Questions nonprofits should ask before starting an email list

A strong email list can be the lifeblood of your nonprofit organization.

A robust list can help you rally volunteers for an important event, summon donors during times of critical fundraising and keep you connected to your strongest supporters.

With email marketing being such a powerful tool, many organizations start collecting email contacts before they think about how they will use those digital addresses in the future.

Sure, it can be tempting to collect address first and ask questions later. However, that impulse can create much trouble for an organization down the line, and can even create a few problems right away.  

Before you start gathering emails, think about how you will be using those contacts and why your organization wants them. The more information you have figured out about your list, the better. That info will inform how you will promote your list, where you should recruit and the messaging used to convince people to sign up.

Without a clear value proposition, you might find it difficult to get sign-ups beyond your most die-hard fans. Why should someone sign up for a list if they don’t know what they are getting themselves into?

So, figure out exactly what use you have for this list. Is it a newsletter to keep people up-to-date on your nonprofit’s latest happenings? Will the list be used to recruit and retain volunteers, or will it be used to solicit donations during an annual fund drive?

Also, figure out how often you will be sending the email. Will it be sent out at regular intervals or will it be sent out sporadically? Will it be a daily update or a quarterly call for donations? Maybe the email will come out before and after park cleanup days that your organization holds every few months.

Try to come up with a focused objective for you list. Another tempting shortcut is to say you will use one list to achieve all your marketing goals. But a list with a broad objective will also find difficulty recruiting and retaining members.

Though similar, your organization needs different contributions from volunteers and donors, and the same broader message won’t be as effective as two specific messages to each group. If recipients get too many emails they feel aren’t directed at them, they will eventually unsubscribe.

Retaining list members can be just as difficult as recruiting them in the first place. Figuring out as much as you can about your list before you start gathering addresses is the best way to set it up for long-term success. Letting people know up front what they are signing up for will make them a lot less likely to drop out later.

Lists without clear objectives tend to morph over time. They go from newsletters to donor-asks to a hodgepodge of disconnected emails. And when people feel like they are getting something different from what they signed up for, that is when they start unsubscribing.

For more best practices and list-building strategies, check out the DMA’s Washington Nonprofit Conference. Dixie Clough, digital projects specialist for the Smithsonian Office of Advancement, will be presenting “Unrelenting, Totally Awesome and EFFECTIVE List Building.

This article is brought to you by the DMA. Click here to register for Nonprofit Federation Conference, Feb. 18-19, 2016, in Washington, D.C.