A Guide to Email

What does email do?

Despite feeling a bit like “old media,” email communications are still an essential part of both storytelling and driving engagement. It is effective as a way of drawing in newer community members who don’t yet visit your organization’s other online platforms. It’s also valuable as a tool for event organizing or other types of higher-level engagement like volunteer mobilization. Despite the countless new ways to connect to your audience, email remains the most effective digital tool for direct fundraising.

However, changes in the “culture of the inbox”—how people view and use their inbox—as well as platform changes like Gmail tabs and cached images are dramatically changing the rules of email marketing. Engagement via email is complex with all audiences, from young tech-savvy urbanites to older suburbanites who are loyal online donors.

There is also some evidence that younger audience prefer other “inboxes” for most communications. It is unclear exactly how email will remain a meaningful step on the ladder of engagement or if it will someday be replaced. General features and functions are very similar between digital platforms, but the choice of an individual platform is a complex organizational decision and is not easily generalized.

Using email to start and grow relationships with constituents is critical for a nonprofit. Many successful organizations are using email as a cost-effective way to reach out to large volumes of both new and long-time supporters with regular, timely and inspiring information tailored to each person’s interests.

Email marketing can help your organization build a loyal, involved support base and drive higher response rates in fundraising, advocacy, marketing, special events and other functions.

What do I need to use email?

  • Technology: Computer/smartphone/tablet, Internet connection
  • Suggested Frequency: Depending on your needs and capacity, email daily, weekly or monthly 

What can I share in an email?

You can email content that includes text, photos, links, music, and videos. 

How should I use email?

There are popular software programs—such as Constant Contact, MailChimp, VerticalReponse, Blackbaud and iContact—that you can use to format and send emails.

What are the strengths and limitations of email?


  • Direct. Email provides direct contact with audiences.
  • Effective. Excellent for driving action on specific asks such as fundraising, events and volunteering.
  • Unlimited possibilities. Email allows for unlimited opportunities to divide your contact lists into specific lists based on various characteristics, depending on your systems and data.
  • Relatively inexpensive. Email marketing, when coupled with cost-effective tools like MailChimp, is a fairly inexpensive platform with a potentially high return in donations.


  • Low open rates. Inbox pollution, along with platform migration and changes to common features, are decreasing average open rates.

Why should I use email?

Email communications are still an essential part of both storytelling and driving action with supporters. As a tool that actively reaches into supporters’ inboxes, email is particularly effective in connecting with supporters who don’t regularly visits your other digital media platforms. In particular, email is a strong tool for large asks, such as event organizing, volunteer mobilization, and direct fundraising.

What story formats work best in an email?

Emails should be a combination of text, photos and videos with links to resources and other content.

What’s the most effective way to share stories in an email?

Plan ahead and create a detailed timetable for your email strategy. Consider using email marketing solutions such as Constant Contact, MailChimp, VerticalResponse, Blackbaud and iContact, which make creating and executing an email calendar easy.

How do email users share and engage with content?

Your email contacts will primarily respond to your email communications by opening the message, clicking on your links and completing your calls to action. Typically, they may sign up for your specific asks, RSVP to an event or donate after reading your email.

How should I engage users through email?

  • Be relevant. Give your email contacts timely information they can’t get anywhere else. Remember that the main objective should be to deliver a piece of valuable information that helps or interests your recipients in some way.
  • Pick a day. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are considered the most popular days to email. However, don’t discount emailing later in the week, weekends or on Friday, especially if your event is being held on a weekend and you need to send out a reminder.
  • Maintain a schedule. If you aren’t consistent and regular with your email communications, you may risk disengaging your audience.
  • Optimize your subject line. Pay close attention to the information you include in the email’s subject line, as it will drive whether people open your message.
  • Personalize your email. Email marketing software makes it possible to easily segment your database and send targeted messages based on your audience’s interests, donation history, or any other field in your database. Get more engagement from your audience by delivering content that is specific to their interests, motivations, geographic location and other characteristics.
  • Design your emails. Your message’s design and layout can significantly impact response rates, which makes it important to send graphically rich emails with clear asks and links. Tip: Consider keeping the length of your subject line between 50 to 60 characters, and use it to inform the recipient about the content in your message. It helps to use short, action-oriented words to draw on emotion.

How can I increase my email contact list?

  • Add buttons. Make sure to prominently feature subscribe buttons on your website.
  • Ask. Prompt your audience on social networks to sign up to receive your newsletter.