Tag: Email

Your nonprofit newsletter is one of the most powerful tools you have to convert donors. However, converting donors isn’t only about making your fundraisers seen. It’s more important to use your email marketing for effective storytelling.

Donors love to see the impact their donations have. They want to feel re-inspired to give and reminded of why they love your cause. Your nonprofit newsletter needs to include elements of storytelling alongside other engaging content. Otherwise, you will find yourself asking for money too often and wearing your donors out.

Here are seven emails built to engage your supporters without over-asking. Each of them is designed to help you build relationships, gather more support, and show off your impact in the world.

1. Thank You Emails

The most obvious email you should always send to your donors is “Thank You.” Don’t automate a donation receipt and move on. Make sure your donors are thanked genuinely for their contribution.

Then, ask them to sign up for your newsletter so you can engage them all year long. Or, you can ask them to subscribe when they give by building an email opt-in option into your forms. Either way, make sure your donors feel appreciated and have options to stay connected after they give.

2. Welcome Emails

Welcome emails are different from the “Thank You” email sent right after a donation. This comes after someone opts-in to your email marketing newsletter. It has information on what kind of content you send out to your subscribers, how to support the cause by sharing your content, etc.

You should also have a subscription sign-up available on your website. People generally interested in your mission and the content you publish will sign up and become donor leads. Content marketing is an important strategy for nonprofits to embrace. It helps build your email list and your email list also drives traffic to your website in return.

The people interested in your content are good leads to convert to donors. You just need to nurture them with emails they’re interested in before you ask for donations.

3. Impact Stories

Of course, don’t forget the most important part of your newsletter: storytelling. It’s your job to show your organization’s work and how it’s made an impact. Donors especially want to see what impact they had. You did the work, but they feel pride. Help them feel the joy of giving by telling the story of how their money has helped you fulfill your mission.

You can write out the entire story, send them back to your blog to read the whole thing, or even a mix of both. When you send them back to your site, they’re greeted with more opportunities to explore your content and give.

4. Volunteer Stories

You should also include volunteer stories in your nonprofit newsletter. These are just as beneficial as impact stories. Your volunteers see things from a different perspective. Their point of view might inspire donors to become volunteers, give even more, or share the story.

Volunteer stories also serve as third-party validation or social proof. It gives your organization more credibility to share the experiences of those who volunteer to do the work.

5. Surveys

Surveys are wonderful tools to re-engage donors and keep up engagement during a slow season. You might find that you want to use a survey to see what kind of content your newsletter subscribers want to see. Some other survey question topics might include:

  • Have you seen the news? Find out if you need to educate your supporters on a news topic that has an effect on your mission in some way.
  • What’s your favorite? Ask your subscribers what their favorite volunteer or impact story is from your blog.
  • What’s the right stat? Quiz your donors and supporters on their knowledge of your cause. Do they know the right statistical data?

6. Factoid Updates

Send out statistics and facts. These can be short emails with one to two stats or a whole list of relevant research. How you design the email depends on your goals. Creating graphic-oriented emails helps encourage sharing on social media.

On the other hand, plain-text emails with more information may inspire more engagement and clicks-though. It depends on your audience and how they currently interact with your email content.

7. World News

Last, but not least, keep your supporters informed of relevant world and local news. Anything that affects your organization and mission or those who have benefitted from your services is worth sharing.

But Don’t Forget to Ask

Between the storytelling, transparency, and engagement emails, make sure you are still asking for donations. Ask regularly for general online donations and always segment your lists. If you have recurring donors, don’t keep asking them to sign up to donate. Instead, use segmentation to ensure they only get asks for larger fundraising campaigns.

Even when it comes to larger campaigns, like GivingTuesday for example, your emails should be framed toward each segment. Address your board and volunteers, past and recurring donors, and new supporters attracted by the campaign all differently. Segmenting is crucial for nonprofit fundraising emails.

Evaluate and Evolve Your Nonprofit Email Marketing Strategy

Take the time to evaluate your current email marketing strategy. Do you have enough mixed content or are you constantly asking for support? You might even find that you aren’t asking for support enough.

It took me three months into my social media dream job to realize why the word “online” was part of my job title. It was 2010, and I had finally found a job that had social media marketing at its heart, at a small AIDS nonprofit that planned to use Facebook, Twitter and dating apps to connect with people living with and at risk for HIV.

Even before my first day, I’d had a run-in with our horrible, outdated and very difficult website, but I knew there was a web developer on retainer and I figured it was his problem. Or maybe it was the Executive Director’s problem. Or perhaps the office administrator. I don’t suppose there was someone on the board who could help? A volunteer? Bueller?

As anyone who works in digital marketing or fundraising knows, your organization’s website is at the crux of how people relate to your organization and its work. When something is wrong, it hurts your ability to attract, engage, and convert the people you need to make your work a success. As it turned out, our website was my problem, and to solve it, we needed to build a working digital strategy.

