Sunday, May 2, 2010

Email newsletters, action alerts, fundraising or emails can be very cost effective way to communicate with their supporters, but can be complex to send and track thousands of emails. We spoke with eleven experts nonprofit technology to know what eNewsletter tools have worked well for them. 

So you are looking for a way email to hundreds or thousands (or hundreds) of thousands of people at once. Have you thought through your strategy of useful information, or writing to a list of people eager to get it, right? "And you've identified your needs. Maybe you want to send out newsletters luxury format, or maybe just a simple text action alerts. Perhaps you are waiting for a tool that can send emails to very large or relatively small group, one that can be integrated with the offline database, customize the content for large donors, send emails to the segments As your list, or track e-mail is opened. 

Regardless of your needs, you want a tool that is reliable, affordable and easy to use. We asked 13 professionals in the nonprofit technology tools that have worked well for them, and combined their thoughts with the collective wisdom of listservs and forums to reach a robust set of tools that might work for you.

Tools You Already Have

You can probably send broadcast emails with the software you already own. While these options do not provide sophisticated reports or carry a message to hundreds of emails, could be a practical option for a very small list. 

Outlook (or other email applications): Outlook and other standard email applications undoubtedly the work of sending emails a couple of dozen. However, this method has some drawbacks. First, put a lot of email addresses in the Bcc field (the standard procedure of e-mail to a large group, anonymous) can cause email to be marked as spam. Secondly, it is difficult to create a complex format, such as electronic news design, to be displayed in browsers as intended readers. And thirdly, you have to manually manage your list. There are a lot of effort involved in adding new subscribers, deleting those who ask to be removed and returned e-mail follow, remember that you are legally responsible for the disposal of those who request it. If you send more than a dozen emails slowly, or send a list on a regular basis, most of our employees are advised to look beyond the standard electronic mail tools. 
Mailman (or other tools mailing list provided by your web host): If your site is hosted on a commercial shared hosting, there's a good chance that your package includes accommodation and their verification Mailman web site control panel. This email list tool allows you to send a text message or graphic to a large distribution list, send the message to a specific email address. However, dt Mailman is not the easiest tool to use, and lacks some features common to other tools. For example, you can not export your subscriber list, or access to the reports of how many readers opened an email or click on a link. If you send more than a hundred e-mails at once, again, look beyond these options.

While the use of existing e-mail application Mailman office or can work for you under some circumstances, there are some significant disadvantages. Because we send email from your own domain and mail server, you need to worry that their emails will be caught by spam filters and never to their subscribers. Tools designed to send millions of emails (like those listed below) to work closely with service providers (ISPs) like AOL and Yahoo to ensure email delivery. It is not easy to do this as a single organization. If you send a lot of emails, some people tend to complain of e-mails are spam, regardless of how careful you are. In fact, having a large number of email addresses in BCC field can trigger a fraud alert to the ISP. If this happens, all email could be labeled as spam, or the domain could be blacklisted. If this occurs, major ISPs refuse to deliver any email from you, including e-mail every day of your organization. If only sending a hundred emails twice a month, you probably should not worry, but in larger volumes, it is well worth looking into other options. 

And one last question: if your email is received through a shared server Web hosting can put a limit on the number of messages you can send per hour or per day. This could be as low as 50 or 100 per hour, and could simply stop sending emails after this time. If you are going to be sending to groups of 50 or more, contact your hosting provider to make sure it will happen. 

These methods sound problems? They are. If you are serious about sending bulk emails to more than a few dozen people, there are better options.

Inexpensive and Straightforward

There are three online tools these three offer both free and straightforward emailing: Google GroupsYahoo Groups, andTopica’s free service. These three tools are very similar in that they let you send plain text emails to an unlimited number of addresses. Most typically used for discussion lists to allow a group of people to email each other, there’s no reason you can’t use them to send text-only emails to a group.

People can subscribe or unsubscribe by sending an email to a particular address. All three tools show substantial advertisements at the top of the email messages you send, and none allow you to track how many opened an email or clicked on a link. The emails are sent off the providers’ servers, so they handle some of the issues around deliverability and spam complaints.

If you’re looking for similar functionality without the ads, consider Electric Embers by NPOGroups. This nonprofit-friendly service provides affordable pricing on a sliding scale, starting at $10/month for 2,500 subscribers, and $5 per additional 5,000, and a bit more control over your list. However, it doesn’t easily support formatting beyond text-only emails.

