13 Ways Nonprofits Can Build an Email List

Craig Grella
May 24, 2021

Email marketing is one of the most reliable and cost-effective marketing methods a nonprofit can put in place to reach potential supporters, donors, and advocates. In this article, we’ve put together 13 methods you can use to grow your nonprofit email list from zero to hero. Best of all, 10 of the 13 methods cost absolutely nothing to perform and you can get started right away.

Email Marketing Software

A quick note about email marketing software before we get to the email list-building techniques. As you are building your email list, it helps to put all your contacts in one place and to keep them organized. It’s not a requirement that you spend money here. You can start off by keeping everything in one tab in Google Sheets or in an Excel spreadsheet.

Eventually, when you’re ready to communicate with your list, you want to move up to a more robust email marketing system that will track email campaigns, open and click-through rates, conversions, and other key marketing metrics. A system like Salsa Engage will also help you segment your lists and created automated outreach; both invaluable for online fundraising and offline engagement too.

Now, let’s get started with these 13 nonprofit email list-building techniques! And don’t forget to download our accompanying one-page worksheet and mark off each one as you complete it.

13 Ways Nonprofits Can Build an Email List Download Button

Build Your Email List by Mining For Existing Contacts

You likely have saved contacts lurking in several places on your computer and in other digital cracks and crevices. So before you go launching a massive marketing campaign, you’ll want to mine for existing contacts you just never took the time to aggregate.

Some people can go years without looking through these contact lists and therefore manage to amass thousands of contacts. Since these are people you’ve already contacted or who have contacted you, they’re much more likely to respond to your email marketing attempts. Make sure to grab as many of these as you can, pull them out of the individual programs where they are hiding, and add them to your overall email list.

Apple, Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo Contacts

There are 4 email programs responsible for more than 90% of the overall email landscape: Apple, Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo. You might not realize this, but every time you receive or send an email, your email client applications remember the email address and save it in an area dedicated to contact management. You benefit from this when you compose a new email and type just a few letters of the person’s name or email before the client automatically fills in the rest for you. This time-saving email program feature is actually hiding a wealth of contact information that may not have made its way to your CRM yet.

Navigate to the contact management area of your email client and you will find all those contacts neatly organized and ready for export to your email marketing tool. If the person has filled out their online profiles in their own email clients, Google Contacts will usually have that person’s name and company information saved for you. It also tracks those you contact frequently, people in your own company domain, and “Other Contacts” which are people you have interacted with but for whom you have not specifically saved any additional information, like phone number, addresses, or even their first and last names.

Select a few email addresses you want to add, and then export them into a CSV so you can place them on your overall new contact sheet or in your email marketing program.

Salsa Labs - 13 Nonprofit Email List Building Techniques - Google Contacts

Yahoo (Ymail), Apple Mail, and Outlook all have similar setups with slightly different names and procedures. For example, Outlook online calls its list the “Offline Global Address List” which has all the contact information for the people you’ve emailed or who have emailed you. There, you can create lists, add contacts to lists, and then export those entire lists through the Outlook contact export feature.

Virtual Events Attendees Lists

Do you use Zoom, Go To Webinar, or another online meeting platform? If so, you’ve probably got contacts hidden in those online applications. If you don’t take the time to move the name and email of every webinar participant to your email list separately, then there are definitely contacts hidden away that you can access.

Where the contacts live in online meeting spaces is not as obvious as your email client. They don’t usually have a “Contacts” section you can view. Instead, you’ll need to run registration reports from your previous webinars. With just a few clicks, Zoom lets you export information about all your meeting participants in any given month.

Salsa Labs - 13 Nonprofit Email List Building Techniques - Zoom Contacts

Once you’ve downloaded those online meeting contacts, place them on your new overall email list and make sure to add a tag denoting these people came from your meeting software. Attending an online meeting is a higher form of engagement than just visiting a website or opening an email from your organization, and that may come in handy later when segmenting your email list in your nonprofit email marketing automation software.

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Run a Re-engage Campaign

If you already have an email marketing platform in place, you’ve probably sent a few emails to your existing list. However big your list may be, there are likely a few people on that list who have not responded to any of your recent emails. These are what we call unengaged contacts, and you need to place them on an “inactive list.”