What is a digital strategy?

For many nonprofits, technology adoption isn’t hard. We’re smart people, and we’re perfectly capable of finding the tools we need to help us perform particular tasks. But what often happens is that an organization will accrue a slew of tools, all of which maybe do what they should perfectly, but still aren’t getting the results that you need them to. Perhaps your content strategy is bringing scores of people to your website but you aren’t capturing them in your email list for fundraising campaigns, or you’re gaining lots of Instagram followers but none of them know about your online forum. A good digital strategy will knit your tools and aspirations together into a cohesive plan to meet your goals.

We’re here to help. NTEN is producing two conferences this fall—in New Mexico and Oregon—and both are designed to help you develop and refresh your digital strategy. The program includes case studies, workshops, panels, presentations, and tactical sessions, to help you formulate the best strategy for your organization, and show you how other nonprofits have done it.

That seems like a big task. Where do I even start?

I am a people person and NTEN relies on members to survive, so I like to start with personas. What are the groups of people that want to engage with your organization, how did they find you, what do they want to know, how do they want to engage, and what do you most want them to do? Plot their journey from an unconnected community member to engaged part of your inner circle, donor or member. What’s their ideal journey? What roadblocks are in the way right now? How can you clear them?

Identify the top handful of actions you really want your constituents to take—for example, donate, advocate, join or inform others—and consider the technologies they need to do that easily. Find data that can tell you how you successfully moved them to that action (or “converted” them, in marketing-speak). How many touch-points do you need? What’s the story to tell them, and where and how is it best told? Which are the channels that net you the most success, and why do you think that is?

Like me, when I finally realized the website monster was mine to tame, you will have a lot of questions. But it’s only through considering the (sometimes difficult) questions that you can build a digital strategy, pulling together your organization’s disparate parts and making them work better, for you and the communities you represent.

Best of luck! We hope to see you in the fall.

We’re just over halfway through 2016 and, if we’ve learned anything so far, it’s that online fundraising has really found its stride in the nonprofit sector.

In fact, according to the annual Benchmarks report from NTEN and M+R, email fundraising revenue alone increased by a whopping 25% last year, outpacing the overall growth of other online revenue sources.

Great news, right? So all is well and the end-of-year (EOY) fundraising push should be more profitable than ever!

But what if I told you that bad email deliverability practices could be dragging down your EOY campaign before it even begins?

Let’s take a look at some newly-released nonprofit email deliverability findings and find out what you can do to reduce fundraising revenue losses simply by sending better email.

What email deliverability is and isn’t

Email deliverability is relatively easy to understand—it’s a measure of the success of email arriving in inboxes rather than, say, a junk folder. It’s affected by a lot of factors (and the rules are always changing), but spam and spam-related issues are generally the most common determinants of deliverability successes and failures.

What email deliverability isn’t is a metric that enough nonprofit fundraisers look at to determine the efficacy of their email programs.

Normally, fundraising teams use open rates, clicks, and conversion metrics to measure the success of email campaigns. Email service providers like Google and Yahoo!, however, look much more carefully at how recipients actually engage with your emails right down to the individual to determine an email’s spam score and your sender reputation, or Sender Score.

By not understanding deliverability or the rules that govern it, nonprofits fall victim to the plight of the black market pharmacist and the exotic lottery administrator: their messages end up being rerouted to the junk folder, never to be clicked or seen again.

EOY fundraising implications

Last month, EveryAction released its 2016 Nonprofit Email Deliverability Study, an examination of over 50 national nonprofits of all shapes, sizes, and internet service providers to establish some benchmarks for successfully engaging audiences and soliciting donations through email.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Spam costs the average nonprofit about $7,400 in potential fundraising revenue every year
  • Each month, 7.03% of nonprofit emails end up in spam folders
  • Nonprofits could increase email fundraising revenue by 7.56% if they improve their deliverability rates

While the data revealed some good and bad news for the state of email fundraising as a whole, it also shed light on a painful reality: the average spam rate for fundraising emails jumps to 9.27% on #GivingTuesday and 10.19% during EOY fundraising.

If that doesn’t shock you, the financial breakdown of what that means in fundraising revenue might.

Let’s do some math:

Using the same study’s research and benchmark figures, we find that an organization with an email list of 100,000 that sends the average 2.35 emails on #GivingTuesday (with the average rate of those emails ending up in spam folders) could be leaving $955.47 of potential revenue on the table on the biggest fundraising day of the year.

Try explaining that to your ED.

Deliverability tips from an expert

Believe it or not, there’s still time to make some small but mighty improvements to your email practices that will help you avoid the EOY spam trap.

Brett Schenker, EveryAction Email Deliverability Specialist, former NTC panelist, and all-around spam expert, offers these three quick fixes to get you on the path to deliverability nirvana.

Always opt-in and confirm

Not only should you be explicitly asking individuals if they’d like to opt into your email list, you should also send a follow up email to confirm their address is correct. By opting in addresses and confirming them, you ensure the person on the other end absolutely wants to hear from you.

