Helping A Small Nonprofit To Use Email

There must be thousands of small, local nonprofit organizations that haven't yet embraced the benefits of email. The primary reason is probably a lack of understanding of the key role email plays in today's society and how email can be used to build donor relationships and advocacy, and thus increase support for the organization's mission. The secondary reason is a lack of personnel skilled in the creation and maintenance of email programs.

Over the past year I assisted one such agency to enter the world of email. The following summary of the effort involved may help you in working with a local nonprofit of your choosing.

Educating the board

The first hurdle was positioning email outreach in a positive light with board members who dreaded receiving even personal email. My initial proposal was met with nothing less than horror that their beloved agency was going to become a "spammer." I overcame their reluctance by explaining that (a) properly handled, email can boost the reputation and not harm it, (b) they can't judge the effectiveness of email as a medium based only on their personal preferences, (c) email is much more cost-effective than postal mail, and (d) they'd have nothing to lose by trying.



I showed them samples of excellent emails from larger nonprofits to boost the board's comfort level and give them a vision of what could be done.

Starting a list from scratch

Step one was to clean up the mailing list and begin to compile an email list. The list was barnacle-laden with the addresses of up to 2,000 people who had never, in 10 years, given to the charity -- a tremendous waste of marketing resources. With a properly culled house list, they then purchased a mailing list that dovetailed beautifully with the group's areas of service. In the end-of-year direct mail fundraising campaign, they invited donors and prospects to provide their email address with their response. And so our email list was born.

However, before we could consider starting up the email program, this nonprofit needed a serious branding facelift. Its logo was ungainly and over 20 years old. The marketing materials evinced little regard for consistency or design rules. The Web site was inadequate and content extremely out of date. So step two was to hire an agency (at cost) to create a new visual brand and translate this into print and Web media with an email template included. An email opt-in box was added to the Web site on strategic pages.

By way of a test, an email append service offered to provide us with a few dozen free addresses matched to the group's current donors. To this small bounty we added donor email addresses filled in from personal knowledge by the director and board. A separate list of volunteers, staff and board members was created for viral purposes, providing the beginning -- 275 names altogether.

The strategy

The marketing committee worked up a simple strategy for email touchpoints. To build relationships and provide a vehicle for sharing with friends (hopefully increasing list size), we would send three e-newsletters a year focused on the three pillars of the organization's service. There would be two emails to support the traditional postal outreach in June and September. Finally, we would do ad hoc mailings to tie in donation requests with special holidays or send an end-of-year thank you.

One small step for email, a giant leap for the nonprofit

Using an ESP tailored for small companies - one that provides free service to 501(c)(3) organizations - I created the first ever email, timed for Mother's Day. The result was not newsworthy in terms of donations, but we achieved a 53% open rate and 10% click-through rate. There were only 3 opt-outs.

As small as the numbers were, direct costs were essentially nil, and the entry into email marketing has given the non-profit a toehold in the future. The old mailing list would one day expire along with its members, but with its new integrated marketing capabilities, the nonprofit has a vehicle to gradually expand its donor base and raise a new generation of supporters for a worthy cause.

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