An Easy Way to Build Your Email List

nonprofit list building

What could you do with a bigger email list?

More donations? Volunteers? Capacity? Impact? Probably all of the above.

After all, according to a recent M&R Benchmarks report:

  • In 2015, on average, nonprofits received $44 in donations for every 1,000 fundraising emails sent.
  • Nonprofit email revenue grew by 25%, faster than the overall rate of online revenue growth
  • Among the nonprofits with the largest year-over-year growth in total dollars raised online, 34% of all online revenue can be tracked directly to email campaigns.

So it’s clear that nonprofit list building is very important. It drives donations, scales communications, and provides real-time feedback about what constituents truly care about.

So how do you get more people onto your list?

Today I’m going to show you how some of the top nonprofits are doing it, the big mistake they’re making, and how you can do it better.


Nearly every nonprofit builds its email list in one of the following two ways. Only a handful go beyond these.

The Join Box

This is by far the most prevalent approach. The nonprofit directly asks site visitors to “join our newsletter” (or some such variation.) Sometimes the box only shows up in the website’s footer.

Here are a few examples from some absolutely gorgeously designed websites:



Conservation International


National Resource Defense Council



The Signup Nav

Similar to the Join Box, the Signup Nav is, quite simply, a navigation item that asks people to subscribe. While many sites do this, in some instances this is the only place where site visitors are asked to do so.


The Memphis Zoo


Paws Chicago


Nashville Zoo




The problem is that “Join us” or “Get our newsletter” is not about “them.” And it doesn’t consider the “why.”

Nonprofit list building is important so you can communicate, educate, and solicit… but why do your subscribers want to be there? Certainly it’s not motivating to become a human ATM machine.

When you ask people to sign up for your emails, they subconsciously think to themselves, “What’s in it for me?”

Why do people join any email list? Because they personally identify with what you are all about. What you stand for. You are enabling something for them. They believe they will learn something useful or be entertained. Your cause resonates. 

Perhaps it’s a chance to leave a legacy. Or a moral sense of wanting to promote fairness, justice, or righteousness. Or simply an opportunity to feel like a good person. Maybe the person has a personal connection to somebody who has been wronged.

Simply asking somebody to “join us” is a weak call-to-action. To a new visitor, what does that mean exactly? How does that help anyone?

What’s in it for me?


You can see it in the numbers. Here’s a simple (but important) math problem. Go look up the number of new subscribers you got last month and divide that by the total number of website visitors that same month.

(# of new subscribers) / (# of site visitors) = your conversion rate

If you’re like most nonprofits, you’re lucky if your conversion rate is greater than 1%. Most are closer to 0.5% or even lower.

There are techniques (like those annoying pop-up windows everyone says they dislike) that can increase conversion rates to the 1 – 3% range (sometimes higher… we’ve seen it range up to 5 – 8%, though that’s atypical.) That’s a major improvement and something nonprofits should consider. Right now, very few nonprofits use these.

But there’s an approach to nonprofit list building that works even better than that.


Think for a moment about the people who traditionally support your organization. What do they care about? What motivates them? What information would they find valuable? What can you provide that they can’t get elsewhere? What actions are easy for a new visitor to get behind?

If you offer these things in exchange for a name and email address, you’ll see your list growth go into hyperdrive. This technique — offering something of value in exchange for an email address — is what digital marketers refer to as “lead magnets” (or sometimes “content upgrades.”)

How well do good lead magnets convert? We’ve seen lead magnets push conversion rates higher than 10%, sometimes significantly so. Why? It’s human nature to want instant gratification.

Good lead magnets are short, specific, desirable/valuable, and provide “aha!” moments.

So offer site visitors something that would be valuable to them that they can download right now, as long as they subscribe to your list.


Are there any nonprofits using lead magnets today? Or is this just something for companies trying to make a buck?

Indeed, it’s not nearly as widespread in the nonprofit world — at least not yet. But that just means there’s a bigger opportunity to do this before everyone is doing it.

Here are three nonprofits that are using a form of lead magnet to generate larger subscription lists.

The Case Foundation

On their homepage, they ask visitors, “Are you ready to be Fearless?” with a button to “Download the NEW Action Guide.” While this could be clearer to a new visitor (what exactly is this ‘action guide’? It turns out it’s a leadership guide) it’s clearly a lead magnet. You can only access it by entering an email address and, optionally, some additional information.


World Wild Life

Prior to Mother’s Day, WWF asked site visitors to send an animal-themed e-card to their moms. In order to send the card, you had to enter information like your name and email address. A great and timely nonprofit lead magnet.


Walk Free

This organization, which works to end modern slavery, knows that its audience craves action. They provide simple opportunities for online actions, including petitions and online letter campaigns. Slacktivism? Hardly. Through the pressure brought to bear by their large online community, at least 11 governments and 8 businesses have agreed to implement a change asked for in one of their campaigns.

But more to the point of this post, they have attracted more than 2 million email subscribers by offering these easy online actions.

(Disclosure – Walk Free was a client of ours.)




Here are some more ideas for nonprofit list building with lead magnets that could work:

  • Trade association – A report on “Expensive Regulation Mistakes”
  • Criminal justice – Postcard to an exoneree
  • Gun control – Tapestry of Woven Words (something we built long ago for the Million Mom March)
  • Community organization – A guide called “4 Simple Ways You Can Give Back to the Community”
  • Environment – A “Home Energy Savings” checklist or a photo-book of gorgeous photos of places threatened by climate change (tied to a blog post about places to visit before they’re gone)
  • Animal shelter – A guide called “How to prepare your home for a new dog/cat” or “sign up to get an email whenever we have a new dog/cat to adopt”


Has your nonprofit taken advantage of lead magnets to help grow your email list? What kinds of examples have you seen work well?

Let’s share a list of ideas in the comments below so that we can all benefit together.