Growing your non-profit e-news subscriber list

Along the spectrum of engagement, an e-news subscriber has taken the first very real step toward supporting your organization. But do you actively give all of your fans and supporters the opportunity to subscribe? Consider all of these points of entries and your e-news subscriber list could grow 218%, like the one I managed for three years at a statewide non-profit.

What is a spectrum of engagement?

If you view engagement as a spectrum, you have the very light touches at one end, where people have heard about your organization, seen an ad, or read about you in the newspaper. A person begins to engage a little more when they like you on social media, check out your website, or open a piece of direct mail.

That person begins to invest a little more when they engage (not just like) you on social media, begin to consider a donation, or sign up for your e-news. The great thing about this step, especially if they’ve subscribed to your e-news, is that you now have some more contact info for them (like an e-mail address) and have been invited into something as personal as their inbox!

The next step is to get them to donate, volunteer, and/or attend an event. And the ultimate stage of the spectrum of engagement is when a person becomes a true cause advocate: donating and/or volunteering regularly, sharing your materials, committing to actions (legislative phone calls, bringing a friend to an event), and possibly even joining the board of directors.

As described above, an e-newsletter subscription is a very real step on the spectrum of engagement that indicates how invested a supporter is in your cause. But many non-profits don’t nurture their e-mail list and instead pour resources into direct mail or advertising campaigns. But if the e-newsletter is skipped, you’re essentially asking people to go from a light fan to a committed donor in very few steps.

Consider putting these entry points in place, to give your fans a leg up in making that leap from fan to true supporter. This is how I grew an e-news subscriber list from 3,077 subscribers to 10,000 in three years too.

Opt-In vs Opt-Out Policy

Does your organization follow an opt-in or an opt-out policy? An opt-in policy means you leave it to the fan to subscribe to the e-news. It’s the more passive tactic even when you actively post a subscribe button on your website or ask people to subscribe on social media. An opt-out policy means that you take every opportunity to gather e-mail addresses from fans, automatically subscribe them to the e-news list, and leave it to them to unsubscribe. Of course, you should make this onboarding as gentle as possible by offering a welcome e-mail which gives them an overview of the e-mail program and the opportunity to unsubscribe.

e-news subscriber listThese two policies may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but it makes a big difference to non-profits which have a database full of people and e-mail addresses which aren’t subscribed to their e-newsletter. At a statewide non-profit where I managed the e-news program, we switched from an opt-in policy to an opt-out policy, uploaded all of those database e-mail addresses to our e-mail provider, sent a welcome message, and watched our subscriber count jump 48% in just one day.

For the data geeks reading this, here are two other important factors: in the month we did this import, our bounce rate was well below the average (thank you to our database managers!) and our unsubscribe rate landed right on the average.

Moving to an opt-out policy is going to grow your e-news subscriber list exponentially over time. Because now, any time another effort (events, direct mail, list buying, etc.) brings in e-mail addresses, you can import those names too. In the two and a half years following this policy change, there wasn’t a single month where the fundraising database didn’t give our e-newsletter program many new names. And our e-newsletter eventually became better integrated with the fundraising campaigns, so it was a revenue-generator and a win-win!

[An opt-out policy is only beneficial if your fundraising team is collecting e-mail addresses as part of its direct mail and solicitation program. Make sure a line for e-mail addresses is on every piece of material.]

Events and Registrations

Most non-profits have events, whether they’re charity races, conferences, fundraisers, or meetings. Are you gathering e-mail addresses there? A meeting with 30 people, where only three are new to your database, may seem like small potatoes, but when you consider that your colleagues in other departments are hosting multiple meetings like this each year…the numbers add up.

But what about colleagues who don’t want to help?

A lot of marketing and fundraising people will get on board with e-mail gathering pretty quickly. But, I understand, not everyone is on the same page. Maybe someone in operations or client services feels like “marketing” or “fundraising” are dirty words. First, make sure they’re subscribed to the e-news! Employees should be automatically subscribed to the materials a non-profit sends out! This will show them firsthand that you’re sending quality content. Second, point out the benefits of the e-newsletter to subscribers. For example, maybe there are early announcements you put in there, news and opportunities their constituencies would want to know about, or a greater breadth of activities than they currently know about. Third, make it clear that this e-newsletter is a way you further the work of your cause. Whether it involves marketing or fundraising or not, it’s a tool for involvement and education. And we all want that, right?