Online Mass Emailing Tools

One of the most common ways to send bulk emails is to use an online service set up for precisely such a function. Hosted email tools typically allow you to manage your list, create emails and view reports through a Web-based interface. Most will allow you to send formatted emails; some provide tools to let you easily format them. You can generally integrate them into your Web site so you can take subscriptions online, and the tools will automatically manage unsubscribe requests and delete email addresses that are no longer valid. Reports allow you to see useful details such as how many recipients opened a particular email, how many clicked on a link, and how many forwarded a message.

Nonprofit Specific Deals

There’s little difference between the typical needs of a nonprofit and those of a business when it comes to sending emails. However, three robust services provide special discountsfor nonprofits, making them a very attractive choice —if they’ll meet your needs.
VerticalResponse is a reliable, sophisticated and popular online service that allows 501(c)(3) nonprofits to send up to 10,000 emails per month for free. It’s strong in deliverability—ensuring your emails go into your subscribers’ inboxes rather than their Spam filters—segmentation and Web integration, and has a number of options that make it easier to integrate with constituent databases (especially Salesforce). However, the interface can be complex at times, and the built in graphic-designed templates aren’t as polished as some other tools. After the 10,000 free emails, it gets a bit expensive.  If you’re sending more than 15,000 emails a month or so, compare prices to other options. VerticalResponse has been offering their free nonprofit program for about two years now, and appears quite committed to it.

EmailNow by Network for Good, powered by Emma

EmailNow is a very attractive choice if you send more than 15,000 emails per month. As of last year, they scrapped their old platform, and instead cut a deal with another service, Emma, to provide a reliable and sophisticated service at nonprofit rates. Emma is tailored to those who want to send good looking, formatted emails without knowledge of HTML coding, and provides great standard templates—or, they’ll design a custom one for you for $199. EmailNow’s feature set generally matches Vertical Response’s, with strong Web integration and segmentation. Network for Good also provides strong, nonprofit-friendly support. It's $29.95 per month for up to 20,000 emails, with a $49 setup fee.  But it's only $2 for every 1,000 emails after your first 20,000 -- making it a great deal for those with big lists.  The service is available to 501c3s, c4s, and c6s only.

MailChimp offers a wide range of features at competitive rates, and offers a significant discount for nonprofits. Their services are completely free if you store less than 500 subscribers and send less than 3000 emails per month.  It's then $25 per month for nonprofits to store up to 2500 subscribers; they offer a number of tiers up through about $200 (with the nonprofit discount) to store up to 50,000 subscribers. Alternatively, you can simply pay by the email, at about $0.02 - $0.03 per email depending on volume. The interface is easy to use, support is responsive and they provide a friendly Web interface to modify a default HTML template, which has been tested with a large number of email clients. The service also offers an "Email Inspector" which lets you see how your email will look in more than 50 different email clients, and an API which you can use to send emails through MailChimp from other programs (for instance, Drupal offers a MailChimp module).

Other Online Options

Dozens, if not hundreds, of bulk emailing services cater to both businesses and nonprofits. If you’re not a tax-exempt nonprofit, or you have quite specific needs, here are some more services that our contributors recommended.
A commonly used tool in both the business and nonprofit worlds, ConstantContact provides solid templates, segmenting and reporting features. The pricing scheme is friendly to small lists, at $15 per month for under 500 subscribers, $30 per month for under 2,500, and so on, to $150 per month for up to 25,000 subscribers. However, several people mentioned trouble with Spam filters when using ConstantContact. Constant Contact recently improved their developer tools (, which means that it's now possible to manage your list and send emails through other programs (for instance, Drupal offers a ConstantContact module).


CampaignMonitor is directed at those who have access to someone familiar with HTML for emails, and want to create their own template.  They don't provide any template options that can be easily used without HTML skills, but offers good custom fields and reporting functionality as well as solid deliverability. At $5 per email campaign, plus $0.01 per email, the service is very affordable for small lists, but probably overpriced for large ones.


