The Digital Charity Lab 5 Minute Guides are intended to give you the basics on a particular digital platform or project. They are collaborative documents and we welcome your feedback and further suggestions in the comments.

email-circle-250sqWhy Email?

  • Email has been declared dead many times over the past 15 years, but is still by far the most effective digital channel for online sales and donations.
  • Email allows a level of segmentation, personalisation and targeting that social media can only dream of.
  • Every activity a subscriber takes on your email – open, click, forward – can be tracked, which means you can properly evaluate the return on your time.
  • Email tracking allows you to identify your most active and engaged supporters.
  • Email is extremely cheap compared to paper mailings – and many recipients perceive it as completely free, avoiding complaints about waste.

If you are unconvinced that email can do more than social media, keep this in mind: even social media platforms rely on email to communicate and to drive use.  Think how many emails you get from LinkedIn and Facebook.

Best Free Resources


It can be quite difficult to get benchmarks for email success rates as most companies keep this information to themselves.  This is why the benchmark report compiled by emailing service Mailchimp is quite useful.  FYI, they give the following averages for their non-profit clients:

  • Open: 24%
  • Click: 2.5%
  • Unsubscribe: 0.2%

The usual caveats apply – these benchmarks are averages, and you can get very different results with smaller lists compared to large ones.  The best way to benchmark is against yourself, by trying to constantly improve your own results.

Design and Layout

Email software providers Mailchimp and Campaign Monitor both have excellent galleries that gather examples of beautifully designed emails from a range of sectors.


Remember that email is an online medium, so keep your emails short, with clear headings.

Digital Charity Lab has a free guide to writing and laying out an effective non-profit email.

Data Protection

It is very important that you don’t breach data protection legislation when you are sending marketing emails. Make sure you’re familiar with the legislation for your jurisdiction.  The main things you need to know are:

  • You can’t take someone’s email address off their website and send them marketing emails – they have to give you permission
  • You should never purchase cold lists for email – many email providers forbid it, and you will get a lot of spam reports
  • Unsubscribe links or instructions must be included in every email you send, and unsubscribe requests must be honoured


An ongoing risk with email marketing is that your emails will be marked as spam, either by getting trapped in a spam filter or by being reported by subscribers. Once your emails start getting spam trapped it can affect your entire list, and sometimes lead to getting blocked from ISPs.

Many people are not aware that moving an email to the spam folder doesn’t just file it, but actually sends a report to the email service so that future emails like it will not be delivered.

Recommended Services

  • Mailchimp – extremely user friendly with great support and resources; a list of up to 2,000 names is free and accounts are then charged on a sliding scale; excellent reporting and integrations
  • Campaign Monitor – great design interface; priced on a sliding scale so very affordable for small lists
  • Vertical Response – offers free basic account of up to 10,000 names for non profits; good for once off campaigns

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  1. Michael

    I’ve been looking for new ideas for my Newsletter, and this post helped me alot! Thank you for the list, I feel more than inspired! I would definitely recommend you to add newsletter inspiration gallery!

  2. Denise

    I have noticed that most of newsletter services now have special offers for non-profits, so before you buy a service search a website or contact the provider to ask if they have some special offer for you (MailChimp definately had it). For small charities you can also use Mailerlite, you might even fit in their “forever free” plan (1000 subscribers, unlimited emails) and creating newsletters with drag-and-drop editor is super easy to use. Here is my recommendation for non-profits inspiration:

  3. Peter FitzGerald

    In the interest of transparency and privacy, users of mailshot software should be encouraged to give the user an explicit warning, such as given by Code for Ireland:

    “Note: Code for Ireland uses MailChimp for its mailshots. MailChimp gives its account holders – in this case Code for Ireland – the ability to see, for each e-mail address, whether, when and how often that mailshot recipient viewed a given mailshot message, and what links the recipient clicked on in the message. Code for Ireland doesn’t want information at this level of detail, but nonetheless MailChimp provides it.”


    The sites should also have a Privacy Statement (ahem).



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