Charity Navigator: Improve your email engagement metrics: 3 tips for nonprofits

When the average donor retention rate sits around 45 percent, every email your nonprofit sends can make the difference between an engaged donor and one who churns or lapses. In this guide, we’ll explore three email marketing strategies to increase your donor engagement and long-term donations:

  1. Target the right people.
  2. Write like a trusted friend.
  3. Make a pitch for matching gifts.

As you take these steps to improve your email marketing, don’t simply assume the changes you make will work perfectly. To evaluate the health of your email engagements, measure your engagement metrics against those of previous email campaigns by tracking: 

  • Percent of upgraded donors.
  • Days before first gift.
  • Email conversion rate.
  • Email open rate.
  • Matching gift rate.

Of course, before you click that “send” button, it’s necessary to do some initial research. For our first tip, we’ll look at your existing donor data and how to target the right people for your email campaign. 

1. Target the right people

A scattershot approach to email marketing rarely works, and if it does engage some donors, it can alienate many more. Instead, leverage your donor database to ensure emails are going to the donors most likely to be receptive to your messaging. According to Feathr’s guide to nonprofit marketing, plan to group donors into segments based on their:

  • Demographics 
  • Location
  • Education
  • Income
  • Event attendance
  • Donation history
  • Communication preferences

Ultimately, low engagement can result from making an ask to the wrong person in the wrong way at the wrong time. Not everyone wants to receive the same emails at the same rate. Some want only one email reminding them of their annual donation. Others crave every program update you can offer. So, use your segments wisely and focus on reaching the right people with messaging that aligns with their preferences.

2. Write like a trusted friend

Donors don’t want to feel like nonprofits only email them for their money. When you treat donors like friends, they’re more likely to open emails and respond positively. In your digital marketing strategy, address donors as trusted peers by: 

  • Using a clear, informative subject line. 
  • Sending from a well-known and well-liked individual at your organization.
  • Including relevant, high-quality pictures and design.
  • Varying content between opportunities, calls to action, and impactful stories.

Most importantly, listen to your donors’ communication preferences! If a donor unsubscribes from a newsletter list, respect that decision. Similarly, if they sign up to receive notifications about a recurring event, make sure they receive those emails.

3. Make a pitch for matching gifts

Who doesn’t love a sale? In a way, that’s what matching gifts are. With matching gifts, businesses will double (or sometimes triple) donations their employees make to eligible nonprofits. Additionally, according to matching gift statistics from Double the Donation, sharing information with donors about matching gift opportunities has increased nonprofit email open rates by 2.6 times.

Use your email campaign to advertise to donors how easy it is to request matching gifts from their employers. As a result, you have more email opens and increase the rate and amount of donations your nonprofit takes in.


Continue measuring and collecting donor data and engagement metrics as you run more email marketing campaigns. You’ll quickly accumulate a large body of information to keep track of and organize. While this may feel overwhelming at first, it pays off quickly! You can (and should) leverage this data to set engagement goals for your email campaigns and adapt to changes in conditions and audiences. 

Data, however, can’t tell you everything. Plan to supplement your engagement metrics with qualitative feedback from your donors and take their suggestions seriously. For example, donors may want to receive more frequent updates on specific programs or one-time volunteer opportunities. When you ask for and respond to feedback, you show your donors that you’re listening and value their continued support, and you can continue to enhance the quality of your email outreach and their impact on donations.

Written by Aidan Augustin, co-founder and president of Feathr, an industry-leading software company making digital marketing more accessible to nonprofits and event organizers. Feathr has helped over 800 nonprofits and thousands of events know, grow, and engage their audiences. When he’s not steering the ship at Feathr, he’s playing strategy games, singing karaoke, or reading books about people who changed the world.