In addition to its well-known free service, Topica offers a solid paid option. The tool offers sophisticated Web site integration, lots of custom fields and powerful list-segmentation tools, as well as the standard newsletter template and report functions. It’s $50 per month for up to 5,000 subscribers (ask about an additional nonprofit discount), but goes up quickly from there—the next level is $250 per month for up to 25,000 subscribers.


WhatCounts offers premium broadcast emailing. It's worth considering if you have a large list and are serious about investing in your email communications—it starts at $600 per month for up to 50,000 emails. Emails are sent from an IP address dedicated to your organization, which eliminates the problems of being blacklisted for other people’s emails, and WhatCounts offers several different Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs, to allow you to integrate your email list with other constituent databases.
Oempro is probably one of the most advanced softwares for mail marketing there is. If you are a system administrator or if you own servers and understand how to manage them this is probably the best way to go.
At the premium end of the market, you will find that systems include eMarketing suites, other modules like events and surveys, pre-built integrations with leading CRM and Association Management and donor systems, and intensive consulting support.  A couple options in this category include MagnetMail and BlueHornet.

For the Technically Inclined

 If your staff includes someone with skill in PHP, it’s worth considering PHPList.  PHPList is a free open source email application with solid subscriber management and HTML email creation tools, although it’s light on reports.  It is generally similar to the basic hosted tools listed above, but needs to be installed onto your web server. It can be installed onto most shared hosts without problem.

If you’re already running Drupal (a common open source content management system), or CivicSpace (a specific package of Drupal with various Drupal plug-ins), don’t overlook the possibility of using these tools to manage your email newsletters. Both include CiviMail, a module that handles basic bulk emailing functionalities.

Remember, however, that all of these tools send emails through your own email server, so the caveats about sending eNewsletters through Outlook or Mailman apply here as well.You’ll need to consider whether you’ll be able to manage your relationships with ISPs in order to keep your emails out of subscribers’ Spam filters and to keep yourself from being blacklisted.

For More Integrated Internet Strategies

If you interact with your constituents primarily by email, the tools listed above can work well. But if you are also tracking their actions, donations or what they look at on your Web site, you’ll need to think through how you track and integrate all this data. Using a more integrated solution allows you to track not only who clicked on the donate link in the email, but what percentage of those people actually followed through and made a donation.  At a minimum, look for email software that allows you to import and export data in useful formats.
You may want to consider software that can manage all of your constituent data and activities rather than using a separate broadcast tool. A number of online integrated tools handle a broad swath of Internet features. Democracy in Action's Salsa has a particular focus on and strong support for email campaigns, and it starts at $100/month for up to 3,000 subscribers.Wild ApricoteTapestryDonor Perfect, Z2 by NeonMemberClicksConvio, and Blackbaud Sphere (formerly Kintera) are integrated tools that might also be of interest.

How to Decide

With all these options to choose from, how should you decide? As always, think through your own situation. While almost all of these options provide a solid base set of features, there are a couple of particularly important considerations to keep in mind as you weigh your choices.
  • How many and how often? How many emails will you be sending? To how many people? Pricing varies dramatically depending on the size of your list, and how often you'll send to it.
  • Will you be able to integrate the email addresses?Don't underestimate the value of synching up your list of supporters across different tools.  Being able to look at all your constituents' information in one place is very  valuable.  If possible, pick a broadcast email tool that works with the database you already have, or that offers strong data integration options (like an API).  If you don't already have a strong constituent tracking solution, an integrated solution that handles emailing as well as donor tracking, online payment processing and other tasks can be a great investment.
  • How fancy will your emails be?Will you send simple text emails, or highly formatted eNewsletters or appeals? If the latter, do you need a tool that provides high quality packaged templates, or will you want to use your own custom template? The tools vary considerable in their support for these kinds of needs.
    If you're planning substantial email campaigns that require A/B testing, conditional responses and automatic sequencing of emails, different internal approvals or highly detailed segmentation, put these features at the top of your list.

There are a lot of terrific options in the market for broadcast emailing, and now more than ever, there are solutions within the reach of any nonprofit. Whether you're looking to send just a few dozen update emails, or fancy eNewsletters to millions of supporters, you can find a package that's both effective and affordable.

For More Information

The Role of Email in Your Communications Mix
Does social media replace email?  Does email replace direct mail? Heather Gardner-Madras talks through how email fits into the communications strategies you're already using.
The Basics of Email Metrics: Are Your Campaigns Working?
How can you tell if your emails are actually having the impact you hoped for? Email metrics can help you determine the effectiveness of your communications and fine tune them to improve their efficiency.

