Have you heard about the wonders nonprofits have accomplished through email, but feel limited by a small email list? Then you’re probably also wondering how to build an email list full of active supporters that you can call on to reach your goals. A well built out email list helps your nonprofit send updates and appeals to a base of supporters who cares about your mission, strengthening those relationships through consistent and friendly communication.

Getting the email address is just the tip of the iceberg, but you have to start somewhere.

Benefits Recap

It’s cool if you need a recap of the benefits of email marketing. Nonprofit marketing has a lot of different avenues to wander down. But email is one of the most tried and true ways to engage and communicate effectively with nonprofit audiences. In a nutshell, emails are easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than direct mail campaigns. And they have the potential to be incredibly targeted toward your supporters, or even specific segments of your supporters.

When someone that’s interested in your cause trusts you with their email address, you have a much better chance of getting them to deepen their relationship with you. They’ve given you an open line of communication.

The Right Audience

Emails for the sake of emails don’t really help you out. Which is why buying an email list is a big waste of money (as well as a big no-no for email marketing services). Chances are, not too many people on that list will actually be interested in what you do or in supporting your nonprofit. As you’re strategizing how to build an email list for your nonprofit, remember that the slow and steady approach email list building almost always wins in the end.

Part of capturing the right audience from the start stems from the promises you make through your sign-up calls to action. Let new supporters know, before they provide their email address, what they can expect from you. For example, it might be something like “Sign up to receive monthly updates about what we’re doing and news related to our cause.” If they receive more or fewer emails than they expected, or if you send emails that they can’t connect with or that they feel don’t apply to their situation, they’ll unsubscribe. And there’s not much of a point to working toward a larger email list if new subscribers are jumping ship.

Privacy Concerns

Just as you shouldn’t buy an email list, you’ll want to ensure potential subscribers that you would never sell their email. Privacy is important, and people want to be certain that their information is not being shared with outside parties or otherwise used for shady purposes. And if your nonprofit works with or has subscribers in the European Union, the new General Data Protection Regulation has various privacy stipulations that you’ll need to ensure you’re following.

How to Build an Email List

There are various avenues you can pursue emails through—the main ones being your website, online marketing, your current email list and collecting emails in person. We pulled together some ideas to get you started on the trek to building out an email list and reaping all of the benefits of nonprofit email marketing.

Gather Emails on Your Website

Your website is a great starting point for capturing emails from those already interested enough in your cause to visit your site.

  • Create a Page for Email Signups – Outline the benefits and what your typical email newsletters include. You might even link to past newsletters that you’re particularly proud of. You can then send visitors to this page to sign up from other pages on your website and through all of your marketing efforts. You could even include it as a way to get involved with your nonprofit.
  • Add an Email Signup Form to Your Footer – This way the email signup form will appear on every page of your website. You could also create a form and short call to action for the sidebar to appear on highly relevant pages of your site, such as the blog. See both methods in action on the footer and sidebar of this post! (And sign up for our weekly newsletter while you’re at it if you feel so inclined.)
  • Include Calls to Action on Thank You Pages – When a supporter completes a desired action on your site, like donating, it’s customary to send them to a customized page to thank them and give them any necessary information about next steps and follow-up. These supporters are prime for your email list. Let them know that they can stay up to date by signing up for emails and link to the page on your site where they can complete the signup form.
  • Require as Part of Membership – If you provide membership services, make sure you have the emails for all of your members. “Email address” should be a field on the form that new members use to sign up.
  • Create a Pop-Up – Visitors to your website are likely interested in what you’re doing. Capture their emails by setting up a pop-up that asks for an email address as they’re leaving your site or once they’ve been on a page for a certain amount of time.
  • Gate Content – Does your nonprofit create guides, ebooks or provide other valuable resources? If so, you can gather emails by requiring visitors to provide an email address in exchange for each download. Check out the Library on the National Foundation for Ectodermal Dysplasias website to see an example of gated content in action.

Gather Emails Through Online Marketing

Lots of nonprofits are active on social media and other online communities outside of their own website. You can use your nonprofit’s presence on these platforms for email list building.

  • Post on Social Media – Take advantage of active social media accounts by posting about your email newsletter. Just make sure you include a link to sign up within the post. You can also add social media buttons to your actual emails to make sharing them easier, and update the call to action on your Facebook page to encourage email signups.
  • Get Active on Other Blogs and Forums – If you frequent the same blogs and forums that your supporters do and offer insightful comments, you can start including a link to your email signup page. Wait for the right moment to post this call to action contextually so that you come across as helpful and not pushy. For example, you could mention it when a conversation overlaps with a topic you covered in a recent email newsletter.

Gather Emails With Emails

We’re getting really meta here. But retaining your current subscribers and making it easy for them to share your emails can be a gamechanger when it comes to list building.

  • Create Quality Email Content – In order to keep your current subscribers and attract new ones, you’ll need to focus on quality in every email you send out into the world. Write in a friendly tone that matches your other communications and appears personal (even if it isn’t). Email content should also be easy to scan and visually appealing.
  • Encourage Forwarding – Add a forward-to-a-friend link so that current subscribers can spread the love and pass on your emails to potential new subscribers.
  • Update Your Email Signature – If you’re constantly communicating with supporters and constituents, include a link to your signup page in the signature of all your work emails.
  • Strategize Email Content – For increased targeting, you can segment your email subscriptions based on your audience. For example, you might have one newsletter for volunteers, another for donors and another still for more entry-level supporters. This gives them some control over the content they’ll receive when they sign up. You can base these on marketing personas!

Gather Emails in Person

When you collect emails in person, you’ll need to manually enter them into your email master list (unless you use a device, like a tablet, that allows for typing). To make this easier on yourself, try to clarify any handwriting questions you have with the person signing up as you go. For example, “Is this a y or a g?” You’ll thank us later.

  • Set Out Sign-Up Sheets – Whether you’re hosting an event, running a booth at an event in your community or see a lot of foot traffic in your office, collecting email addresses in person can be as easy as putting out a signup sheet. Just be sure to let folks know where it is and come up with a process to make sure these handwritten emails get entered into your system.
  • Use a Tablet – Along the same lines, you could invest in a simple tablet and have people type in their emails. No more handwriting mishaps!
  • Ask Your Staff to Help – Reward staff members for collecting email addresses from constituents or supporters that they work with. Just make sure that they know to obtain the person’s consent before passing on the email address for your list.

As you’re learning how to build an email list, the most important thing to remember is your subscribers. Building an email list opens so many doors for your nonprofit, allowing you easy access to promote your impact and encourage those with an interest in your nonprofit to get involved. Grow your list because you’re proud of the great work you’re doing and the content you’re sending that highlights that great work. Accomplish this, and you’ll naturally want to share your emails in any way you can and your supporters will start to look forward to seeing your name pop up in their inboxes.

What ideas do you have about how to build an email list? Do you have any methods to add to our list? Have you seen some of these ways to grow an email list work better than others? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!


  1. Gather Emails With Emails
    is great advice. Thank you. We are not non-profit but tips are good. We use remail.io to automate email it is not free. Maybe you could offer some free service.

    • Hi, Lucy. We recommend MailChimp to all of our nonprofit clients, but it works great for for-profits as well. They have a free plan that allows you to send 12,000 emails per month to a list of up to 2,000 subscribers. If you’d need to do more than that, we’ve found their paid plans to be really reasonable.