How to Plan & Organize Your Nonprofit’s Email Campaign

Getting ready to send out an email campaign on behalf of your nonprofit?

If there’s one task that unites most departments, it’s the email campaign. Volunteer managers, fundraisers, program & comms staff all need to email our respective constituents. Even the ops/ tech staff don’t get a break: they’re often the ones getting those lists together for us!

But more on that later.

The point is, whether this is your first campaign or your fiftieth, this doesn’t have to be chaos.  A good process never hurt nobody, and you’ll definitely need one to execute something this important.

There’s a method to this particular nonprofit madness. Let’s talk email.

What’s so difficult about putting together an email?

The only people who would ask this…are the ones that have never had to do it.

Sending a message on behalf of your org is a lift. That’s because you’re using 3 different parts of the brain when you’re in charge of an email campaign. You’re piecing together:

  • The Creative Side – the content of the email, including messaging and media.
  • The Technical side – gathering your list and segmenting as needed.
  • The Human Management side – in the form of collaborators, proofreaders, last-minute-changers/EDs, and anyone else with a hand in getting this thing out to the world.

You’re basically managing 3 different efforts towards one, harmonious result. It’s a challenge regardless of if you’re coordinating the different staff responsible, or doing it all solo.

And with any project, these efforts are subject to delays and mishaps you rarely see coming. Welcome to the world of campaign planning.

Sounds cumbersome. Do we have to?

Absolutely! Email campaigns are worth the hassle – most of the time, anyway – because they’re a tool for nonprofits to move the needle on their mission. A carefully-executed campaign can:

  • Get folks to volunteer for a service opportunity
  • Spread the word to constituents about a crucial new program offering
  • Secure RSVP’s for an upcoming workshop
  • Raise a boat-load of money. Ah yes, the fated nonprofit appeal email

It’s exciting work. And if you like learning, well, you learn a ton from the experience. 🙃

Ok! Where do I start?

Like any project, start with the goal of the email. What is the action you want readers to take?

This question really is as simple as it sounds. Some common outcomes to shoot for:

  • Getting readers to RSVP to an event
  • Getting them to click a link to a web resource or article
  • Getting them to share something on social media
  • Persuading them to donate time or money

The second part of your goal is your audience. Who are the people you want to reach? Specifically, what is their relationship to your org; donor, volunteer, prospective supporter, constituent?

Once you’re clear on who you’re emailing and why, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty planning details. A.k.A, my happy place.

How to Plan & Organize Your Nonprofit’s Email Campaign

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The secret is to treat your email campaign like any other project. Outline the steps, assign each one a deadline, and make sure you’re coordinating the staff responsible for all parts of the finished product.

And remember this. The ease in which you & I receive (and act) on emails is NOT ANYWHERE NEAR COMPARABLE to the amount of work it takes to build, construct and execute a campaign. That’s the irony in all of this.

Now. Let’s build that plan.

1. Start with your target send date.

That’s the easiest starting point, and will determine the amount of time you have to prep the other pieces. Give yourself 2-4 weeks lead time if you can! Also, set a flexible date so that the world doesn’t end if you’re a few days behind.

*Tip*: Keep in mind any time sensitive actions that you’re asking of your audience – like RSVP’ing to an event – and use those deadlines as your compass.

Email Campaign Planning Step 1: Target Send
My digital scrap paper for planning this email campaign. Step 1: start with your send date!

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2. Set targets for follow-up emails, too.

Depending on the ask, follow-up emails may be helpful (or necessary) for prodding your audience in one of two ways:

  • Reminding them to do something, or
  • Thanking/acknowledging them for doing something
Email Campaign Planning Step 2: Follow Ups
In this example, let’s send a reminder email one week after our initial email.

Often times, these campaigns happen as an after-thought. But by figuring this out in advance, you can streamline your efforts across those 3 areas we mentioned earlier.

3. Get your list needs in order – including deadlines & requirements.

Next to the actual email, the list is where many nonprofit peeps go wrong.

Why? Well typically, one of three things will happen:

  • You incorrectly assume your list is sitting somewhere, waiting for you to use.
  • You underestimate the complexity of your list requirements.
  • You don’t have the spreadsheet know-how to segment (here are some tips for that!) and you didn’t give your database manager enough lead time to help. *side-eyes her team*

Don’t procrastinate on this one. In fact, plan 3 dates for your list: 1) when you need to submit your request by, 2) when you need it in your possession, and 3) when it needs to be set up in your ESP (email service provider.)

Email Campaign Planning Step 3: List requirements
Let’s say this is a fundraising email. I want to send it to donors who gave last year, but not this year (also known as LYBNTS). As long as my list is ready 3 days before my email send, I’m golden.

3. Get a jump on content planning.

If you have writers on staff responsible for this, great! Leave time for them to draft, revise and finalize any edits from you & your team.

As the person coordinating those revisions, buckle up. This tends to be the most time-consuming aspect of a campaign, because of how many cooks are in the kitchen! Prepare to consolidate everyone’s edits, relay that to your writers, re-circulate the email five more times, and ultimately learn that your director wants to change the direction of the whole thing.

Not being snarky. That one actually made me laugh.

Email Campaign Planning Step 4: Content Planning
Note the arrow. That’s my diagram-y way of showing that weeks 2-3 are going to be a flurry of edits, feedback and back & forth with my team!

*If you’re the person writing the email* and you’re NOT a writer, welcome to the multiple hats club. Here are the 3 things you should focus on to get this right!

  1. A clear call to action. Here are tips from other nonprofit professionals on what makes a great CTA.
  2. A message that captures the essence of your org’s work. Don’t assume that everyone on your list knows what your org does, or even how!
  3. A message written in your org’s “voice”. Here’s an explanation from CauseVox on how to figure this out.

4. Don’t forget images!

Surely you weren’t going to send an email with just words?! Photos, gifs and other multimedia make your content more engaging. Link up with your design/marketing staff to ensure that you’re including images that capture, or speak to, your nonprofit’s mission.

And throw that on your timeline while you’re at it, too.

Email Campaign Planning Step 5: Media Planning
Notice how things are starting to get busy. That’s an accurate, if not accidental, representation of what real life will look like, too.

5. Include time to build and test your email.

Most of us don’t have a designer on staff who can build emails for us. So leave plenty of time – at least a few days – to arrange your message and media files onto your template.

And make sure to circulate that final email to your team before hitting send. While you’re at it, double check that all your links redirect to the proper place, too. You don’t want to have to send one of those ‘oops’ emails after the fact!

Email Campaign Planning Step 6: Build & Test Your Email
You officially have a campaign plan in place. May the nonprofit email odds be ever in your favor.

6. Make sure you have the right system for organizing your to-do’s.

I’ve drawn out the plan this way to illustrate the process. But I’m more of a spreadsheet gal. Here’s how I might’ve actually organized my tasks:

Use a system that works for your own sense of organization. It can be paper, a digital drawing program like what I used here (Apple Paint, if you’re curious) or even your email calendar. As long as it helps you stay focused and on task!

*Tip*: If you’re into apps and third-party software, you can also try project management tools like Asana. Asana lets you invite staff members to your team, so that you can assign them tasks and deadlines (but full disclosure, I don’t the costs for that system).

And there ya have it!

Email campaign planning is a mystery if you’ve never done it, and typically a headache if you have. Depending on the size of your org and the capacity, you may find yourself coordinating, or completely overseeing, all the moving pieces!

But as long as you treat each email campaign like the project that it is – with deadlines, tasks and assignments – you’re setting yourself up for a successful campaign execution.

What tips do you have for organizing an email campaign? Share in the comments!

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