Cut the “zombies” from your list

Inactive email addresses comprise those who have not opened or clicked one of your emails in more than one month. First, you can try a reactivation email series with specific messaging focused on getting them to re-engage with you. If they continue to be inactive for more than a year, then it’s time to remove them from your list.

While they may seem innocuous, internet service providers can turn dead email addresses into spam traps, marking all emails to that address as spam and seriously hurting your sender reputation. You (and your deliverability rates) are better off sending emails only to people that really want to hear from you.

Ask your provider about deliverability

In this case, an ounce of prevention could be worth thousands of dollars. That said, your email provider can give you information about your email deliverability, sender reputation, and more that isn’t always accessible from your end.

A good provider should work with you to monitor key deliverability metrics like sender score, as well as act quickly to fix problems like blocks and blacklisting before they get out of hand.

More deliverability data and tips from Brett to safeguard your EOY fundraising revenue is available in the 2016 Nonprofit Email Deliverability Study from EveryAction.

It’s a fact: Thirty-nine states as well as the District of Columbia require charities and other nonprofit organizations to register in order to solicit donations within their jurisdictions. These laws pertain to all media: direct mail, email, telemarketing, door-to-door, etc. If you are sending a fundraising email to a person in one of these states without first registering, you are fundraising unlawfully.

Because state legislatures enact statutes that govern charitable solicitation, regulatory requirements vary by state. This means different filing forms and exhibits, different renewal dates, different filing fees and late filing penalties, different rules to extend filing deadlines, and so forth.

In ten states, the legislatures have not enacted a statute. As a result, registration is not required to solicit in these states: Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.

Twenty states also require a charity’s fundraiser to register. A state may hold a charity liable if its outside fundraisers fail to register.

Public Policy Objective

The purpose of this type of law is to provide reliable financial and other information to the public concerning nonprofit organizations that solicit donations. Basically, the State wants its citizens to be able to discover how much money a soliciting organization actually spends for the purpose for which it solicits donations, hence the requirement to submit audited financial statements, IRS Form 990, and other data.

State regulators have little discretion in administering the statute that govern charitable solicitation. Many states mandate that soliciting organization disclose at the point of solicitation where prospects may obtain the information that states require charities to file in order to obtain a license to solicit.

Email Solicitations

Solicitations via email suggest outbound emails as opposed to a passive “Donate here” icon on a screen that a prospect may happen across while surfing. Outbound solicitations are analogous to direct mail solicitations in that each is targeted at a specific person even though you may not be able to decipher the prospect’s name from his or her email address.

The problem is that, unlike a physical mail address, it is usually impossible to determine from the email address alone the state in which the email addressee resides. Therefore, the soliciting organization may need to register in all states that so require in order to avoid receiving a “cease and desist” letter from a regulator.

A cease and desist letter means that the soliciting organization must refrain from sending more solicitations until it has duly registered in the complaining jurisdiction. Some state statutes impose penalties for soliciting without a license to solicit. Some statutes impose a fine per solicitation, so the total penalty can be expensive.

Unless the organization that sends outbound email solicitations can show that it did not send any to a particular state that requires advance registration, it is prudent to stay in compliance with state laws that govern charitable solicitation. Remember the burden of proof is on the soliciting organization.

Photo credit: Joe the Goat Farmer

By now you may think you’ve heard everything you need to know about Millennials: their needs, their quirks, maybe even how they look at fundraising. Why spend some much time examining this particular generation?

The reason is simple: In every way, Millennials represent the future of your organization. We don’t study Millennials to compare them to older generations. Rather, we study this generation because they will soon make up the majority of your donor base. At that point, their ideas and quirks will no longer be preferences unique to one demographic. Their preferences and needs will become the norm.

Keep these three facts in mind (via The Millennial Impact Project):

  • Reading emails is the number one action taken by Millennials for a nonprofit via their smartphone
  • More than 65% of Millennials receive email or e-newsletters from 1-5 different nonprofit organizations
  • Millennials are more likely to give through email than any other common fundraising channel (e.g., direct mail, phone solicitation, etc.)

Since the inception of the Millennial Impact Project in 2009, we have been looking at how Millennials react to fundraising approaches, campaigns, and calls-to-action. We have even analyzed fundraising messaging to try and understand the reasons why someone in his or her 20s and 30s would support a specific cause.

Email as a response channel is still the highest mechanism for online giving. Many continue to argue for and predict the demise of email as a fundraising tool. While you may personally lack interest in receiving emails, we continue to see the opposite. Millennials, like other potential donors, prefer emails and respond to them at much higher rates than other communications. Based on what we have seen in our research, email continues to generate the highest reaction and raise the most money.

