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From Small List to Big Impact: How to Grow Your Email List

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If you want to grow your digital fundraising, the size of your email list is a vital factor for consideration.

If you’re starting with a small list, you’ll need to work on growth to get to that big email fundraising future. But unfortunately, many fundraisers I’ve spoken with, aren’t sure how to go about that growth. So in this blog, I’ll break down email list growth and the steps you should take to get to a bright email fundraising future.

There are two levels to email list growth. Let’s look at each.

1. Maximizing email address capture from your existing community

Before you spend money on ads to new audiences, you should maximize email address capture from the community that’s already engaged with you. You can reach these people on your website, social channels and non-digital channels like direct mail or phone.


Make sure you’ve got at least one visible, site-wide email subscription box, ideally with a compelling call to action and offer for the subscriber.

“Sign up for our newsletter” doesn’t speak to how the subscriber’s life is going to improve when they subscribe.

The following Sightsavers’ call to action is more compelling – including social proof and a promise for inspiration, while also preparing the subscriber for playing a role in making programs happen: “Join more than 170,000 supporters who receive inspiring emails about life-changing projects and ways to support our work.”

The call to action should be accompanied by an easy form the supporter can fill in right there. If you must, you can take the supporter to a second form page to collect extra details but don’t try to collect personal data that you don’t have an immediate need for. An email address and first name are usually enough. Ask them for much more and you’ll lose them.

On top of this site-wide subscription box, make sure any campaigns involving email address collection (e.g. surveys or petitions) are well-represented on your homepage, as a big proportion of your website traffic will land there.

Finally, examine any website process where people can opt in to email (e.g. contact, donation and brochure/report request forms) to make sure opting in is as easy and strongly encouraged as possible.

Social channels

Make sure you’ve got a visible link or button to email subscription on your social platform profile pages, as well as a compelling call to action and offer if possible. On most platforms you won’t get that much traffic to your profile page – most users just consume content in their feeds. But the link/button and call to action are there for that minority of users who do visit your page, and in time, that will add up.

Beyond that, schedule periodic social posts encouraging people to subscribe to your email. To succeed in the social environment, these should be compelling, visual, include a strong offer to the supporter and employ a social tone.

Non-digital channels

Your non-digital channels like direct mail, phone, face-to-face and events can all be great sources of email subscribers.

Include an invitation to share email address with all your direct mail campaigns. Make email subscription a secondary ask in all phone and face-to-face campaigns – including for people who don’t convert to the conversation’s primary ask. And make sure easy email subscription is a part of any live events you organize or attend. Ideally, this is done via a tablet or smartphone to facilitate easy data entry.

2. Outbound lead generation campaigns

To find and roll out a winning lead generation campaign, follow the following process:

  1. Ideate: Arrange a workshop with a few select people from different teams in your organization, ideally facilitated by someone who knows the topic well. Brainstorm many ideas, making sure you explore different types of campaigns in a structured way.
  2. Filter down: After the workshop, list all the ideas, then get all the attendees to vote on the top few they believe will be best for lead gen. Use that vote to filter down to a few top ideas to test.
  3. Test campaign: Develop those top few ideas into creative for a test campaign. Run a short, structured, multi-variate test campaign to a range of audiences. Meta ads are typically good for this, but you can also use other channels.
  4. Analyze the results.
  5. Rollout: Based on the results, choose one or more campaigns to roll out longer-term.

Keep ideating and testing periodically to build your portfolio of lead generation campaigns over time.

2 step campaigns

A 2-step campaign involves:

  • Step 1: Generating a new “lead” (or non-financial supporter).
  • Step 2: Guiding them on a journey to immediate donor conversion, typically of 3 – 8-weeks in length and involving channels such as email, phone, and retargeted advertising.

It’s critical that the supporter motivations, values and emotions evoked at step 1 (lead generation) are well-aligned with those you evoke at step 2 (donor conversion). If not, you’re effectively having a first conversation about apples and then asking your supporters to donate to oranges, which they haven’t indicated any interest in and are less likely to donate to. I’ve seen many 2-step campaigns where this alignment is a big determinant of success or failure.

One other important point is about how to measure the donor conversion success of a 2-step campaign. Fundraisers have donor acquisition targets, so it’s understandable that we typically measure a 2-step campaign’s success by donors converted through the initial conversion journey (that 3 – 8-week period).

But many more of your new email subscribers will become donors in future months and years if you keep talking to them, sharing inspiring, donor-focused stories and sending them compelling fundraising appeals. This leads to my final point…

It’s not just about growth…

Email list growth is important. But it’s no good growing your list if you then ignore them or send them flat, boring emails.

Your email list is a community of real people who have taken a real interest in your cause. This is exciting and full of potential for the fundraiser. You need to work hard to keep these people engaged with a quality calendar of inspiring stories, opportunities for input, campaigns and appeals. Do that and you’ll be rewarded with consistent digital fundraising growth – and the knowledge that you’re making more impact for your cause.

Want more up-to-the-moment help for digital fundraising? Take our all-new and completely FREE online workshop, 3 Email Fundraising Mistakes That Cost You Tons of Donations. Featuring digital Fundraisingologist James Herlihy, this single session will help you leap forward in your online fundraising mastery. Sessions are coming up soon! More information here. 

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