Back to events, though. I’ve seen several non-profits use third-party vendors to register people for events. And that’s fine, so long as it serves the cause. But don’t forget to import those names and addresses into your e-news system after the event. You should even consider tailoring the welcome message to that audience if it’s large enough to warrant your time. At the statewide non-profit that is the focus of this case study, we had an annual event with 900 people, many of whom were new to our database. Even the ones with existing contact files sometimes gave us new info, so we were able to keep our bounce rates low.

Social Urgency

Your social media channels should be working for you. That is, every week, if not every day, there should be a call to action and an e-news subscription can be one of them. You should also create some urgency around the e-news, posting, for example: “Don’t miss our e-news tomorrow. We have one big announcement and more great news to share! Subscribe now…”

e-news subscriber listOne could also emphasis the social in “social urgency” and mention how many other people are subscribed. In Vermont, for example, our e-newsletter went out to almost 2% of the population. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. So we would sometimes say, “Join the 10,000 other Vermonters subscribed to our e-news. It goes out tomorrow and you don’t want to miss this one!”

You should be inviting new subscribers in on social media at least as often as your e-news goes out. So if it’s monthly, put out a monthly call to action. Or you could make it a regular part of your Facebook advertising strategy, such as with carousel ads, which I describe here.

Prominent Placement on your Website

Every single page of your website should contain an e-newsletter sign-up. At the non-profit I’m highlighting here, we had a basic “Sign-Up for our E-Newsletter” text with a blank box where you could type in your e-mail address on most pages. When we changed e-mail providers, I worked hard to make sure their widget, which was comparable looking, was on every single webpage. Of course, being a curious marketer, I wondered if we could use that space even better. So I created a small red button that said “Sign-Up Now” under an “E-newsletter” headline and conversions (e-news sign-ups) went up 51%. (Never underestimate the power of a red box on a website!)

e-news subscriber listConsider every website and webpage you have. Is the e-news advertised there? Don’t forget the blog. Consider pop-ups as well. Ask for e-news sign-ups in the text of your pages too. E-news sign-ups will only feed your fundraising pipeline, so don’t be shy about asking.

Inbound Marketing

If your non-profit has anything it’s giving away, put an e-mail sign-up form in between it and the audience. Do you have downloads, a booklet, free gear, tutorials, toolkits, or anything you’re posting to the web and giving away? If so, just ask for a name and e-mail address before the audience can access it. This will give you two benefits: 1) more addresses for your e-newsletter, of course, and 2) some metrics on who and how many people are accessing that resource.


This suggestion is ideal for non-profits. I would suggest creating an ongoing pledge for your cause and post or circulate it year-round. This could be a statement, such as, “I will take a stand against bullies when I see it in action” or “I believe water is a human right.” And ask people to enter a name and an e-mail address and then share the pledge. If they’ve made such an affirmative step toward your cause, an e-news subscription is the next step in providing information and ways for them to engage.

You could also create a timely or urgent pledge, such as “This Friday, I’m participating in Buy Nothing Day!” or “I’m buying organic and fair trade this Valentine’s Day.”

Petitions are a little trickier, since there are so many platforms out there. But is such a reliable and accessible platform and you can then access all of your signed supporters information. Be sure your next e-newsletter addresses the issues relevant to the petition or provides ongoing updates. Petitions tend to be specific, built around laws or particular actions, so you’ll want to continue to engage your supporters in that area of interest, at least until they’ve seen your broader work a few more times.

e-news subscriber listIn the e-newsletter program I ran, we tracked the source of e-news subscribers closely. But that data is only part of the story. Maybe Google Analytics told me that a subscriber came from social or e-mail or an e-appeal, but they could have also just heard about us on the news and even received one of our direct mail pieces that week. All of these channels work together.

But if you focus on the channels which you know provide you with e-news subscribers – and on writing a great e-newsletter – your e-newsletter list is only going to grow and become more effective over time. Like this:

e-news subscriber listIf you’d like help with your e-newsletter program, I would be happy to help. Please check out my Marketing services page or contact me directly. I look forward to hearing from you!