Here are five things you need to know about reaching Millennial donors through email:

1. Use sequential emails to build a larger narrative

We have seen a lot of success in organizations that use a series of emails, each sharing a brief part of the bigger picture, to tell a larger narrative. Choose your story or issue and use each email to highlight an aspect of the bigger picture. The final email in the series is when you ask for a donation. This strategy works particularly well in engaging donors through peer fundraising campaigns.

2. Tailor learning experiences and take your donors on a custom journey

The ideal Millennial donor experience involves a journey through learning, acting and giving. Starting with learning, once you have piqued their interest and they are first experiencing your organization, allow them to select which aspects of your cause they are most interested in. Set up an email learning series based on the subject(s) they select. Next, ask them to take small actions, like sharing information on social media or forwarding an email. Follow up with larger actions, like attending an event or volunteering. Finally, now that they know about your cause and have invested their time and network, ask them to financially invest in the cause. To bring the individual into the act of fundraising, a series of emails that ask the individual to act on behalf of the cause before an email about giving can see higher response rates.

3. Compelling email content inspires action

In our studies and observations, we’ve found that Millennials are drawn into solicitations and calls to action when the organization is able to entice them to read more. This means personalization (using the recipient’s first name), pre-header text and a one-line reason why the narrative of the story applies to the reader draws inspires them to read more.

4. Just because they didn’t react, doesn’t mean they don’t care

This is an interesting point most fundraisers and marketers get wrong. When an individual receives a solicitation, reads it, and doesn’t react, it doesn’t mean they aren’t interested. It takes ongoing communication and involvement in the story to get a reaction and one-time reacts are likely to get the average rates we see.

5. Email copy is really bad

When looking at email copy overall, it has been fairly challenging to get through or even get the emotion and excitement necessary to bring me from an enthusiast to a supporter. Email copy is quick, powerful, and focused on the reader as a hero in the giving scenario. It means that the copy needs to maintain a construction of learning statement followed by importance to the reader, and ultimately why that application should happen now to help the individual.

In June 2015, my team and I released the 2015 Millennial Impact Report, which examines how Millennials view cause engagement, specifically in the workplace. Our initial data, as well as our soon-to-be released interview results, confirm what we’ve found in all of our studies: Millennials are the giving generation. The question is how you and your organization can engage this group of do-gooders to take meaningful action in support of your cause.

Email can be a powerful system for raising money if used properly and if it brings the individual through a process of learning, acting, and giving. Remember that email only works if you apply it to the individual rather than to a goal of an organization. Email is a method to convey part of a story, not the whole story each time. Make the individual want to open and read through because you provided a line that sparks the emotion of the giving act.

Rich in emailsI am rich beyond all decency, and I am here to tell you how you, too, can follow my path to abundance and extravagance.

I don’t mean money-rich; I mean email-rich.

I am an email thousandaire, the email version of Scrooge McDuck diving into a room filled with money.

“Why the over-indulgence?” the Inbox Zero types ask. “Do you not envy our pure, unsullied electronic mail receptacles?”

To which I reply: “Stop mailshaming!”

There’s nothing wrong with the size of my inbox, and I’ve got better things to do with my time than obsess over it. With a few little hacks, you, too, can keep the numbers more or less in check and get things done without stressing out over a number. A freakish, unnecessarily large number.

The systems approach: understanding why our inboxes are so full is the first step to dealing with it

We have a jillion brazilian gazillion emails for a reason. It’s probably not just that we haven’t gotten around to taking a few seconds to bulk-delete our inboxes. And I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s unlikely at best that we expect to ever respond to message #857 from July, 2013.
We hang on to these emails because they are information, which we hoard. So we need two things:

  1. An information storage system, with quick retrievability
  2. A process for assigning incoming emails so that they —or the information they contain— can be routed through the system so we don’t have to have this conversation again

Out of my face, and in its place

Now that we understand and accept our problem and know what generally to do about it, here are some tried-and-true tactics for making incoming email disappear without ending up like Lucy Ricardo receiving salvos of chocolates churned out by an ever-accelerating confectionery conveyor belt of doom.

Note: Many, but not all, of these are Gmail-centric solutions. I even use Gmail to manage my custom email domain. But if you’re not using Gmail already, I do not recommend that you switch, because that will take time, which you do not have.

1. Do not look behind you right now

Most of our inbox bloat lives in the past. Give up on it. Leave it behind. Our time is limited, so let’s concern ourselves with dealing with what’s staring us in the face: hundreds of new emails. They just keep coming and coming; and like with zombies, we don’t want to let them out of our sight.

2. The once-over

Some emails are actually important, so glance quickly (quickly! like lightning!) at all new email, and star/mark/whatever anything you need to deal with today. Then, either respond right away or put an item on the day’s to-do list immediately. Pro tip: when you respond to an email, it becomes your recipient’s problem, not yours. Done and done.

