Blog home

How to grow your email list so you can build power

By Sean Kosofsky
October 16, 2019

Laptop on a desk with a plant, sheet of paper stating EMAIL MARKETING, and envelope beside it.
Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

One of the best things about nonprofit organizations is that they are powerful vehicles to galvanize people to action. Most nonprofits’ missions appeal to millions of people because they are rooted in commonsense appeals to our common good. But the most challenging thing for these organizations is to translate the good will they enjoy into a following.

Some organizations can do amazing things with only a few foundation or government grants, but the vast majority of charitable or political organizations need a constituency. In fact, there are few things your organization or cause cannot do with a movement behind you.

Believe it or not, some organizations have a huge following on social media and/or strong name recognition but have never invested in converting that “currency” into a powerful digital asset. Some organizations lag behind in harvesting the email addresses of their supporters because of outdated thinking, resource constraints, lack of preparedness, or a host of other reasons. Don’t be left behind. Convert your great ideas, your powerful mission, and all that tremendous public good will into a tool that will allow you to build power: an email list.

Following are the practical things you will need to do to scale your email list. Some tips below are for beginners, and one is more advanced.


Beginner Tip: Every organization needs a digital home for its email list. For some, this is a spreadsheet (which I really hope is NOT your database). Some organizations hold on to huge lists using Microsoft Excel. There are big limitations to using a spreadsheet, but for the purpose of this blog post, any digital home for the list that allows you to export (or cut and paste) that list of email addresses into an email program will suffice. Ninety percent of the time, the ideal home for your email list is a donor database or a CRM (constituent relationship management) system. The difference between holding your email list in a file and holding it in a CRM is that a CRM will allow you to easily search, filter, export, and review each constituent record in a variety of ways. Some CRMs are free, and most are under a $250 a month. If you plan to have more than 1,000 email addresses, you should strongly consider getting a CRM. It’s one of the most important investments you can make.

Email Harvesting Tools

Beginner Tip: For many small organizations, constituent contact information is all over the place. Don’t do this. If emails are on post-it notes, petitions, and PayPal receipts in a drawer, you need to develop a system for getting the email addresses of all supporters into your file or CRM. At a basic analog (off-line) level, standardize your email- and name-gathering system. Some nonprofits have postcards, petitions, flyers, or campaigns with a standard format or two that are used at events, in their lobbies, at coalition meetings, and at other venues. Handwriting can be sloppy, so a pro tip is to have these standard forms use hash marks forcing members of the public to write each letter or number separately so they don’t blend together: |__|__|__|__|__|__|. Decide early on if you want to ask for salutations, demographic info, or what issues interest people. This is the data you will need later!

For organizations with an online presence, which is nearly all organizations nowadays, the primary way to harvest email addresses is through a form. People submit forms on Facebook, your website, landing pages, or even other places online where you embed them. For tips on how to create and embed forms, talk to any millennial, and they’ll help you out. (Google Forms is a simple and free option.) The powerful part about using forms to gather emails is that all the data entry into your spreadsheet or CRM is done automatically and usually with greater accuracy. Many email harvesting forms also ask the person entering their information to do so twice to prevent typos, which spoil your data.

Here is where it gets a little more advanced. Any time you are gathering information on your constituents, you want consistency and integrity. Try to gather key information such as the date you are getting the email, their location when filling it out (IP Address or other location), whether it was a mobile device or a computer, what action they were taking (signing a petition, donating, or asking for a newsletter), and other important information about the person’s intent or interests. There are ways to do this without asking a ton of questions, such as Facebook Pixels, Google Analytics, or other tools. (Check with a digital or data expert to put this process on autopilot.) Data is powerful, and you don’t want to have messy data. Outside of financial data, your constituent data is the main form of valuable data you have. You can use it in all sorts of ways to grow your organization (strategic partnerships, list sale/swap/rental, enticing corporate sponsors, etc.). When you send email blasts or generate fundraising letters, bad data can be a huge headache. One more note about data is that you want your email harvesting forms to be “future-ready,” which means you need to anticipate what data you may need in the future, such ZIP codes or first names that are matched back to the exact email addresses of your constituents. This is easy to mess up!

Landing Pages

Advanced Tip: For many people, the terms landing page and home page mean the same thing. They think the home page of your organization’s website is where people “land.” But to be clear, a home page is usually the page of your website with your most basic URL (e.g., without any extensions on it ( A landing page is a page you are pushing people toward as a destination. Many people may end up at your “about us” page and not your home page. In some cases, that may be your highest-performing page, where people are landing because they clicked on a link that took them there.

But a true landing page, as people refer to them now, is essentially a stripped-down single web page that has one focus—conversion (doing the thing you want them to). That means the page is trying to do one thing only: get a donation, get a petition signed, grab an email address, schedule a consultation, or some other call to action. A landing page needs to have all distractions removed from it, such as your normal navigation titles and images, and all other clutter. All elements on the page should be designed to motivate the person to take the action you desire. Lots of organizations and businesses find publishing landing pages messy, complicated, or just strange, so instead they create these pages elsewhere on the Internet and make them look like your website. Companies that do this include Clickfunnels and Leadpages.

Once you have a landing page (which will likely contain a form), you need to incentivize people to surrender their email addresses at that landing page. This is where landing pages shine, because they use traditional marketing elements and tactics. Sophisticated nonprofits know that giving away something in order to get the email address is a powerful way to convert a stranger into a follower. Whereas your existing followers might be motivated by your actual work or an event.

The final step in using landing pages is to take the URL for the landing page (which has your laser-focused language and other elements and forms) and start dropping that link all over the Internet (and other places) where you want people to see it. Think social media, forums, emails you send out that get forwarded a lot, your electronic signature, business cards, and email blasts of coalition partners, board members, and others. Once you figure out how to spread your landing page everywhere, the signups start coming in. Landing pages come at all price points, or you can use your own website so they are basically already paid for. As your email list grows, make sure you know how to communicate with the people on the list.

Email lists can build power for your organization to change laws, stop injustice, pressure public leaders, or mobilize people to help community members after a wildfire. Email lists can rally people quickly, too. Too often, nonprofits wait passively for people to find them and sign up for their newsletters. That is not a particularly effective strategy. By using the tips above, you can retool your existing strategy into a more powerful one.

Want to learn more?

Join me at the upcoming webinar, “8 Super Easy Tips to Skyrocket Your Email List to Grow Your Membership,” offered by Wild Apricot on October 29.

Tags: Marketing