The Future of Nonprofit Email: Trends for 2016 to 2026

Jeff Gordy

Last week, we had the pleasure of attending this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference in San Jose. So many great resources and opportunities to connect with organizations doing great things — thanks to all the attendees, speakers and organizers for making it a great week! One of our favorite sessions was The Future of Nonprofit Email: Trends for 2016 to 2026, a panel on nonprofit email trends moderated by Sarah Driscoll, email director/vice president of 270 Strategies.

We know that email is here to stay, but it’s true that open and click-through rates are lackluster. How can organizations make the most of their email lists? What nonprofit email trends are worth your time? What can we expect in the next 10 years?

Here are some of our takeaways:


Mobile, mobile, mobile. Whether you’re you’re talking about websites, online forms or nonprofit email trends, it’s clear — mobile optimization is a necessity.

“It’s not a question of do I need to optimize my email. The answer is yes,” said Driscoll. According to the panel, at least 40 percent of email advocacy gifts are made from a mobile device. Depending on the organization, that might be even closer to 60 percent. Mobile optimization is not just one of those nonprofit email trends — consider it a nonprofit email reality. 

And even if donations aren’t really the focus of your nonprofit email campaigns, fear not. Mobile responsive emails can improve engagement — increasing clicks up to 15 percent. Check out these stats from our partner MailChimp for more info.

Some mobile email optimization resources:

  • Test the loading speed of your web pages

    Especially with mobile, seconds matter. If supporters click on a donation link, that page should ideally load within two or three seconds. Use webpagetest.org to test the speed of your page from multiple devices and browsers.

  • See how your email will appear in different email clients

    So you’ve created a beautiful, mobile-optimized email. Now, make sure it looks beautiful in every inbox on every device. Use Email on Acid or Litmus to test how your email loads in Gmail vs. Outlook vs. Android vs. iPad.

  • Use a provider with mobile responsive templates

    Many dedicated email services, like MailChimp offer responsive templates designed to look good on desktop and mobile devices. There are also many free services out there — we use Stamplia, which offers several free templates.

  • New to this whole mobile-friendly thing?

    Check out these comprehensive guides from HubSpot and MailChimp that will walk you through the process.


Make it easy for people to act

If you’re asking people to take some sort of action in your emails, limit the ask — and the information required — to only the necessities of what you need. For instance, if you’re asking for a donation, make sure your donation form is not only mobile-friendly, but also short enough that filling it out on a mobile device does not become cumbersome.

Consider asking constituents to log in before taking action, where hopefully some of their information will be saved and they will not have to enter again. Or think ahead when crafting your email, and be sure to ask for only the information you need. If you’re just asking for an email signup, nobody will want to enter their phone number or home address.

Don’t be afraid to be creative when asking for information. The panel shared an example of an email campaign in which they needed supporters’ home addresses to determine their voting district and elected representatives. The organization sent everyone a simple form with an offer for a free bumper sticker, so they were asked for a mailing address. Their constituents received an incentive for participating, and the org got the information it needed.

As social media becomes increasingly integrated with our lives, an important nonprofit email trend is creating call-to-actions and content that are easily shareable. That might mean including social media sharing buttons on your links, or providing supporters with pre-crafted social media posts — whatever makes sense for your org. Be sure to think about how your campaign will cross over into other channels.


Quality > Quantity

The email newsletter is making a comeback. With wildly popular services like theSkimm and Lenny Letter, news outlets are delivering content straight to subscribers’ inboxes.

But in terms of nonprofit email trends, newsletters don’t always make sense. They are a great way to touch base with your supporters and update them on any news, but you should never send an email just because.

Every email you send needs to have a purpose. If you have enough quality content to fill up a monthly newsletter, then go for it! But if you’re struggling to fill your emails, hold off. Your supporters might receive hundreds of emails a day — make sure what you’re sending is worth their time (and yours!).

Instead of creating a set number of emails to send in a year or in a month, look at your calendar and concentrate your email volumes around campaigns. Theme emails around specific campaign actions and updates, then ramp up the volume (if needed) before deadlines. People will understand a higher quantity of emails if they are urgent.


Test the timing

According to the panel, there’s no “silver bullet” for the perfect time to send emails for maximum results. I know, I was disappointed too.

The good news is the ideal time to send emails depends on your audience. And who knows your audience best? You!

Some things to consider:

  • Business hours tend to be best, but test out nights and weekends

    While business hour emails still see the best engagement, night and weekend emails are not far behind. And people may be more likely to see your email when it’s not buried in the morning email onslaught, when they may have more pressing emails to attend to.

  • Timeliness matters

    People are most likely to open an email when they get it, so don’t feel you need to wait till the perfect time to send if you have something urgent to communicate. Especially if your email involves current events or anything time-sensitive, send it immediately.

  • Test, test and test again

    To find out what works best for your audience, be sure to experiment often and track the results. When you find something that works, keep doing that — but continue tweaking to make it even better.


Invest in your nonprofit email audience

You’ve heard us talk about donor retention, now we’re going to talk about email list retention. Depending on your email list’s churn rate, your organization may lose 10-20 percent of its email contacts. For some orgs, it can be as high as 25-30 percent.

That’s a lot of emails lost every year. And that could mean donations, members and volunteers lost, too.

That means you need to invest in building your email list. Here are some potential strategies:

  • List swaps

    If you know similar organizations in your area (or focused on the same issue, if you’re national), invite them to exchange email lists. Not only will you get a lot more emails, it’s also free (yay!) and builds some goodwill with partner organizations.

  • Zombie sends

    If one of your emails saw great results, don’t be afraid to resend it to everyone who did not open it — also called a “Zombie Send.” This will engage your supporters that have not seen the email, without double sending to anyone. Be sure not to resend to anyone who has already contributed!

  • Cut the dead weight

    If all else fails, be proactive about removing people from your lists who simply aren’t engaging. Check out this article from HubSpot about their experience cutting their email list nearly in half and how it impacted them. They removed anyone who hadn’t engaged with their emails in 6 months, and ended up getting more accurate data on email engagement rates. “After all, 550,000 subscribers is nothing but a vanity metric if 250,000 of those people aren’t actually engaging with your content.”


Those are the nonprofit email trends we’ll be keeping an eye on over the next few years. What about you? What nonprofit email trends are you most excited about?

Showing 3 comments
  • Allison Jones

    Thanks for sharing these great takeaways and tips, Andrew! We’re so glad you were able to join us in San Jose and we hope to see you next year in DC!

  • Maranda

    Great & relevant information!

pingbacks / trackbacks

Leave a Comment