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How Nonprofits Can Avoid the Spam Folder

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The following is an excerpt from Robots Make Bad Fundraisers – How Nonprofits Can Maintain the Heart in the Digital Age by Steven Shattuck, published by Bold & Bright Media.

Spam filters are the bane of many email marketers across all industry types. Even the most well-intentioned, authentic and law-abiding emails can still find their way into a recipients spam folder, with or without their knowledge or intent.

At the same time, some emails are so irrelevant, ill-timed and poorly-crafted that the recipient can’t help but mark it as spam.

Nonprofits are increasingly using email as part of their fundraising, volunteer recruitment and stewardship practices. Because it is such an affordable and powerful communications option, charities should pay close attention to best practices and legal guidelines when sending any bulk email.

It’s the law

In 2003, the CAN-SPAM Act was signed into law. The bill requires compliance on the part of all organizations who send commercial (marketing) emails. Relational or transaction emails to existing customers (donors) or anyone who has inquired about the organization’s services are exempt. However, those emails are also routinely marked as spam.

As such, there are still things you can do to prevent your subscribers from marking your messages as spam, whether it’s a solicitation, newsletter/update, or an acknowledgement.


Only email someone who has opted-in to receive emails from you

  • Do not purchase lists
  • Do not pull email addresses off websites and add them to your list
  • If a friend, employee or board member gives you a prospect’s email address, do not add them to your bulk list until you have their permission (make contact separately and individually first)


The footer of your email is a great place to do the following:

  • Include an unsubscribe option, and always honor unsubscribe requests
  • Include your physical address and a phone number
  • Always explain why the recipient is receiving the message (how you got their email address)

The CAN-SPAM act also requires subject line content compliance, specifically that you do not use misleading or deceptive subject lines. In other words, the content of your subject line must be relative to the body content of the email. For example, you can’t use a subject line like “Hurricane Evacuation Notice” only for the email to just be your general newsletter.


Send from a domain email address, not an ISP or third-party email vendor

Make sure your use an email address associated with your domain, like, and not something like a, or email address.

Don’t send from a role-based email address

Sending from addresses like [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected] should be avoided. Instead, try to send from a real person’s address, like [email protected].

Keep the size of the email small

Some email programs and spam filters take into account the size of the email as a spam trigger. If you use images in an email, make sure they are properly sized for the web, and avoid sending attachments.

Ask your recipients to white label you

Many of your email recipients may not even know that your emails are being marked as spam. Filters found in email programs such as Outlook, or IT infrastructure and firewalls at a corporate office may block your messages. Ask your subscribers to add your send address to their address book or preferred recipients list.


Though there are many technical missteps to avoid, the biggest factor in whether or not a recipient marks your email as spam is the content of the email.

Send good emails

This seems like a no-brainer, but many nonprofits are still sending irrelevant messages to their email list. One way to avoid this is to set up multiple subscription lists. For example, rather than having one newsletter that you send to everyone, consider creating a Donor newsletter, a Volunteer newsletter and/or a Services newsletter. If someone signs up to be a volunteer, it doesn’t make much sense to send them information on planned giving.

By segmenting your audience, you have a better chance of sending them relevant messages, which will cut down on instances of emails being reported as spam.

Avoid all-caps, symbols and punctuation marks in subject lines

A bad subject line is “>>> DONATE NOW!!! <<<”

A good subject line is “You can make a difference today.”

Avoid trigger words in subject lines

Many studies have been conducted on what words trigger spam filters. A 2013 study by MailChimp found that the following words should be avoided by nonprofits:


It’s important to take all studies with a grain of salt, and to continually test your emails for performance.

Offer both an HTML and plain text version of your emails

Some recipients set their email clients to only accept plain text emails. If your email doesn’t have a plain text version, they won’t receive your HTML email.

Don’t include too many links

If your emails are segmented, targeted and short, this shouldn’t be an issue. If you’re sending a bulk, generic newsletter to your entire list that touches on many different topics and includes a dozen or more links, you’re probably going to get marked as spam.

Don’t use “newsletter” in your newsletter subject line

A common misstep in sending generic monthly newsletters via email is to use a subject line like “The (Organization) Newsletter – June 2015” – that subject isn’t terribly enticing.

Instead, try taking a donor-centric approach, like “See how you made a different last month,” or pull content out of the newsletter and tie it directly to the subject line, such as “New alzheimer’s prevention research, and much more.” Make sure each newsletter has a different subject line than the last, or it might nest into the previous email rather than appearing as a brand new message in the recipient’s inbox.

Final Thoughts

100% avoidance of spam filters is probably going to be an impossibility for your nonprofit organization. Many for-profits have entire teams of email experts who spend hours testing and tweaking messages, only to average single-digit open and click-through rates.

Be sure to adhere to all of the CAN-SPAM guidelines, and as many of the best practices listed above as you can. Don’t get too discouraged by individual email performance – email works best as part of a multi-channel strategy that includes direct mail, personal contact and other online channels like social media.

How does your organization avoid the spam filter? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Julie Carlin

    Thank you for this very informative e-maii. Julie Carlin KYDS Inc.
  • #MixedLinks for Nonprofit Communicators | Kivi's Nonprofit Communications Blog

    […] If you do email marketing, read How Nonprofits Can Avoid the Spam Folder. […]
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