors to its art gallery in downtown Raleigh.

Whether you have a retail face to your nonprofit or you simply have a pen and paper at your office's front desk, do not underestimate the power of face-to-face sign-ups.

However, Web site sign-up forms are also important. Most email marketing providers automatically generate a sign-up link that can easily be placed on your homepage.

Step 2: Building buzz with email marketing

Frequent newsletter communications keep your interested members in the loop. Whether you are driving event attendance, seeking volunteers, or requesting online donations, a regular email newsletter keeps your membership engaged.

VAE recently used email marketing tactics to increase online tickets sales from 8% to 20% for its gala, which serves as the organization's major fundraiser. Regular email updates were a critical part of the ticket sales strategy. Each message provided something new and fresh about the gala. VAE didn't bombard members with the same announcement, but provided them with new data on the event each email blast: Who are the new sponsors this month? How many tickets have been sold? How many artists will have work in the silent and live auctions?

What can you tell your members to excite them, and ultimately allure them to follow-through with the appropriate action?

Step 3: Avoid too much of a good thing—email only as often as your list wants

Simply blanketing a general contact list with too many untargeted emails may be doing your organization a disservice. A recent survey by Convio found that 36% of significant donors said they are more likely to donate again if the organization permits them to say how often they'd like to be emailed.

As the email marketer for your nonprofit, you should make it a top priority to identify the unique frequency-based groupings in your list and make sure you're sending them exactly what they requested and when they requested the information.

VAE has several email lists:

  • Call for Artists
  • Call for Sponsors
  • Call for Volunteers
  • Event Updates

By making an effort to keep content in line with the list descriptions, VAE has maintained a consistent open rate of more than 50% and a click-through rate of 9%.

In the past, VAE did not utilize an email marketing software package and had no means of measuring campaign effectiveness. Today, VAE consistently tracks each campaign's results so that email marketing strategies can be adjusted as needed.

Step 4: Keep the feedback loop open

It is a good practice to request feedback from your email recipients regardless of what you are sending. Give your receivers a place to talk back. Make it short and simple and place it toward the bottom of your communication. Comments from your audience make for great content for future email newsletters and also allow you to gauge the pulse of your members.

Step 5: Conduct regular surveys

Surveys are structured requests for feedback and can be a great way for you to gather feedback on what your readers want to see. Send them out sparingly and with deliberation, as they take a greater time commitment from your list. If you would like to conduct surveys more than quarterly, consider creating an advisory segment and send more frequent surveys to that group.

VAE recently surveyed its members to determine what new program offerings members wanted to see. Some 40% of email recipients responded. In addition, the email VAE sent to its member list received a 44% click-through rate and a 48% open rate.

Members want to have the opportunity to provide feedback. A quarterly survey, performed online, is an efficient and inexpensive way to gauge members interests.

Summing Up

Whether you are sending an email campaign or conducting a survey, listen to your list. Your email list represents an active portion of your membership. They have requested content, so they have an immediate interest in what you have to say. Providing them with value-added material will reinforce their dedication to your nonprofit.

After implementing a basic email marketing strategy, the Visual Art Exchange was able to increase traffic to its Web site 200%, increase the size of its membership 40%, and double its annual revenue.

By thinking like a marketer, you too can help your nonprofit grow its programs, services, and offerings, enabling you to serve your members better.


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Winston Bowden is marketing and sales manager at Durham-based Contactology (www.contactology.com). Reach him via wbowden@contactology.com.

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