It’s 2021, so I’ll go ahead and assume that you’ve heard all about email newsletters and how important they are to a nonprofit. But if you still need a little convincing, research from the Direct Marketing Association shows a 40x return on investment spent on email marketing, and the M+R Benchmarks report shows that nonprofits in 2020 saw anywhere from $32 to $871 in donations per 1,000 emails sent.

But just having a newsletter signup form on your website will do nothing for your nonprofit if it sits in your footer collecting dust. And by “collecting dust,” I mean collecting email addresses of people for whom you have no solid plan to actually engage.

We signed up for over 150 nonprofit newsletters and are sharing the five most critical mistakes to avoid—plus practical tips on how to do it. Let’s dive in.

Mistake #1: Basic Oversights

After embarking on our investigative journey, I was surprised to realize just how many nonprofit email lists were riddled with surprisingly basic errors of set-up and formatting.

Screenshot of an email with URLs pasted in plain text

These errors included things like:

  • Weird titles in the sender
  • URLs pasted as long strings of text
  • Broken images and videos
  • Broken or missing links
  • Complete lack of branding
  • Designs that are inaccessible to screen readers
  • Robotic emails providing a table of “data you submitted” 

Take a look at the email below, and ask yourself, “Does this feel welcoming (or even human)?” I’m curious why on earth they’ve listed my latitude and longitude…

Screenshot of an email with robotic-sounding text and unnecessary form fields included

How to Avoid This Mistake

Essentially it comes down to this: take the time to personalize your email newsletter software. If you’re tempted to save time/frustration by sticking with the default settings, just don’t! At the very least, customize the template, update the settings and send 2-3 test emails, asking yourself:

  • Are the subject line and sender name reader-friendly?
  • Do you name your organization and provide at least a bit of helpful information or linking?
  • Have you included some sort of branding to identify your organization visually?
  • Could you remove any blank form fields and/or unnecessary data?

If this mistake looks a little too familiar, check out this related post to get the nonprofit newsletter fundamentals right. 

These basic oversights are surprisingly easy to overlook, especially if your email marketing is done by a single person (who likely wears many other hats, too). To set yourself up for success far beyond the initial subscription email, consider adding a final “error check” step to every newsletter you send. By making this step part of your formalized newsletter strategy, you won’t have to worry about broken images or missing links getting in the way of the important message you’re sharing. 

Mistake #2: Poor Welcome, If Any

Screenshot of an email using MailChimp default message

Tons of nonprofit email lists provided no form of welcome email at all, or perhaps just a single note saying welcome… and then immediately asking for money.

This approach wastes a key opportunity to engage me while I am most interested. If the organization can’t rise to the occasion when I’ve gone out of my way to show interest, then what can I expect from them later on?

Research shows that “transactional emails” (the ones triggered by user action, such as signing up for a newsletter) get opened 2x more frequently than non-transactional emails (the ones you send out randomly). That means that your nonprofit’s welcome email is much more likely to be opened than subsequent emails.

So it’s worth putting in the effort to get it right!

How to Avoid This Mistake

Don’t just dump a new subscriber into your ongoing emails and hope that they find something interesting, helpful or relevant.

Instead, create a series of welcome emails, ideally three to five emails, designed to answer the unique questions of a brand-new subscriber—and to make it clear that you’re thrilled to have them! You want to validate and reflect their excitement about joining your newsletter and your mission.

Austin Parks Foundation does a terrific job in their welcome email. They explain what they do, how I can engage, where I can learn more, and what to expect as a newsletter subscriber.

Screenshot of an Austin Parks Foundation welcome email

It doesn’t have to be long or complicated, either. PENCIL keeps it short but still provides valuable information and a friendly “welcome” message.

Screenshot of a Pencil welcome email

Another short but effective welcome message comes from Stroud Water Research Center. The email is nearly all text but still provides useful links and tells me what to expect as a subscriber.

