Run email like your organization depends on it because, well, it does.
For many (most? all?) groups, email is the primary line of contact between the organization and its supporters, members and prospects.
An email address is usually the first and often the only data you have on a supporter.
You rely on email to:
- Inform people about your work.
- Distribute articles and updates.
- Drive traffic to websites and forms where people can take action, donate, start a P2P campaign, purchase items or event tickets and more.
- Establish a relationship and build loyalty.
- Request that people take action.
- Let supporters know about events.
- Send receipts and other transactional notices.
- Receive feedback from supporters.
Despite this dependence, nonprofit email performance is lackluster and declining. Here’s some data from the 2023 Benchmarks report put out by M+R.
- Nonprofits sent 60 email messages per subscriber in 2022 (SIXTY ?…yeah, that seems like a lot!), including 29 fundraising appeals. Email accounted for 14% of all online revenue.
- The average response rate for fundraising email was 0.09%, an 18% decrease compared to 2021.
- The average group is losing 17% of its list each year: 9.1% of list members unsubscribed. Another 8% of email addresses became non-deliverable due to bouncing.
People are always going to unsubscribe, abandon email addresses (the main source of bounces) and otherwise cause lists to churn.
But these are real problems: Nearly 1 in 5 email address is lost per year and small response rates are falling. Yet we’re sending everyone more than an email per week.
It’s almost as if what we’re doing isn’t working.
You could say “well, it’s email and people hate email.” And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
But perhaps people simply dislike and tune out BAD email.
We train people, including our staff and leaders, to expect a poor email journey, crisis-only asks for attention, and no downside to ignoring email.
So, can email be better? Can it work? Could we create email that supporters enjoy and use?
Don’t change the email. Change the system.
I’m going to propose that the way organizations run their email is broken. For most groups, leaders and teams, email (and the email list) is a tool to send stuff out and tell folks what to do or think. Many teams with different interests touch email – communications, digital, organizing, membership and more.
Despite all the attention, there may be nobody responsible for email as a product unto itself.
What if we treated email as product and not a communications tool? By this I mean creating a product team responsible for not just creating emails people ask for but for a group with cross-cutting skills and responsibilities who are dedicated to developing and implementing a deep understanding of what works in email.
You probably realize that the deep decline of print subscriptions and ad revenue means that news companies – everyone from national giants like The Washington Postand The New York Times to local digital news sites like Colorado Sun or LAist – use email, and more specifically newsletters, to deliver stories, build relationships with readers and run membership and fundraising programs.
Email is critical to the success of news organizations. So much so that audience and email directors are roles responsible for the growth and revenue needed to fund editorial roles. Folks like Anjali Iyer at The Washington Post are doing testing and deep analysis of email products and strategies including, be still my heart, the role of onboarding and welcome series.
Newsletters as product
News organizations are investing in newsletters because they are seeing the connection between email and revenue. Email gets into inboxes. And a great email gets read. At news organizations, email subscribers are the main source of funding – similar to nonprofits.
Many news organizations I’ve spoken to report that around 10% of their newsletter subscribers are members and/or donors. They credit a focus on email newsletters as essential to turning web visitors into subscribers and subscribers into members and/or donors. I suspect that few nonprofits are seeing a 10% donor rate among subscribers.
Making the change
Mindset and strategy change for your communications team and their partners in organizing, program and fundraising (and the consulting shops that often do of the the email strategy and implementation).
How do you get to that point?
 Approach email like the primary communications, advocacy and fundraising channel that it is
Because email is probably reaching more people more often with more potential information and impact than your website, events, SMS or field organizing.
It’s easy to hate on email and treat it as the necessary evil that, if you could only optimize and A/B test endlessly, will get another 0.2% click rate and save your year end fundraising goals.
But email, more than print, social, text, or online, is intrinsic to not just your supporter relationship (and it’s nurturing) but to your ability to advocate, fundraise and grow the organization.
 Bring on an email director
Consider opening up a senior role for someone with deep understanding of email design, development and marketing strategy. Someone who loves to create email that delights readers, meets goals and is constantly learning about the field.
According to the latest M+R Benchmarks report the average nonprofit sent 60 emails per year to each subscriber. Do the math. That’s a lot of email. But very few organizations, if any, have an email director (or similar role) on staff to oversee email excellence and provide deep guidance and understanding on the technical, design, marketing, messaging and other aspects of email products.
 Build an email product team
Chances are you have a group of people on different teams (digital, comms, fundraising, programs, etc.) who check in regularly to talk about what emails are coming up and who needs to write something. But do these folks have clear responsibilities for (and expertise in) email ideation, design, testing, content creation, deliverability and reporting?
An organization with an email list in the upper six figures or beyond would benefit from an email team. Consider what a dedicated cross-department email team would look like. Carve off dedicated time so these people can dedicate attention and learning to collaborating with an email director.
 Try alternative approaches to email content
Most nonprofits aren’t news organizations with a staff of writers and editors adept at spinning out stories on daily deadlines. And most nonprofit communications teams face internal pressures to produce content written with (even for) internal audiences, not supporters.
- Find a partner for your email newsletter – one that excels at content production. This could be a local or state nonprofit news organization, a funder focused on one of your issues or a local nonprofit who is in the field interviewing and creating stories.
- Go small. Don’t focus on creating one newsletter for everyone out there. Identify a key, even niche, audience in your membership. Or an audience that’s important but hasn’t been reached. Develop a newsletter specifically for that audience (though knowing that anyone could subscribe). Don’t make it long. Don’t try to cover everything at once. Don’t overdo the design. Just start with good content and see if it gets traction. This is one place where a product team can help you think about organic and paid marketing to reach your internal and/or external audience.
These could be minimally viable email newsletters: a series of state-specific news updates or a general newsletter highlight current actions and blog posts but only sent two contrasting targeted segments of your list (with the intent of learning which segment responds better).
 Consistency beats perfection
Supporters need to hear from you regularly. I usually suggest weekly or bi-weekly. Anything less often and folks forget about you and your inbox placement suffers. The inconsistency of the newsletter you’re reading now is an example of not following one’s own advice. ?
The biggest obstacle to consistent publication is writing by committee, not trusting your writers and/or having unclear content creation and editing roles. Get your content flow in order, train a wide variety of folks who can jump in to help write, gather content and create the emails.
Consistently test and report on results. And always be reading other newsletters, asking people in other groups what they’re testing and learning, and checking in on readers.