Back in 2000, I used email to raise $100,000 in six weeks. I wrote about it in “The $100,000 Guide to Email Solicitation.” (You can buy it in the Fundraising Coach Store but I give it away free to everyone who signs up for my free email newsletter.)

People tell me they find the “ten tactical tips,” the actual examples of email, and the overall strategy helpful. But many ask me, “You did that with alum. We’re not a school so we don’t have alum. How do we build up our email list?”

Avoid shortcuts

Over on LinkedIn, I asked What is your favorite way for nonprofits without alumni to get email addresses? (You can click on the link to add your answer.)

Look over the answers. Some of them seem like shortcuts…but there are no shortcuts to building your email list. Email is not direct mail. You can’t really “purchase a list” and start mailing to it.

Oh, I know there are brokers who’ll rent you a list and claim they aren’t spammers. These must seem like a God-send to new nonprofits. You get to “mail” without any printing or postage costs! But blasting to a list isn’t really effective. Think about your own experience: if you were to receive an email from a group you didn’t know, would you read it? Be honest.

Email can be incredibly effective for marketing and fundraising, but only when

  1. People give you permission to send them email: The best form of this is double opt-in: they have to input their address into a form on your site. Then they get an email asking if they really want to join your list. This double opt-in protects your organization against accusations of spamming. (Email service providers like Aweber [affiliate link] make this really easy.)

    Double opt-in makes for a more committed email list. People on your list have jumped through a couple hoops to get there so are more likely to engage in your message.

  2. People care about your organization or your cause: Rather than a random list of email addresses, grow a list of people interested in what you do. This means that you have to be interesting. You have to be committed to communicating your mission well. It is more time consuming than renting a list, but the results will be far better.

Start an email newsletter

The best way to grow a list is to offer an email newsletter that has valuable information. You could curate the news stories related to your cause. You could send out a blog post every other week. You could give “how to” tips on some subject. Your email newsletter can be anything, but it must be something people value.

How do you know if people value it? They’ll sign up and they’ll encourage others to sign up too.

Here’s a pet peeve of mine: don’t offer a “monthly email newsletter” if you’re not going to send it out monthly. Breaking a promise like that leads me to think you don’t have your act together. If you advertise a monthly email, deliver on that promise. Otherwise, invite people to “sign up for our sporadic newsletter” or simply to “our newsletter.” (Be sure to tell them the type of information they’ll get in the newsletter.)

Offer an ethical bribe

One time-honored way to encourage people to sign up for your list is by offering an “ethical bribe.” I do that here at I offer an email that goes out every other Tuesday. And I offer the email solicitation ebook free for people who sign up for the list.

What could you give away to new subscribers? A recipe? An action guide? An ebook on a hot topic?

Whatever you give away, I encourage you choose something digital. That way it doesn’t cost your organization anything to send it. (Although some people offer a sticker or a hat so that they can get the physical mailing address of people on their email list.)

Contests and petitions

Another time-honored way of growing your email list is by using contests or petitions that require someone to sign up with their email address. The benefit, especially of a petition, is that you can attract people interested in your work or cause. I’ve never used this strategy but I see it used all the time.

If you use one of these, have the integrity to tell people clearly that by adding their email, they’re also signing up for your organization’s email newsletter or “timely updates” from your organization.

Organic growth is best

In my experience, the nonprofits with the most effective lists are those who’ve grown them organically. Even schools. Offering emails with something of value for the receiver is the best way to ethically grow your list.

What about you? What do you do to grow your email list? Tell us in the comments here or at the LinkedIn question at:

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