3. Sorting & tagging

The rest of the emails need to be sorted and tagged/filed/filtered, so we know that we can send them to the email dungeon and find them again if and when we need them. This well-known feature sets up the next action, which uses a less well-known Gmail feature. We cannot have too many folders/tags/etc., because the key thing (I tell myself. I’ll get to the truth in a minute) is to have a place ready and waiting to receive the incoming email so that we can archive it immediately. (Now the brutal truth: we don’t need half of this stuff, and can probably delete it. But having a place for it lets us make it disappear while avoiding any potential deletion hesitation.) Gmail lets you create filters that do this automatically.

4. Herding email cats

So we’ve got our email filing system, but we can’t nickel-and-dime the workday by archiving hundreds of incoming emails, one at a time. We need a way to group emails so that we can deal with as many as possible at once. This is where Gmail search operators come in.
A real-life example: I sign up for every single action alert on the planet. Part of my job is keeping up on what CRMs groups are using and how they’re using them, as well as how organizations are composing and structuring their advocacy emails, and what seems to work and what doesn’t. I want to receive as many advocacy emails as possible and save them for later reference. Creating a filter for each sender is possible, but tedious. Instead, I use Gmail search operators by typing something like “in:inbox (info@list.fightforthefuture.org | act@fwwatch.org |info@couragecampaign.org)” (without quotes). My actual search is a much, much longer string. I perform the search, and now I’m looking at all emails that fit those search criteria.

Here’s the trick: that specific search exists as a URL that can be bookmarked and clicked any time without me having to remember anything or copy & paste dozens of search terms. Now, I just need to click the bookmark and label and archive the results in bulk.

It works. After a weekend away from email, I disappeared 125 emails in a couple of minutes using my 22 bookmarked searches. Not too shabby.

5. Your new motto: Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can put off until 11:15 am on Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Boomerang is a Chrome extension for Gmail that lets you archive your emails until they pop up at a specified time (basically, Boomerang automates the forwarding of the original to yourself). The free version gives you 10 I’ll-deal-with-it-laters per month.

6. Put that in your pipe(line) and smoke it (at an indeterminate point in the future)

Streak is a Chrome extension that creates a CRM system within Gmail with a customizable database-like interface. You can create a category—called a “pipeline”—for a specific project, and assign emails to the pipeline as they come in. You can then banish them to the archive knowing that you can access them, organized by project, client, topic, or whatever you want. It’s how I track client projects, prospective clients, vendors, and a range of other categories.

7. Find those missing links

I design and build websites, so occasionally I’ll want to save that link to CSS tips that I received from a design blog. Free font downloads? Gimme. I just open the links & save them to Pocket, then delete the emails. Super-handy shortcut: when in doubt, I use a “dump” tag in Pocket for random links I just can’t let go of but don’t want in my inbox & can’t be bothered to make a new tag for.

8. Okay, you can look behind you now

All of these tactics deal with incoming emails, but they can also be applied to the old junk. (I prefer to call it legacy bloat.) And here’s a mind-hack: treat each email not as a lone wolf, but as part of a pack. You might search for all emails from that particular sender, or deal with a certain topic. The point is to treat each instance of email excess as an opportunity to scrape together a pile to dump in the archive at the same time. You’ll find yourself making quicker progress, whether you’re on your way to Inbox Zero or Inbox 1000.


Do you have a love/hate relationship with your inbox? I would be surprised if someone answered “no.” It keeps me in contact with people who help me get the job done because I can fire off a quick email to ask a question or send a synopsis of a recent meeting with action items for recipients. As the number of unread messages starts to creep up, whether in an annoying bubble on my phone or in the bottom pane of my desktop view, it can wreak havoc on my ability to focus on anything other than email. See what I mean? Love/Hate relationship.

I live and die by my calendar, and my inbox is my to do list. In fact, I have a meeting on my calendar to work out three days a week; when that sucker pops up on my phone on a day I didn’t work out, the guilt trip sets in, and you better believe I am out of bed the next morning to really show my calendar who’s boss. It’s sad, really.

To-Do List

Let’s get to the real topic: our inbox. I mentioned earlier, I use mine as a to-do list. That means the anxiety starts to rise if the scroll bar rears its ugly head on my desktop view. It’s true. It is time to stop and reprioritize my day to take care of whatever will move a few emails out of the inbox. Or, it means buy a bigger second monitor so I have more room before the scroll bar happens. True story; I did that. Shocking, that didn’t really make me more efficient. However, there are a few tricks below that have helped.

Note: I have spoken to other people who set reminders on their calendar several times a day to check email. Those times are set aside to respond to email so the rest of the day can be spent focusing on other tasks. This does not work well for me, but could be a way to manage your to-do list.

Inbox Categorization

My inbox is categorized by date. I do this to keep track of how long it has been since the inquiry made its way to me. If it is more than a week old, I use the “flag” feature to mark it red, which should annoy me enough to complete the task associated with the email. Once it is complete, the email can be filed away in one of several folders (more on that later).

