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Maximizing the Deliverability of your Nonprofit's Email

Email deliverability is a growing problem for nonprofits, and what you don’t know can hurt you. Are your emails making it to your members? If not, you could be losing out on supporters, donations, and online actions.


Over the years, the major email providers (e.g., Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc.) have changed the way they evaluate whether an email is spam or not. They measure how people interact with the email in various ways to decide whether the message is spam, and therefore whether to deliver to the rest of the recipients, or go to the spam folder (or never be delivered at all).


Even a tool like Spam Assassin can’t tell you ahead of time whether people will engage with your email or not (i.e. open/forward/reply etc.), so this can be close to impossible to predict. And once you hit a certain threshold of non-responders, the mail servers begin treating all email from you as “bulk” or “spam” mail, meaning none of your emails will go through.

Do I have a problem?

Your mass email program should break out statistics by ISP so you can see if there’s a sudden drop in deliverability. (By adding the (free) delivery status reporting package from Salsa, you can see this data.) But in general you can keep an eye on overall open and click rates, and react quickly if they suddenly take a nose dive.

If you have not done a list cleaning in awhile (or ever), and/or if you’ve ever had less than perfect opt-in email practices, it’s a good bet that you have a deliverability problem now with one or more ISPs.

You can set up groups by ISP in Salsa, and then look at email blast summary by subset group to see if there’s an issue with a specific ISP like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo etc. Check out lessons we learned by doing a major email list clean-up with one nonprofit client.  

So I have a problem. What can I do?

1. Start practicing good email hygiene. Make sure everybody added to your email list has affirmatively opted in to receive email from your organization. Better yet, set up a confirmed opt-in process (where people need to reply to an email first to be added) to weed out typo’d email addresses. Here’s how to set up double opt-in in Salsa or watch this video for more details: 

2. Make sure any email signup forms on your website have captcha or some sort of error checking, so that driveby spam bots can’t fill up your database with nonsense records (or worse yet, fake AOL records etc. that could hurt deliverability to your real AOL subscribers.) Here’s how to use spam catchers with Salsa signup forms.

3. Set up SPF records, so that your mass email software provider is able to authoritatively send email from your domain. Here's how to set up SPF records with Salsa.

4. Make sure the email address you send from (i.e. info@yourdomain.com) is a real working email address, and that you can handle complaints and unsubscribe requests that come in. If somebody asks to be taken off your list, immediately remove them.

5. Make sure you are handling bouncing emails appropriately: that your mass email software is automatically disabling hard and soft bouncing emails. You’d be surprised, but this isn’t always automatic. If you find out there’s a big chunk of bouncing email addresses on your list, disable them immediately and put into place the steps to make sure this is handled automatically going forward.

Salsa has a bounce limits package you can add, and you can contact support to have them add it to your Salsa account.

6. Consider a win-back campaign. With this approach, also called a nurture program, segregate records that have shown no response for 3 months, 6 months or a year. Send one last email to them to try to re-engage, something to the tune of, “We miss you. Do you still want to hear from us? Reply back if you’d like us to change your email address, or click here if you want to keep receiving emails," which requires them to take some action to show proof of life.

Disable all (6 month+ inactive) records after a week or so that show no signs of life. These dead records may be driving down deliverability to the live records on your list. You could try again on the more recently-inactive records, but at least get them out of your normal email stream until they start responding.

7. To get yourself out of “spam jail” with any one mass email provider, be sure to send only the best performing emails to that provider for a few weeks—and only to the best performing records (segregate out the people who rarely open your emails). Only send along emails that will have an above-average number of opens, clicks, and so on. Once you see average open rates to that provider creep up, you could start sending a wider mix of emails and to a wider audience on that network. Learn more about how to get out of "spam jail".

8. Keep track of people’s areas of interest and their geographic areas, and try not to send them emails in the future that they won’t be interested in, like events they can’t go to.

Also try to be sensitive to peoples’ ever-increasing amounts of email in their inboxes overall; try not to email more than once a week and hopefully less than that, unless you have breaking urgent news. You don’t want to wear out your welcome and drive people away from your organization. (Note: you also don’t want to go silent for too long and have them forget about you, so aim for at least one email a month to keep them engaged.)

9. Don’t add non opted-in email addresses to your list. Period.

It’s better to have a smaller list of engaged supporters than a large list that isn’t even receiving your messages – because they are going directly to the spam folder. Cutting your list can seem scary, but it will bring you more total engagement if done right.

Topics: Marketing