Comparing Lower-Cost Online Integrated Application
Online integrated applications allow nonprofits to manage email as well as constituent information and online payments all together in one package. Eric Leland took a close look at eight packages to compare their functionality in a variety of areas.

Idealware Online Seminar Recording: Choosing eNewsletter Software

We’ll walk through the features you might want to help design, setup, send, and track emails to hundreds or thousands of people, demo several packages, and compare the reliable and affordable tools often used. The recording is $20 per person. Or check out our seminar schedule for a live seminar!

 Many thanks to the nonprofit technology professionals who offered recommendations, advice, and otherwise helped with this article:
This article was edited by Idealware; any errors or omissions are Idealware’s sole responsibility.
 Copyright Idealware. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License
Friday, April 30, 2010

For some things, it doesn’t matter what your goals are: if you’re going to send mass email, you’re going to need some basic things.
Make sure you know who in your organization will:
  • Manage your lists / be the database wrangler
  • Create or gather content – the text and images for your email
  • Design your email templates and graphics
  • Enter content, set it up and test the actual email
  • Read the test messages, proofread, edit and approve
  • Collect and analyze reports and metrics.
Make sure the tools you look at offer:
  • List Management Utilities. Make sure you have ways to add, remove and change email addresses by hand and a simple means to export your list regularly for back ups and use in other systems.
  • Automatic Unsubscribe. Make sure your constituents can unsubscribe themselves (for instance, by clicking on a link in their email) without going through you. You’re required by law to remove those who request it – don’t run the risk that one of your staff members overlooks an unsubscribe request
  • Solid Deliverability. Whether or not your emails are considered as spam depends on a lot of things, but the history and actions of your emailing vendor are a major factor. For more on what impacts deliverability, see Idealware’s A Few Good eNewsletter Tools article.
  • HTML and Text Versions. If you plan to send HTML emails (to allow text formatting or images) you will also need a way to send the text version for those people whose programs can’t read the HTML. Check to make sure your tool sends Multipart MIME type emails.
  • Test Emails. It should be easy to send test emails to your own test email accounts, to check formatting, links, and whether it hits the spam filter.
  • Documentation and Support. Regardless of other features selected, you’ll need a solid understanding of how to use them. Consider carefully what level and manner of documentation, training and support are offered by each vendor.
As you look at additional features, keep in mind that you don’t have to go with a high price package to take advantage of best practices. You might be able to use a less expensive system if you shop around for a tool that has only the features you will really use.

Apart from having a message to send, a reputable mail server to send it from, and a list of people to send it to, none of the above constitutes a “must have” for successful communications. The balance your particular organization strikes between tools and features, brainpower and the people to make use of them will depend on your mission and the part mass emails play in carrying it out.
And no set of features will make a successful email strategy. Having the staff time and training to create great content, build the right email list, and utilize reports wisely is more important than having a highly sophisticated tool set. The level of time and energy you invest in your email strategy is likely to be directly reflected in the success of your emails.
But considering what types of emails you are most likely to send can be a real help in determining priorities and the features that have real value to you. With some careful choices, you can find a tool that’s great for the things that matter: managing time and resources more wisely, improving the perception of your organization and deepening your relationship with your constituents, all without breaking your budget.

Are regularly scheduled updates – for instance, eNewsletters or emails promoting events, articles, or information – a key part of your email strategy? If so, you’ll want to consider features that provide more support for an ongoing process and potentially more effective emails.

List Management Features

  • Subscriptions Management. A feature that allows readers to sign themselves up on your website – as described above - becomes even more valuable if you are providing periodic updates. A comprehensive profile and preferences management area on your website, where subscribers can update their own information, creates a real efficiency in service management.
  • Anti-Spam Measures. Periodic updates often involve a high volume of email over time, which can make it more likely that your email will be flagged as spam. Find out how each vendor handles spam complaints, and whether they have special anti-spam certification options or relationships with major ISPs. Taking extra steps, like Double-Opt in (asking subscribers to confirm their subscription via email) can also reduce deliverablity problems. Even if you don’t need these features right now, choosing a vendor that offers them may be important in the future as your list size and general spam concerns continue to grow.
  • Managing Multiple Groups/Lists. If you have several program areas or distinct audiences you might wish to offer specific updates to each group or list individually. Some email tools allow your subscribers to chose from multiple newsletters or categories when signing up and let you to manage several groups from the same administrative interface

Administration Features

  • Asset Archives and Management. A system that allows you to easily store and reuse email templates, content and images can be a major timesaver. Having to import your logo and start from scratch each issue may not be a deal breaker, but it can build up to a substantial amount of time with frequent emails.