Sort Order

I wear multiple hats within our firm, which is not unlike many nonprofit roles. I am a consultant to our clients, I generate new business through prospecting, and I am a part of our marketing efforts. This requires me to be in contact with a lot of people at any given time as my active clients and prospects change and our internal marketing efforts shift. I cannot rely on my memory alone to trigger conversations; thus I am forced to keep emails for posterity’s sake (and for another reason mentioned under “email folders”). When an inquiry comes in and I need to reference old emails, organization is key to finding the last inquiry. The two most common sort orders I use when attempting to locate an email are “date received” and “sender.” Then I search by keywords that will likely bring the email to light. Once I have found the right email chain, I will sort by “subject line” to consolidate all emails within that folder that were a part of that email chain.

Email Folders

So, how do I manage emails once they are considered “complete” and need to move out of my inbox? Since my background includes project management, the notion of deleting an email is off the table. Nope, will not do it. I just won’t. Well, okay, there are a few exceptions: I will delete spam or promotions or maybe even competitor emails where I have shamelessly signed up for their email subscriptions. However, I do not delete client, prospect, or colleague interactions. What do I do with these emails? I have folders and subfolders (and sub-sub folders) organized in three main categories:

  1. Admin (internal)
  2. Clients
  3. Prospects

Your main folders will be different based on your job responsibilities and interactions with folks, so you will need to brainstorm what works for you. I find it best to categorize by typical interaction areas, so that could be by sender type, like my main folders are organized, or it could be by project or program type, which is how my subfolders are organized. Let me provide more insight into my subfolders to help you determine the best setup for your inbox.

Email Subfolders

My subfolders for clients and prospects are common sense: all active clients and prospects. Within a specific client subfolder, I have additional folders for individual projects. The category that took a little while to get the right setup was my Admin folder. I have adjusted it a few times, but my current setup works well…for now.

  1. Client Reports/Success: We send out weekly internal client reports so we all stay up to date on current client activities and successes. These come in handy when talking with my clients or prospects to reference what our firm is doing in the industry.
  2. Community: This folder is used for emails from people I meet in the industry or places, like NTEN or LinkedIn, where I am a member of forums, user groups, etc. I like to keep these emails so I can browse when I have a few minutes to respond to inquiries or posts. I don’t mind the 732 unread emails in this folder. They do become irrelevant at some point, so I try to purge once a quarter to save space on our email server.
  3. Old Clients: This reminds me of my accountant: you should keep records for the past 7 years. I keep records of my old clients with that same mindset.
  4. Personal: We all have crossover, whether we like it or not.
  5. Software Vendors: With the nature of our business, we are in contact with quite a few software vendors, so I have a folder that allows me to file away vendor communication that is not related to one specific client or prospect, whether it be private or subscription-based content.
  6. Systems: We have a few internal systems that send out notifications. These are really great reminders on my to-do list but typically do not need to be saved once they have been completed. This is similar to my “community” folder, as it gets purged every few months.

Good luck with project Inbox Zero! I hope my tips and tricks have provided a little more sanity in your day. Now off to tackle the 21 items in my inbox…the scroll starts at 16, so anxiety levels are rising.


Although email is one of the oldest forms of digital communication, even highly technical users (looking at you, NTEN community!) continue to discuss the best tools for mass distribution and database integration. Marketing automation, CRM integration, and social listening are all common features of email service providers now, and it can be challenging to weigh the benefits of different solutions.

At Idealist Consulting, we recently released our 2014 Email Service Providers Comparison Report, reviewing thirteen of the most common email platforms used by nonprofits and socially responsible businesses today. Here were some of our key findings:

1. Database integration has become almost totally ubiquitous.

2. Email is increasingly viewed on mobile devices over traditional laptop or desktop machines. Some providers offer advice on designing for mobile while others explicitly offer tools for better reaching this segment of the market.

3. Price varies wildly, and it is challenging to compare apples to apples (although we gave this a shot by using 20,000 emails per month as a baseline for our report).

4. The best solution for a small organization is probably not the best for an enterprise-level organization. Your organization’s business process and staff capacity will have a lot of influence over which solution you choose. Not everyone is ready for drip campaigns, and many of the smaller providers have smart ways of thinking about mass communication, too.

5. Ease of use is an important factor for consideration. Some assume a certain level of technical expertise and comfort with email broadcasting, while others strive to serve non-technical users. You will want to carefully consider the technical ability of your staff and the amount of time you have allotted for email communication.