Email programs know which emails are engaged with most often. They know the senders you interact with and the ones you ignore. They’re designed to pop the good ones to the top and to filter out the noise and junk mail. Continually emailing inactive contacts who never open your messages lowers your sender score and increases the chances that email programs will send your emails to spam.

Having a list of 100,000 people doesn’t do you any good if 99,999 of them never engage. However, there are always a few contacts on that “inactive” list who are willing to re-engage if you just give them a good reason. So, one way we can re-grow our email list is to send re-engage emails that win back lost contacts and place them back on “active” status and reading your emails again.

To find inactive contacts, run a search in your nonprofit CRM or nonprofit email marketing program for any contact who has not opened any of your last 10 email messages, or who hasn’t opened any emails in the past six months; whichever represents the shorter time period. For example, those who only send one email a month would use the six-month lookback period, rather than the previous 10 emails.

Create a new list in your email program called “Inactives” and place those contacts on that list. You’ll then create a new email campaign just for those inactive members letting them know that you’ll be removing them from your list unless they absolutely want to stay active. There are many ways to do this, and different methods have different levels of effectiveness. Done well, this one simple technique can win back a few percent of your list.

You can learn more about re-engage campaign examples in Salsa’s Nonprofit Digital Planning webinar. Fast forward to the 46-minute mark.

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Online Email List Building

Once you’ve mined existing contacts and engaged your inactive list, it’s time to start some outward promotion to build your list. There are a few places you can go for quick wins and fast email list growth.

Website Signup Forms

Your website is the absolute best place to grab new contacts for your email list. Since people are already browsing your site you know they are engaged and interested in your organization. You should make it easy for these people to sign up for your list. If you use a nonprofit email marketing program like Salsa Engage, creating sign-up forms and embedding them on your website is easy. Then, anyone who signs up is automatically placed on your email list and inside your nonprofit CRM. They can even be segmented automatically for specific marketing purposes later.

If you’re not using an email marketing platform, try using a form solution like Google Forms so you can capture those leads in one place and easily export them later. If you’re using WordPress, form plugins like WS Forms, Gravity Forms, and WPForms have easy signup templates and integrations with popular email providers.

There are a few key places on your website known for converting viewers into subscribers. They include:

  • Header / Main menu area
  • Mid Page / Mid Content Calls to Action
  • Footer
  • Special Pages (like program pages, impact pages, etc)

If you have an active blog, remember to place a newsletter signup at the bottom of every post. Those who reach the end of your post are clearly interested and more likely to subscribe at that point.

Salsa recently hosted a two-part webinar on creating nonprofit websites where we spent a considerable amount of time discussing sign-up forms, fundraising form creation, and how to design effective nonprofit homepages. More here:

We also created a six-part blog series on nonprofit website creation, including integrating your website with email marketing programs.

Online Advocacy Campaign Petitions

Online petitions and surveys are great ways to grow your nonprofit email marketing list. Advocacy software like Salsa Engage can help you create online petitions and surveys that can be embedded into your existing website and will automatically place signers into your CRM and marketing automation software with appropriate tags.

13 Ways Nonprofits Can Build an Email List-OIC-petition

If your organization is advocating for a specific issue that is gaining traction online or interest in national media, a petition can be more widely shared, especially through social channels. Online petitions ask your audience to show support, agree, or take action on a specific issue. The idea is that they offer their name in support, but need to do nothing else. When enough names have been amassed, the organization sends the petition on to a local elected official as a way to show them how much support there is for making a change related to a specific issue.

Check out our article on using petitions to take advantage of current events issues.

Offer a Download

If you’ve got expertise in a specific area and can summarize that information into a one-pager that people would want to download you can offer it on your website in exchange for an email address. Use a signup form that collects the contact information, dumps it into your CRM, and then forwards to a download page or sends an automated email with the pdf.

Infographics work particularly well here. For example, a health-based nonprofit can roll up statistics related to their cause, put a design to it with graphics, and promote it online. Each year, M&R Benchmarks does this with their nonprofit industry infographic.

This blog post offers a quick one-page worksheet download. You can download it by clicking the extremely large email graphic below.

13 Ways Nonprofits Can Build an Email List Download Button

Offline Email List Building

There are a few tried and true strategies to help grow your nonprofit email list and to supplement your online efforts.

