I met with a nonprofit marketer recently to discuss her organization’s technology needs. With a look of complete horror, she described how she had just started a new role and discovered something terrifying about the group’s newsletter list.

They had been purchasing mailing lists for years.

And the lists are bad, clogging up their database with contacts that offer no real value and have no meaningful connection to the cause.

Sadly, this approach to growing a nonprofit email list, or even a regular mailing list, just isn’t effective—not to mention the fact that purchasing lists could violate privacy laws, get you kicked off your email marketing platform, and flat out annoy people.

That’s scary stuff.

But even if you’re not buying lists, the process of building your nonprofit’s email list comes with some unique challenges. Most nonprofits are seeing growth in the size of their lists (by an average of 11% in 2017), and they have been increasing the number of emails sent throughout the year. It’s critical to cut through the noise and be extra strategic about your messages.

If you’ve been successfully collecting email addresses and adding subscribers, it’s time to get prepared for what comes next. Learn about five common email marketing scenarios that nonprofits face as their lists grow, and get tips for how to manage them so that your organization stays on track.

1. You get ghosted.

Try not to take it personally when people sign up for your newsletter list and then never interact with you again. It’s completely natural for people to drop off, unsubscribe or bounce over time. Based on the latest report on email deliverability, it’s more important than ever to acknowledge that some emails are bad or become bad over time.

What can you do about it?

  • Run a re-engagement campaign, sending messages to your least active subscribers to see if they are still interested in your content (or will even open your emails). Then scrub away! If someone is interested in your newsletter, they can always sign up again in the future.
  • Clean your list regularly and use an email marketing platform that helps filter out subscribers that have bounced, unsubscribed or use questionable email addresses.

2. Subscribers stop clicking.

Have you noticed that people are opening your emails but not doing anything more than that? If you’re reaching people but they aren’t motivated to take the next step or read more, what’s the point? While not every email you send must include a call-to-action, you should see that people interact with your email newsletters by sharing them or clicking the links you include.

What can you do about it?

  • Some email marketing platforms (like MailChimp) make it easy to test different versions of your email campaigns, giving you a chance to see if your messaging or design impacts the ways people open, read and interact with your content. Start experimenting with your emails to see if there are better ways to motivate your subscribers.
  • Get to know your subscribers by giving them an opportunity to indicate their preferences and interests. For example, you could include a short survey in a welcome email or add extra fields to your website’s sign up form. Use this data to adjust your email strategy, including the frequency and types of content.

3. Messaging gets complicated.

Once you start digging into the interests of a growing email list, you’ll realize that you simply can’t reach everyone in a meaningful way with the same message. From volunteers, donors, and program participants to event sponsors and media contacts, they all have different needs and goals when it comes to your organization.

What can you do about it?

  • Create target audience personas that represent your key constituents. Include details about their communication preferences (which you might glean from the surveys in #2 above) and the types of things they care about.
  • Segment your email list into smaller groups based on your personas and develop a process for keeping these groups up to date over time (otherwise you’ll have to do list housekeeping every time you need to send an email). Now you can select the right audience for each email and avoid the dreaded “let’s just blast this out to everyone” suggestion.

4. You send each email to fewer people.

When you start to segment your list, you’ll notice that you end up sending emails to smaller groups of people than before. You’re now able to be more thoughtful about creating relevant and targeted messages, which could mean that the mailing list for your fundraising appeal is now 800 and not 2,000. If you’ve been measuring the success of emails solely by the number of people getting them, this might be an unsettling change.

What can you do about it?

  • Use better reporting metrics for your email marketing efforts. Rather than focus on how many people get your emails, start tracking how successful you are at getting email traffic to visit your website and complete a goal, like sign up to be an advocate or volunteer.
  • Regularly audit email campaigns you’re sending out and their recipients. Compare this to the target audience personas you put together (see #3 above). Make sure that you’re not leaving anyone out or neglecting a segment that hasn’t heard from you in a while.

5. There’s more for you to do but the same amount of time.

I know, this email marketing stuff sure gets complicated as your list grows. From maintaining your list and segments to keeping subscribers happy, you could end up writing and sending more email campaigns than ever before. And because you’re doing such a good job taking your marketing to the next level, there start to be more and more requests for email support from other parts of your organization. Without any more time in the day, you need to come up with a sustainable plan.

What can you do about it?

  • Set up automated email campaigns that send emails to people at predetermined times, like to welcome new subscribers to your newsletter list or thank someone who donated on your website. You’ll need to check on them occasionally, but these set-it-and-forget-it campaigns can help free up time you’ve spent reaching out in a manual way.
  • Create an email editorial calendar much as you might do for a blog. By keeping track of each email’s send date, author, main call-to-action and who it’s going to, you’ll have an easier time slotting things in (or saying no to requests).

Don’t Just Grow Your Newsletter List

Make sure that you build your nonprofit email list in ways that set you up for success in the long run. As your organization’s marketing matures, you’ll want to have a reliable tool that helps you reach your goals for communications, outreach and fundraising. And while there might be some scary (or headache-inducing) situations that creep up as you add new subscribers, don’t let that deter you from using email marketing to advance your mission.

What questions do you have about email list management for nonprofits? What’s keeping you up at night when it comes to maintaining your newsletter list? Let’s talk in the comments.