You can generally assume that most email service providers will come with these features, although the way the user works with them varies wildly:

  • A template creation system, for creating layouts for your emails. You usually get the option to create custom ones or choose from a library of pre-created ones
  • A content editor, for editing the actual content of your email
  • List management, for uploading new subscribers, changing their attributes, unsubscribing them, and other tasks
  • List signup forms, for placing on your website to allow people to join your mailing lists
  • Reporting tools, for keeping track of how your email campaigns are performing

So, how is an organization to go about evaluating email service providers? Here’s a hint: don’t try to make a features comparison chart. After a bit of wrestling with this, we opted not to include a features chart in our report because there were many variables, and your organization’s use case and technical aptitude will effect which provider is best for you. Therefore, to help you make a decision, below is a list of questions to consider. This list isn’t exhaustive, but these are things you should consider when performing your evaluation:

  • What volume of email are you going to send?
  • What is the sum total of all of the subscribers on your lists?
  • Does the email vendor integrate with your database?
  • Do you want to track your email stats in your database, or within the email service provider?
  • How are you going to capture new subscribers?
  • Do you need profile management?
  • Do you need automation, dynamic content, or drip campaign functionality?
  • Who will manage your email communications?
  • Does your database have the correct fields and data tables to model the segments you want to include in your communications?

Once you have answers to these questions and a rough sense of your budget, you will be able to evaluate different email service providers. Remember, too, that all of these solutions are intended to be used in concert with more personalized text-based emails sent either through your CRM or your general email platform like Gmail or Outlook. Email Service Providers are for the strategic communications that you want to track, follow up with, and improve upon.

Ready to go? We covered thirteen different solutions in our report, from Soapbox Mailer to Exact Target. Download Idealist Consulting’s free 2014 Email Service Providers Comparison Report here.

Year in, year out, nonprofits are using every available online tactic and tool to make real change. In fact, nonprofits are often on the cutting edge of web technology, using new tools and tactics always looking for new ways to build support for their movements and to cultivate and convert those supporters into donors. But not every new tactic works, and it’s critical that nonprofits have short feedback loops to figure out what’s working and where to allocate resources.

A critical component in this is a kick-ass testing strategy–a simple, quick, and free mechanism of obtaining qualitative feedback on what’s working. Testing removes your biases and guesswork to deliver a set of results which will improve online engagement and convert your audience from leads to dedicated action takers. Numbers don’t lie!

Real-time testing (10-10-80), Long-term learning (A-B Split), and Multivariate (a combination of elements) are three types of testing you can you use to generate tangible results. When employing any of these testing frameworks, it is of the utmost importance that your test proves to be statistically significant, meaning that the results reflect a pattern, rather than chance.


Comic by xkcd.

What Should You Test?

Email Open and Click-through Rates

Email messaging is one of the most important avenues of connecting to supporters–you’ll want to make sure you get this right. A number of factors can affect your email open rates and subsequently, your email click through rates. Testing these factors will make your emails more effective.

Email Open Rates: You have just a small bit of real estate in your audience’s inbox with the goal to maximize the probability that any one user will click on that email and ultimately become an action taker or donor.

  1. Subject Line
  2. Timing of Delivery (day of the week, time of day)
  3. Sender Name/Email Address (personal name vs. donotreply@yourdomain.org)
  4. Preview Text (not all email clients display preview text but this can be a variable)

EXAMPLE: Here’s a test that Change.org conducted to maximize the open rate on an email being sent to users who might be interested in a petition started by another user.

It was decided that for this email, variations on email subject line would be tested:


The test email was sent to sample audiences of 7000 to evaluate open rates for the following subject lines:

  1. Freddie Mac Sold Us A Meth Lab
  2. I accidentally Bought A Meth Lab
  3. My 2-year-old Lived In A Meth Lab

Which performed better?


The subject line “I Accidentally Bought A Meth Lab” had the highest open and click through rate! We confirmed the test was statistically significant. Now we can roll out this subject line to the rest of our list.

Email Click-through Rates (CTR): Once a user decides to open an email, many factors can come into play that may increase (or decrease) that person’s likelihood to click on certain buttons or continue on to visit your website. Some of the biggest factors include:

  1. Layout (single vs. multiple columns, number of images, amount of text)
  2. Image (size, type)
  3. Button (color, size, placement, quantity)
  4. Personalization
  5. Messaging

You’ll want to test these factors individually to identify the best practices to get your audience a-clickin’!

Website Forms

Signup and donation forms are critical sections of your website, where people actively choose to be included in your network. Thus, web form completion rates are one of the most important metrics to track and test. These some variables to consider in your testing:

  1. Number of Fields (required, optional)
  2. Layout
  3. Button (color, placement, messaging)
  4. Image (size, placement, type)
  5. Copy and Messaging

Depending on the performance of your forms before testing, optimizing these variables through repeated testing could result in significant increases of form submissions–and donations!

Segments of Your Audience

Our third area to test is the differentiating subsets of your audience. Each and every user is going to have a differing backgrounds, interests, and reasons for engaging with your organization. It would be wonderful if we could send a personal message to each and every action taker but since you may have thousands of users, we rely on segmentation to define broad groups of users to optimize engagement. A few possible user segments to test:

  1. New vs. Existing Users (welcome messaging, action alerts)
  2. Donor Activity
  3. Geography (personalize based on location)
  4. Acquisition Source

EXAMPLE: Let’s refer to this international aid organization who used long term testing based on their acquisition sources to determine which interest group had the highest performance and return

This organization ran four petitions on Change.org that focussed on four different issues (drinking water, child mortality, pediatric AIDS, famine):


They tested and analyzed the data and outcomes associated with the action takers from each issue-based petition. Over the long term, the organization found that those supporters who originally signed the “Drinking Water” and “Child Mortality” petitions proved to be the most active and engaged. This knowledge allowed the organization to better focus future recruitment efforts.

