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E-mail Fundraising Best Practices

by Nick Gleason

As a lifelong activist, I have worked in non-profits throughout my career and have helped to raise funds for many organizations. In recent years, I have witnessed e-mail marketing become one of the greatest tools available to fundraisers.

E-mail marketing is both effective and cost-efficient - especially in comparison to the other fundraising tools available to non-profit managers. According to AMR Research, well-targeted e-mail marketing campaigns can generate response rates that are 7 to 12 times higher than comparable snail-mail marketing efforts.

More and more non-profit organizations are recognizing the value of e-mail marketing in their fundraising efforts. But, many are still missing the boat.

One of the barriers to creating effective e-mail marketing and fundraising campaigns is cultural. Those of us working in non-profits too often consider "marketing" to be a bad word that is associated with invasive telephone calls or hard-sell tactics. We often feel that the value of our work should be obvious and we should not have to promote it.

Before we can reap the benefits of e-mail marketing, we must first change that traditional cultural mindset. Recognizing that there are many people who want to know about the great work that we do and would be happy to support that work if only they knew about it is the first step. These are the people that we must connect with and build relationships with, so that we can get the work done better and faster!

Then, once our motivation is at a high pitch, we need strategy and tools to execute effectively. In consulting non-profits, I am often asked how organizations can make the most of their investment in an e-mail marketing system. Some of the best practices that I recommend include the following:

  • Support Your Organizational Strategy

    E-mail marketing campaigns should be viewed as one component of an overall integrated plan that includes a variety of communication channels like e-mail, Web sites, mailings, events, media outreach, and so forth. The marketing and fundraising messages delivered through each of these channels should be consistent and reflect the organization's strategy and goals.

  • Know Your Readers

    When considering an e-mail marketing and fundraising strategy, I typically advise non-profits to use newsletters as a relationship-building tool that can also be used to solicit funds. It is important to find out what users want through surveys and analysis, so that you can give them control of preferences (i.e., how often they receive e-mails from you) and provide them with the information that they want. By focusing on individual interests, you will experience more success in both online and offline fundraising because people will be more engaged with your cause and your organization.

  • Build Your E-mail List

    For most non-profits, the larger your list of opt-in e-mails, the greater your chances of success. You should do everything you can to build a large list of opt-in subscribers. That means using all interactions with users as an opportunity to invite them to subscribe to your newsletter. This can happen on your Web site, through e-mail referrals and in offline communication with your organization's constituents (e.g. events, work interactions, and so forth).

  • Send HTML E-mails

    Because of its formatting and interactive capabilities, HTML is a vastly superior way to generate e-mail newsletters. HTML allows you to format a newsletter to make it more readable and engaging. It also allows you to use interactive features like links, surveys and feedback forms.

  • Use Strong, Consistent Design

    Your e-mail marketing messages should be a reflection of your organization's brand. So you'll want to develop an HTML e-mail template that includes colors, imagery and fonts that are consistent with your Web site and other marketing materials. As with your Web site, the design of your e-mail template should incorporate an inviting color palette and simple, attractive graphics.

  • Find Messaging that Resonates

    You'll want to develop e-mail messaging with a compelling call to action for people to contribute to your organization. Include details on the value that your organization provides and on the need for additional funds. Keep the message concise, and include instructions on how people can donate - by phone, by mail or online. In addition, if you reach out to multiple constituent groups, you may want to consider customizing content for their specific needs and interests.

  • Use a Good E-mail Management System

    Although you can use standard e-mail clients to conduct e-mail newsletter and fundraising campaigns, it usually makes sense to purchase a back-end database system with more features that allows you to manage and analyze your data quickly and effectively. These e-mail management systems typically give non-technical users the ability to add and edit subscriber information, develop customized lists for specific fundraising campaigns, compose e-mails and schedule message dissemination.

  • Measure Click-throughs for Future Use

    One of the advantages of e-mail campaigns over snail-mail is the ability to measure responses to your fundraising appeals. An individual code can be placed in the Web page links included in the body of each e-mail, so that you'll know exactly which individuals are interested enough in your messaging to click through to your Web site. By measuring click-throughs, your staff can better prioritize follow-up fundraising efforts with individual constituents.

  • Respect Your Readers

    Of course, you should always respect your readers when constructing an e-mail fundraising campaign. E-mail messages should be made sparingly. A good rule of thumb is to send messages no more than once or twice a month. Don't include too many graphics-rich images in the e-mails, so that recipients can open your messages quickly. And give users the option to unsubscribe from your mailing list if they wish.

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About the Author:

Nick Gleason is CEO and Founder of CitySoft (, the leading provider of Internet services to non-profit organizations, associations, foundations and educational institutions. His career has spanned the private, public, and non-profit sectors. As an activist and entrepreneur, Nick has helped to start four businesses, as well as CitySkills, a non-profit organization that is building high-tech career opportunities for inner-city residents.

Nick speaks frequently on topics relating to technology, business and urban development and was recently named one of Boston's "40 Under 40" business leaders by the Boston Business Journal.

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