Good Old Pen and Paper

Recently, I walked into a pizza place and noticed a notebook on the counter. After ordering a slice of pizza, I inquired about the random notebook. The attendant told me it was their email signup list. Since they didn’t have a website, they take signups in the notebook and email out coupons.

I flipped through the book and it was almost entirely full. He then showed me a stack of other notebooks just like it in the closet. There must have been tens of thousands of names in their low-tech email list.

If your nonprofit has a brick-and-mortar establishment, put out a notebook and ask people to sign in and sign up.

Host an Event

Hosting an event is a great way to get additional signups for your organization. Roundtables with experts are a great way to draw in people who might not be familiar with you because your guests will share the event information with their friends, family, and colleagues. Pick a current event or local news story, invite experts to a panel, send out zoom links and share on social.

Check out our guide to virtual fundraising events for all you need to know to plan these exciting events and then download our 6-week communications roadmap to help you get the word out.

Find a Partner

If you can find a company that works in a similar field, but which has a much larger audience than you do, partner with them for quick gains. This can be co-hosting an event, webinar, meeting, or just asking to be mentioned in their newsletter.

In one of our popular blog posts, we discuss corporate sponsorships as a fundraising strategy. It can also be very effective as a way to increase the size of your email list and gives a few tips on how to find local corporate sponsorships.

Social Media

Technically, social media isn’t a dedicated form of list building but it should be used with nearly all the aforementioned techniques. Petitions, downloads, events, and of course web links can all be shared on your social networks.

Be careful not to just post and move on. Most social networks are configured to show your posts only to those who already follow you. If you want to increase your social following and the people who engage with your social media, you’ll need to prompt your fans to share your posts in their own feeds and with their networks that extend beyond your own.

Don’t forget to add call-to-action buttons if your social networks feature them. Facebook offers fundraising buttons for nonprofits and other calls-to-action like a signup or message buttons.

Salsa Labs - 13 Nonprofit Email List Building Techniques - Facebook CTA

Read more leveraging your social networks to grow your email list with our article titled, A Recipe for Increasing your Nonprofit’s Engagement on Social Media.

Pay Your Way to A Bigger Email List

After you’ve exhausted the free options listed earlier in this article, it’s time to pay your way to a bigger list. Here are a few methods to try that don’t break the bank.

Run a Contest

Contests are a great way to engage your audience and have a little fun while doing it. Apps like Rafflecopter or Gleam.io let you plan, organize, and run contests on your website or social networks. They collect email addresses and participant contact information which you can sync to your CRM or export for your email list building. They give you the ability to add virtual and physical prizes and allow for choosing winners at random.

Online Ads

Every social network offers some type of advertising for lead generation. Google offers click-to-call ads, display ads, video ads that run on YouTube.

Facebook has a similar offering and their lead ads are particularly effective for building your email list. Facebook Lead Ads integrate directly with Salsa Engage and you can download Sals’s Guide to Facebook Ads for Nonprofits to learn more about this popular list-building technique.

LinkedIn offers an ad platform that is particularly well suited for nonprofits who want to do wealth screening and find potential supporters or donors.

This can be a powerful list-building technique when combined with an earlier method - offer a download.

List Purchases

Data vendors sell contact information for various types of lists. Voters, consumers, attorneys, gun owners, people who buy baby products, etc. Nearly any type of demographic or consumer affinity group can be identified and purchased with a list of contact information.

Beware, this method can get very expensive and it offers a very low response rate because you’re contacting people cold - they don’t know you and probably don’t want to hear from you. This can raise your spam rates or even get you kicked off your email marketing software.

List purchases should be used sparingly and only to generate small lists of people within a very specific niche. For example, a nonprofit focused on climate change might purchase a list of people who subscribe to environmental activism magazines or websites. The email message sent to that list should be similarly specific and those who do not engage or respond should be discarded or put on inactive lists so they are not continuously contacted in the future.


We hope you’ve learned a few ways to build your email list and generate a few new supporters and maybe some additional fundraising opportunities too!

Remember to drop us a note on Facebook and let us know which method works best for you.


If you want to unlock more strategic fundraising tips, check out these additional resources:


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