Screenshot of a Stroud Water Research Center welcome email

Notice that none of these emails lead with a donation request! The very best welcome sequence I saw did not ask for donations until the sixth email—and even then, it was a small ask of just $10.

That leads us directly to the next mistake…

Mistake #3: Low-Value Money Asks

Another big mistake we noticed was emails that talk at us rather than to us. For instance, check out the low-value, information-less email below.

Screenshot of an email with low-value content and donation requests

This was the first message I got from this organization. Rather than share any information I might care about or provide a meaningful way for me to get involved, this email:

  • Uses several cliche phrases (“Together, we can make a difference.”)
  • Asks for a “meaningful gift”
  • Asks me to “follow up” on social media without providing any links to do so

Ideally, your first email—and all of your emails!—will make the recipient feel like a friend or a partner, not just a donor. While the initial email is extra-important in terms of making a good impression, every email you send can help build that sense of community and relationship if you prioritize providing value over asking for money.

How to Avoid This Mistake

Use your emails to start a conversation, ask questions, share engaging information, and deliver value to the reader. Your goal should be to show them what they can gain from being a part of your mission and how they can be involved (beyond simply being a financial bankroll).

Look at your emails with a critical eye, asking yourself, “Is this information helpful and interesting to my reader?” It might be helpful to consider why this person may have signed up for your newsletter in the first place: 

  • Do they want more information on a specific topic or current news item? 
  • Do they want to volunteer personally? 
  • Do they want to participate in community events?
  • Do they need expert resources to help them get through a difficult time? 
  • Do they want to feel uplifted by motivational stories or entertained by cute animal videos? 
  • Do they need help convincing friends and family to care about this issue as much as they do?
  • Do they want an avenue for their voice to be heard? If so, how and where?

There’s no right or wrong answer to these questions. What your audience will find most useful, helpful or interesting really depends on who they are and what your organization does. (And if you aren’t sure what your recipients want, you can always ask—which is what we’ll discuss in the next tip.)

Except for dedicated fundraising campaigns and appeals, a good rule of thumb for most emails is to make the content the star of the show. You can definitely include a donation request in there, but try not to make it the sole action or the only point of interest. 

For example, the National Audubon Society shares an interesting factoid that speaks to their subscribers’ interests (and uses a clever reference to Shakespeare that would likely land well with their older, well-educated target audience). There is a donate button in the footer, but the primary content is educational.

Screenshot of an interesting email from the Audubon Society

The Harris Center for Conservation Education also offers an information-rich, time-sensitive email about salamander migration—a topic I’d definitely be interested in if I signed up for their newsletter.

Screenshot of an interesting email from the Harris Center

The Northern Plains Resource Council uses their email list to advertise their Local Food Challenge, providing a link to valuable resources on where and how to shop locally—all while taking advantage of this popular social media challenge-style event.

Screenshot of an interesting email from the Northern Plains Local Food Challenge

Beyond articles and events of interest, you could give your reader something unique to interact with right from their internet browser, like this quiz created by PowerMyLearning.

Screenshot of an engaging email from PowerMyLearning

American Rivers takes a similarly interactive approach by incorporating a fast survey into their welcome email, which has the added benefit of segmenting their audience—the focus of our next tip.

Screenshot of an interesting email from American Rivers

Mistake #4: One-Size-Fits-All Information

A great deal of the nonprofit newsletters I signed up for sent me the same information as everyone else on the list. At least, I have to assume that this is what happened because I was never asked what I wanted to receive.

Without asking questions of your email recipients, you won’t be able to answer the most essential questions that a nonprofit communicator has to know:

  • Who your audience is
  • Why they’ve subscribed
  • What they want to know
  • How to best meet their needs
  • How to answer their questions
  • How to develop a meaningful relationship over time

And without knowing these answers, you’ll be stuck in the situation that I experienced: a single email list that tries to speak to everyone and thus reaches no one. (I like to call this the “Dear friend” problem—which, trust me, showed up WAY too many times in our experiment.)