ABT: Always Be Testing

Testing is cheaper than getting it wrong! So be sure to always be testing to get the absolute best response from your online community. Once you’ve decided what to test, walk through this handy testing checklist to make sure your tests will return meaningful, actionable data:

  1. What am I testing?
  2. What is the goal of this test?
  3. Will what I’m testing (control vs. test) get me to my goal?
  4. How large are my test panels (or groups)?
  5. How many times/how long will I need to conduct the test?
  6. How will I analyze my results?

Finally, once you’ve completed a round of tests, be sure to learn from your data! It’s not enough to test, you need apply your results to obtain the optimal results each and every time. Of course, testing should be an ongoing part of your online efforts. For more information about online testing, including a deeper dive on statistical significance, check out Change.org’sOnline Testing Resource Guide. And remember, always be testing!

Major credit for this article due to Adelaide Belk and Matt Fender, along with the rest of the amazing Client Management team at Change.org, as well as our good friend and testing guru Brenna Holmes.

Our friend Beth Kanter says that when we make a misstep, we should “remove the demons of self-doubt and self-judgment,” share it publicly, learn, and move on. In that spirit…

On Wednesday we sent emails out to about 24,000 subscribers who (we thought) hadn’t opened up an email in over a year. We were hoping to confirm which folks wanted to remain a part of the community, let the others off the hook, and do it in a way that we thought was light-hearted, even a little silly. The gist of the email was:

Want to stay on our mailing list? Great! Here’s a happy dog video (because we’re happy, too). Don’t want our emails anymore? Ok, here’s a sad cat video (because we’re sad that you’re unsubscribing.)

The links were tracked so that if you clicked the sad link, you’d be automatically removed from NTEN emails, and if you clicked the happy one, you’d stay in (and if you clicked both we kept you unless you specified otherwise). Why pet videos? We’ve been including cats and dogs in emails for years, though none of us exactly remember why. We just like ‘em, and lots of NTEN members seem to like them too. Then some things happened that we weren’t quite expecting. Some people received the email who shouldn’t have gotten the message in the first place, some weren’t sure why they were being sent to a YouTube video instead of NTEN’s site, and others read the email in a way we hadn’t expected them to. And they let us know. In addition to the flood of “out of office” replies that usually comes in after a big email like this, we got lots of personal replies from people who fit one or all of the above descriptions. So, in the interest of transparency and learning from our mistakes, here’s a quick recap of our thought process, response, and lessons learned.

What was the goal of our project? To reach out to people that our system indicated hadn’t been active within the community for an extended period of time, find out if they still wanted to be a part of NTEN’s community, and complete their re-subscribe or unsubscribe action.

What actually happened during implementation?

  • The email went out to some community members who are actually very active, even though our systems indicated that they were inactive (hadn’t opened an email in year, never had NTEN membership, never attended an event, never had an invoice within our database).
  • We phrased the “click this link” sentences in a way that some people found confusing and suspicious, especially because the videos were preceded by noisy YouTube ads. (Those didn’t pop up when we found the links, we promise!)
  • Once they understood, some people actually loved the links and shared them with their co-workers. Others weren’t really into it.

What did we learn from the experience?

  • We’re still trying to understand why the email was sent to some of our community who are very active. One explanation is that we’re unable to track individuals who visit the website on an individual basis. Another is that we have misunderstood all along how our email host tracking works. (If you have other guesses, please feel free to leave a comment!)
  • Not a new lesson, but we remembered what a good friend the Gmail “Canned Responses” tool can be. As confused emails came in, we made an effort to reply to each one personally and address specific questions. But the base apology and explanation was consistent. If you find yourself relying on the same messages over and over, Canned Responses is your friend.

How can we improve the next time we do this?

  • If we continue our time-honored tradition of linking to cat or dog videos, we’ll be sure to have the email recipient click over to our own site and embed the video underneath a “Thanks! Glad you’re sticking around” message, to be sure people know nothing shady is going on.
  • If we send additional emails meant for people who have been inactive, we’ll take extra precautions to make sure it doesn’t go out to active community members.

What other suggestions do you have for us? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks for reading, and thanks again to everyone who reached out about the email, whether you found it confusing, off-putting, or funny.

Remember, as Beth preaches, failure is’nt an ‘F’ word! Did you fail at something this week? Care to share?

This post comes from Julia Smith, Brendan Blaine, and Michael Nealis, who all learned something from sending an email to more than 20,000 people.