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[ASK AN EXPERT] How To Build A Nonprofit Mailing List

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity. Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on how to build a nonprofit mailing list:  

Dear Charity Clairity,

We’ve relied in the past on government and foundation grants, but since many of these sources are drying up we need to develop an individual fundraising program. Our problem is we don’t have much of a mailing list. Do you have any recommendations for how to build one? Also, how big does our list need to be.

— Feeling Listless

Dear Feeling Listless,

First, congrats on branching out to fundraising from individuals. It’s the largest source of philanthropy by far – making up 64% of all donations in the United States. Arguably, it’s also the giving source least subject to downturns in the economy. Even though overall donors and donations declined over the last year, during the pandemic the organizations who fared the best were those with fiercely loyal individual donors.

Of course, you’re correct. You can’t have an individual giving program without a list of prospects. So, let’s look at some strategies to build your list (both snail mail and email).

Baker’s dozen of list-building strategies

  1. Ask those closest to you for names/addresses of their friends and colleagues. Start with those closest to you (e.g., board; committees; executive staff; direct service volunteers). Consider a “Let Your Friends Be Our Friends” campaign. You can even offer a prize drawing for those who participate (maybe offer additional entries for every name/address submitted). While you’re at it, ask folks if they’d be willing to add a personal note on the appeal sent to their friend. When you prepare folks properly, they’re often more than willing to be your ambassador and advocate. Try: “You’ve been such a loyal supporter of [name of charity] that we’re asking you to consider telling your best friends about your passion. Great loves deserve to be shared. Please don’t keep it a secret!

TIP: You’ll get a better response if you reach out to people individually. Alas, whenever a group ask is made people tend to think “Oh, they probably don’t mean me.” If you do announce this campaign at a meeting, or via a mailing, be sure to make it easy for folks to respond. And also let them know you’ll be in contact if you don’t hear from them by such and such date.

  1. Include a prominent “Join our list” box on your website to collect emails. Ideally, offer something people may want in return for submitting their information. Receiving your newsletter is the bare minimum. Try something more enticing (e.g., a research paper; “how to” video or list; recommendations; recipes; invitation priority, etc.).
  2. Add a pop-up to your website. Rather than relying on folks who visit you to peruse your menu bar, offer the opportunity to join your email list directly to targeted visitors (e.g., first timers or those who stay on your website for a proscribed period of time).
  3. Leverage in-person and online event sign-ups. Especially during the pandemic, when many nonprofits pivoted to virtual events, nonprofits successfully captured a lot of names and emails. If you feel uncomfortable mailing to folks who haven’t proactively opted-in to receive emails from you, you can always have people double opt-in after the event.
  4. Host a webinar. This is a branding strategy and exercise in thought leadership. If you have expertise people want (e.g., research, data, specialists, historical perspective, stories, art, etc.), consider this as a strategy to attract folks eager to learn more about what you do.
  5. Scour lists of donors to similar causes. Collect annual reports, program listings, donor recognition walls, etc. Ask your volunteers to bring these lists to you. Even if you just get names, there are a number of services that will look up addresses for you.
  6. Build your “House List” of folks affiliated to you in other ways. Often organizations have multiple lists, many of which the development staff are not even aware. These include lists of volunteers, users of services, members, ticket buyers and so forth. Try to consolidate these lists, as many are excellent prospects for philanthropic gifts.
  7. Create contact information forms for folks who’d like to learn more about your services. Leave these forms in your reception area; bring them to events, etc.
  8. At in-person events, have people drop their business cards in a bowl to enter a raffle. You can do this any time you make a presentation (e.g., community center; place of worship; school; service organization; place of business; public gathering, etc.)
  9. Trade your direct mail or email list with other nonprofits with related missions, or purchase lists from a direct mail broker for an acquisition campaign. 
  10. Include a link to sign up for your email list on social media posts. When folks like or follow you, they’re already indicating an interest in what you do. Simply ask them to take this next step in affiliating with you.
  11. Ask current supporters to share. Include a link with every email or social media post and ask folks currently connected with you to tell others about the work you’re doing.
  12. Lean into partnerships. Have a challenge grant from a business? Collaborating on an event with a local organization? Ask them to share your email with their list to get you in front of a new audience. Be sure to include a link to your email sign-up page so folks can learn more about you.

Ideal size for your list

Quality matters more than quantity. That’s why you start with those closest to you, and build out from there. In fact, the smaller your list the higher your likely engagement. Why? Because you’re able to pay more personal attention to everyone on your list.

That being said, it’s worth building your list so it’s big enough to raise what you need to raise. As a general rule, most appeals to cold lists generate a .5 – 1% return. Appeals to warm lists generate closer to a 4 – 5% return. Of course, your results may be different. Try to keep track of them this year so you have a baseline against which to measure next year.

Listlessness begone! You now have thirteen ways to get lively with list building. Remember, this is a marathon and not a sprint. Begin building your list with four or five strategies; then add incrementally. As your list grows, set new fundraising goals accordingly.

— Charity Clairity (Please use a pseudonym if you prefer to be anonymous when you submit your own question, like “Feeling Listless” did.)

How does your organization build a nonprofit mailing list? Let us know in the comments.

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