By sending one-size-fits-all information to everyone on your list, you’re probably not only failing to capture the interest of your newsletter subscribers. Chances are good that you’re leaving potential donations on the table, too. Fundraising efforts work better when they’re targeted to what individual donors care most about, and the only way to know what your donors care about is to ask.  

Case in point, this case study saw a 10x improvement in engagement by personalizing emails to match donation requests to donors’ interest and past giving!

How to Avoid This Mistake

Segment your email newsletter audiences in order to send people more relevant content based on their interests. (If you aren’t very familiar with email segmentation, check out this email segmentation how-to from Constant Contact. You don’t need to be using this specific email marketing platform in order to benefit from this guide and its hands-on examples.)

Essentially, to be able to address your email list with something more personalized than “Dear supporter,” you have to know who you’re talking to. And to do that, all you have to do is ask! The easiest way to ask is to tie your newsletter to a survey or interest form.

Denver Botanic Gardens does an excellent job of this, asking which activities you’d like to know more about whenever you sign up for their newsletter.

Screenshot of an example email from Denver Botanic Gardens

Earthjustice takes a similar approach, but instead of asking about your interests before you sign up, they send out a quick survey of interests as their very first email.

Screenshot of a survey email from EarthJustice

If you use more advanced email marketing software, you may be able to segment users automatically. By providing different links in an email and tracking which ones are clicked, you can set recipients to go down different automated email paths.

I suspect that EdChoice does this by asking which topic I am most interested in. Based on my click, I’d likely start to see more or less of that type of content.

Screenshot of an email survey from EdChoice

Mistake #5: Too Few Personal Stories

Unfortunately, many nonprofit email newsletters seem to be nothing more than bulleted updates. But even if I genuinely care about the work an organization is doing, it’s hard to connect to a press release.

The best emails that we received—the ones I actually remember after pouring through hundreds of them—always included something personal. A name, a picture, and a story I could understand. Some kind of transformation I could root for.

Like Justin, featured in an email from Student Sponsor Partners.

Screenshot of an email including a story from Student Sponsor Partners

How to Avoid This Mistake

Try not to treat your newsletter as only news. Even when sharing news and updates, forge a human connection by weaving stories into your email content. Put a face and a name to your topic. This could mean sharing:

  • Your founder’s story
  • A volunteer’s testimonial
  • A letter of thanks from a beneficiary
  • A case study
  • A personal letter from an executive
  • A “meet the leaders” message

Especially if you’re asking for a donation, an authentic story can make the difference between sparking my interest and me tapping the “close” button.
Worldreader does a consistently fantastic job of telling stories, like this one about Angelo from Peru.

Screenshot of an email including a story from Worldreader

Even small human touches, such as adding photographs and signatures like Breakthrough Central Texas, can help transform a static email into a moving personal story.

Screenshot of an email including a story from Breakthrough Central Texas

Summing Up Our Nonprofit Newsletter Tips

Some of the nonprofit newsletter mistakes above can be fixed in a few clicks, and some take a little more strategic thinking. But I promise that the effort is worth it! To sum things up, you want to:

  • Avoid basic set-up errors.
  • Create a dedicated welcome email sequence.
  • Provide value, not “updates.”
  • Segment your audiences.
  • Focus on connecting through stories.

The time you spend to get your emails right can significantly improve your online fundraising efforts and, importantly, put your organization’s updates into that elusive “must read” bucket. Every improvement you make can help boost the value of your email marketing—which will only compound as your email list grows!

The next time I sign up for hundreds of nonprofit newsletters, I’ll look forward to seeing the awesome things you’re doing.

Have any of these nonprofit email newsletter mistakes hit a little too close to home? Or have you recently given your newsletter strategy a makeover? Feel free to ask questions and share experiences in the comments below.

This is a guest post written by Andrea Schlottman. A designer, writer, and content strategist, Andrea is half of Pixel Lighthouse, a digital agency that helps nonprofits make a bigger impact online. When she’s not perfecting nonprofit messaging, she’s probably embroidering, cooking, or practicing yoga.