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.

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Scott Paley

President at Abstract Edge
Scott and his company helps nonprofits, educators, and mission-driven companies grow, engage, and motivate their audiences. And look great while doing it. Scott, a life-long Mets fan and New Yorker, now lives the American dream in Baltimore with his wife, 2 kids, dog and cat.
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  • Austin Reason

    Great ideas! Any thoughts on a lead magnet for a food pantry?

    • Tell me more. Who do you want to attract onto your email list? Why would they want to join your list?

      • Austin Reason

        I’m hoping to use our e-newsletter to attract prospective partners. Members of the community who have bought in/are buying in to our mission of feeding the hungry in our county.

        I hope to keep them up to date on our progress, invite them to volunteer, announce upcoming events, and connect for financial support.

        • It’s great to use an e-newsletter to keep those who are already in the fold up to date on your progress, as you’ve stated. But I’m not sure an e-newsletter is a compelling reason for new people to come aboard. Nobody wakes up in the morning thinking, “I need to sign up for more email newsletters!” 🙂

          Think about *why* people get involved in the first place. What are the key motivating factors? Try to be as specific as possible. Then, once you’ve identified those, your lead magnets should serve as answers or catalysts to those motivations. What is something that your prospective partners would want, even before they really know *you*, that is quick to consume and solves a specific need or problem?

  • Mari Draughon Davies

    I’d love to see some ideas for arts / dance orgs! Social justice and services are very different from the arts so an example or 2 would be really appreciated.

    • How about a short eBook with photos and one-page stories of “The 5 Greatest Ballet Dancers in History”? Or the greatest dance halls? Or a short video series showing advanced techniques (if you’re trying to attract dancers?)

      • I know this is my blog but I just have to weigh in and say Scott, that is a fantastic idea! Mari, I hope you take him up on it. Then we’ll interview you for a follow up blog post on how successful it was !!!!

  • Phillydog

    Very timely! I literally just did this for my small nonprofit (we are adding a popup offering a free guide in exchange for an email address). I’ll let you know how we make out.

    • Excellent! Curious – what is the subject matter of the guide?

      • Phillydog

        We connect at risk youth with shelter animals through volunteering and paid internships. The popup will be added this week and it will send people our “Five Ways You Can Help Shelter Animals Without Leaving Your House” guide in exchange for signing up for our email list.

  • Kerry Donovan

    What a fantastic idea! We’re a therapeutic horseback riding center for special needs and at-risk populations (of all ages). We provide both riding and non-riding activities. There are a number of target audiences for us… potential clients (individuals and schools/agencies), volunteers and donors among them. Thoughts on potential lead magnets? Our site offers loads of information about how horses can help…. would it be too “obvious” to create a lead magnet with similar information or should we consider something more unique?

    • The best lead magnets offer a small chunk of value that solves a *specific* problem for a “specific” audience. It should be easy and fast to consume (a 50-page eBook is too big a commitment). It’s fine to offer similar info, but packaged differently. So maybe if you have a “how-to” sort of blog post (or something like that) you can make a downloadable checklist out of that, prepared in a graphically pleasing way. But really think about the motivations of each audience at different points of the ladder of engagement and what questions they have at each point… the lead magnets should be created to address those questions, concerns, motivations, or pain points.

  • Tom Power

    Can you suggest a lead magnet for our small UK based NFP which builds small schools in rural areas in Africa? We are not getting many requests from our current offering, which simply asks people to sign up for our newsletter. Building schools is necessary in order to improve these children’s future, but it does not have thee appear of a disaster or a sick animal. any suggestion will be most welcome. Thank you

    • Well, let’s start with why you want newsletter subscribers. Is it to build a donor base? Volunteers? Why (in theory) would somebody want to join your newsletter? What do you want those people to do, ultimately?

      If it’s to get more donors, the next question to ask is why people donate already? What motivates people to donate? Get really specific.

      Your goal isn’t really to convince people to donate. Rather, it’s to organize the energy and attention of people who naturally might choose to donate. Done correctly, the donations will follow. The lead magnet is a way to start the conversation.

      • Tom Power

        Thanks Scott. Good incisive questions!
        Our current donor base is small (circa 250) and those on it are mainly friends, acquaintances and members of the local church congregation. We have asked them why they donate and the usual answer is because they know me.
        I would like to attract other people to support the work we do, which is educating children in deprived rural areas in East Africa and South Sudan. These are places where Government funds do not reach and which mean that children either move to be near a school (not practical), or board out (not economically feasible) or remain illiterate (not acceptable).

        I would hope that over time, current and new donors would encourage their family and friends to support our aim to develop access to basic education for these deprived children. Ultimately we would hope to develop their interest and encourage them to volunteer.
        Firstly I have to find out who they are. getting them to sign up for a newsletter means they are a “warm” contact and more receptive to information about the charity and what we do.
        Can you imagine being the parent of a child and not have a school within 20 miles and no transport to get your child there. You would strive to organise some form of education locally for your child and perhaps other children. Would you not be delighted to find out about us and what we do, in the hope we could do it for you?
        If you can suggest how we might attract those elusive potential donors, I would be very grateful.

  • Jami Polk

    Hello, Do you have any suggestions for at-risk youth, women or homeless causes.

  • emily

    Hello Scott! Thank you for the article! Do you have any suggestions for a nonprofit that donates water sports equipment to underprivileged kids in developing countries?

    • Well it all depends on whom you’re trying to attract? Is it donors? Service recipients?

      If donors, think about why they donate. What motivates them? What can you provide for them that they would care about? Remember to make it about them, not you. Look at this from their POV.

      Any ideas come to mind from that?