Message Building Features

  • Template System. Templates, as described above, are critical for eNewsletters and update emails. They not only help to maintain a consistent brand and streamline the creation process, but a clear cut structure (such as sections for “In the News” or “Volunteer Highlight”) makes it easier to develop content for each issue. You might want to invest in professional assistance to create your template initially to reduce the ongoing workload of generating each issue.
  • Web Version. It is difficult to ensure that complex emails show up properly for everyone, so it is highly recommended to offer email readers a web alternative. You can manually link your emails to a version you have posted on your website, or some vendors offer tools to automatically create and link to the web-version.
  • Forward to a Friend. “Forward to a Friend” features can encourage subscribers to pass your information on. This functionality allows readers to email or refer their colleagues to a clean version of the newsletter. Simply forwarding the email through a browser typically results in some mangling of the format and links.
  • Merging Personalized Data. Features that can automatically show personalized information such as the recipient’s name or their history with your organization help your newsletter feel more personal and less like junk mail.

Testing Features

  • Spam Filter. The ability to test individual messages against the rules for standard Spam filters allows you to craft your emails so that more of them end up in your constituent’s inbox. As spam filters increase in complexity, this feature will become more and more important.

Reporting Features

  • Click-Through Tracking (CTT). Because each newsletter typically contains many links, information about which links get the most clicks provides a valuable guide for future email content and design as well as general communications.

If your primary use for mass emails is to reach your whole list with communications such as letters from the Executive Director, press releases and simple event announcements, you likely won’t need a lot of complex features. But any email campaign can benefit from a few standard features that support your workflow, professional image and provide information about reader response.

List Management Features

  • Basic List Management. Don’t underestimate the task of adding new constituents to your email list and keeping everything up-to-date. Be sure to check out how easy it is to import a list, merge it with your existing list, and eliminate duplicate email addresses. Look at tools that allow you to store and manage the lists online, so you don’t have to import a list for each mailing. Many systems also offer automatic bounce handling, so as to remove bad email addresses after a certain number of bounces, for instance.
  • Website Integration. The ability to integrate opt-in signup and unsubscribe forms from your website to your email database can be very helpful – these forms grow your list organically, save you a great deal of time and ensure that your list is made up of those that truly want to receive your communications.

Administration Features

  • Clone/Duplicate Emails. The ability to duplicate a number of emails from one you have already set up seems like a minor feature, but can be very useful for sending slightly different versions of an email to a number of different segments.
  • Campaign Based/Consecutive Send Workflow. Many effective email campaigns include follow-up emails based on the supporters previous responses (or lack of response), such as a “last chance to participate” email to those who have not yet taken action. If this is part of your strategy, look for tools that allow you to define email recipients based on their response to previous emails, or even systems that support setting up multiple conditional or sequential emails at one time.

Message Building Features

  • Design Customization. The ability to control the design of your email varies widely from tool to tool. Consider whether the email template, web forms, and even items such as your “from” address are able to convey what you want to say about your organization.
  • WYSIWYG Content Editor. If you plan to send HTML emails, a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor lets your staff easily add and format the email text through a Word style administration area. This allows you to send out nicely formatted emails without special technical knowledge.

Testing Features

  • Basic Testing Workflow. Before sending that carefully crafted message to your list, you’ll need to test it to be sure it’s legible and functional. Emails should be sent to several accounts within your organization and test accounts at webmail services like Gmail and AOL) for proofreading, formatting and link checking. Check to see if the tools you are considering provide a failsafe, such as requiring message approval before you can send to the full list.

Reporting Features

  • Basic Reporting. You’ll never know if your email strategy is working unless you can collect and view information about each blast. Your Email tool should provide, at a minimum, reports on how many emails were delivered and how many were opened. Ideally you will be able to track items like unsubscribe requests and list growth as well.