Nonprofit Email: The Rules of Engagement

June 28, 2023

Are you tired of feeling like a wee fish in the vast ocean of social media?

Well, I’ve got some eye-opening stats that might make you reconsider where to channel your communication efforts. It’s time to shift gears and give email the attention it truly deserves. The numbers don’t lie!

According to a recent study by Campaign Monitor, email marketing has an astonishing ROI of 4400%! That means for every dollar you invest in email campaigns, you can expect an average return of $44.

Social media, on the other hand, lags behind with an average ROI of 94%.

When it comes to reaching your fundraising goals, email reigns supreme (after direct mail and face-to-face, of course).

But what about reach? Well, here’s another mind-blowing stat: Radicati Group reports that there are over 4 billion email users worldwide, and that number is projected to reach 4.6 billion by 2025.

In contrast, social media algorithms will always limit your organic reach. A study by Edgerank Checker found that Facebook posts from nonprofit Pages only reached an average of 7.7% of their total audience.

Imagine the missed opportunities!

Now, let’s talk about engagement. According to the Nonprofit Email Engagement Benchmark Study by M+R, the average email open rate for nonprofits is around 25%, while the click-through rate hovers at 2.5%.

And while those numbers might seem modest, when you compare them to social media engagement rates, they become truly impressive. In fact, the average engagement rate on Facebook for nonprofit posts is a mere 0.08%. That’s right, your lovingly crafted social media content is often met with nothing more than a virtual tumbleweed rolling by.

So, what do you think? Is it time to take a step back and reevaluate your communication strategy? Email marketing offers an unmatched ROI, a vast potential reach, and higher engagement rates compared to social media. Don’t get lost in the social media sea — put your focus where it counts and make waves that truly make a difference! Read on for some general guidelines for your email success.

Anatomy of an Email:

The From Line: Keep it personal, keep it real, keep it human. Steer clear of And definitely keep away from Your supporters are much more likely to open emails if they know they were written by you.

Subject Line: Your subject line determines if your email gets opened or not. You’ll want to spend as much time on your subject line as you do on the content. Craft a minimum of three different headlines and use a tool like Advanced Marketing Institute’s Headline Analyzer to gauge the most effective subject line. Test your subject lines.

Preview text: Preview text is the bit of text below or next to an email’s subject line in the inbox. It gives extra insight into what’s inside. While every email provider doesn’t display it, it’s worth spending some time on yours. Think of it as an extra subject line (run your preview subject line through the Headline Analyzer too)  and give yours some oomph!

Your header image: This is the graphic that appears at the top of your message. How important is it? It depends. I’ve seen too many nonprofit students spend more time on “making their emails pretty,” than is warranted. Especially when study after study after study shows that plain text-based emails perform the best.

Salutation: How are you addressing your reader? When you’re working on list building, it’s best practice to always include the minimum of a first name on your opt-in form. And then use it.

Body Copy: Every email that you send should have a goal. Engagement? Education? Donations? Event announcement? Pick one. Stop with the long blocks of text. Run all your copy through the Hemingway app for clarity. Aim for a 5th-grade reading level or below. White space is your friend. Include lots of it.

Call to Action: What are you requesting of the reader? To RSVP? To donate? To share? Make it obvious within the email as well as with a CTA button. Include a minimum of three links.

Basics: You’ll want to try to keep your main message and call-to-action above the fold. Above the fold simply means that this information is available to the reader without scrolling down. Stick to fewer than three typefaces. Generally, I find Verdana 16 to 18-point font to work best in terms of overall readability.

PS: Will you include one? A PS is imperative in direct mail and you’ll want to include one in your emails as well. Why? If your reader is a skimmer, your PS allows you to get to the point, quickly.

Your Footer: This is the content at the bottom of your email. You’ll put your contact information, social media links, and, of course, your unsubscribe button.

It’s in the list…

How are you regularly growing your email list? Consider your USP (unique selling proposition). In other words, always consider WIIFM ( “What’s in it for me?”) and give prospective subscribers a compelling reason to opt into your email list.

Important: you’ll want to ask for the first name in addition to the email address so you can begin personalizing right away.

One of the smartest and easiest ways to acquire new names is by offering something of value to them — a guide, a resource, or even a *free* class consisting of more than one email (ideal as it will condition your subscriber to receive regular emails from you). Consider implementing one or two solid list-building activities a year, like this one from Children’s Medical Center. Is there a company or organization you could partner with to grow your list, as Feeding America did with Mother Jones?

Charity: water offered a free guide World Changers: A Drop-by-Drop Guide to Empowering Kind Kids. They followed up with a strong appeal to monthly donors.

The 2023 Neon One Nonprofit Email Report noted that the average nonprofit’s email list has 4,191 contacts. The average small nonprofit list was reported to be roughly 547 contacts, with large nonprofit email lists coming in at over 6500 contacts.

But more important than list size is list engagement.

While we don’t recommend deleting emails, we do recommend running 2-3 re-engagement campaigns during the course of a year. Something like this.

Your open rate is, of course, one of the most important metrics you’ll want to track. According to the 2023 Neon One Nonprofit Email Report, 28.59% is the average nonprofit’s open rate. The small nonprofit’s open rate is nearly 46% and the average large nonprofit’s open rate is 28%. So doesn’t it pay to learn how one (small) nonprofit regularly achieves a 51% open rate? 

A strong welcome email — preferably a strong email welcome series — can go far in building your readership and conditioning your readers to look forward to your emails.

Make Your Opt-In Language Clear and Direct

You only want to email people who have explicitly opted into receiving emails from you. Never add or import names to your list. This goes for text messaging as well. Permission-based marketing. Always.

Your Thank You Email

Don’t forget your thank you email, one of the most important communications in the donor journey. How are you making your donors feel? And, while you’re at it, your Thank You Redirect page could probably use an update!

Email is one of the best ways to begin to create that one-to-one relationship with your supporter. It pays to master it. Check out the following resources,


Anatomy of the Perfect Email Ask

The Benefits of Cleaning Your Email List

The Anatomy of a Successful Donate Page

The Ultimate Nonprofit Email Newsletter Guide

Shorter attention spans mean you need to deliver with your enews

How are you growing your email list? An example of list chaperoning

The best use of social media: Empowering Your Donors to Fundraise on Your Behalf

Knowing and Honoring Donor Preferences

Featured in 30 Must-Follow Nonprofit IT Influencers Worth Following in 2022

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