Grow your email list without spending money

Many nonprofits understand the importance of growing their email list but simply don’t have the funds to invest in list-building efforts. We’ve compiled a guide to the best free strategies to build your file without spending a dime.

Organizations must consistently build their housefile email list to counteract list churn—the inevitable people who unsubscribe, get a new job and leave the email address they used to subscribe to your list, or just stop opening your messages.

Clear the path to signup on your website

Your home page likely has many calls to action and calls for attention, so it can be difficult to make the case to include email signup in your website masthead and on the home page. In addition, so many people now visit your site on mobile devices that it may be hard to access those fields even if they exist. A best practice is to place the organic email signup box above the fold on your home page—top right is a typical spot.

In addition, you may want to consider an email signup lightbox on the home page that pops up to request people join your list.

Any internal Web pages that receive a lot of traffic should also have an email signup box. In addition, pages like the News & Information page and the E-Newsletter page should offer a signup box.

Finally, take a look at your email signup survey itself. Is it a length that discourages completion or are the data entry fields below the fold? A best practice is to simply ask for name and email address and gather additional information later, once you have the person signed up.

Example from Food & Water Watch (click to enlarge):

Example from Human Rights Campaign (click to enlarge):

Online actions

For any actions your organization is already conducting online, ensure email address is being captured (petitions, pledges, etc). It’s also important to make sure you are overtly communicating that a person is being added to the house file, and will receive ongoing email messages. You may need to work cross-departmentally at your organization to accomplish this.

A great (yet time-consuming) way to promote email signup is to create a fun contest, quiz, or raffle. You will need to use your organization’s resources of partnerships and staff time to promote the quiz or contest as widely as possible once it has been created. An added bonus is that these efforts can be shared with friends who may also be inspired to join the list.

Example from No Kid Hungry (click to enlarge):

List exchange

List exchange is a technique whereby like-minded nonprofits will each send a message to their lists on behalf of one another. The size of the lists exchanged should be equal, and typically organizations choose to suppress donors from these messages.

An example of a list exchange: the San Francisco AIDS Foundation would send a message to its constituents promoting a Project Open Hand. Recipients would be encouraged to sign up for Project Open Hand’s initiative or action, thus signing up for their email list. A few days later, Project Open Hand sends a message to its list promoting San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Typically these messages include some sort of action to be taken (signing a petition, etc).

The organization with the smaller list goes first and then that number of email addresses is matched by the other organization. The two organizations compare lists at the beginning to exclude crossover. These exchanges are usually done through a third party agency (like Donordigital), similar to the way direct mail lists are exchanged through a list broker, to ensure that everything is carefully coordinated.

Chaperoned Email

Chaperoned emails are sent on your behalf by a corporate sponsor or other community partner to its own house file or employee list. The message would talk about the great work of your nonprofit and why that organization supports you, or could be a “forward” message from your nonprofit to their list.

Examples of chaperoned emails:

  • A local business sends a message to its own email list describing the work of your nonprofit with a personal story explaining the reasons why the owners/staff are involved. They invite their customers to join them in some sort of action on your behalf and ask them to join your email list, with a link to your website email signup form.
  • A community partner sends an email to its list introducing a “forward” from your nonprofit’s Executive Director. Their message would explain why they support you and why they think their house file should read your message. The “forwarded” portion of the message would describe your work and a recent issue and invite people to join your list to stay up-to-date.
  • A corporation sends a message to its internal employee list describing its support of your work over the years and recommending its employees sign up for your email list; everyone who joins will be entered into a raffle for a chance to win something provided by the corporation.

Social Media

Promote your email list on Facebook and Twitter. Request email signup in social media posts, and include an email signup component in anything you create that is sharable on social media.

Add a sign-up within Facebook if possible so that people do not need to leave Facebook to join your list. If you have created an action, quiz, or contest on your website with an email capture component, you can promote it on Facebook as well using “iframes” technology.

In-person efforts

Add email capture to your office receptionist’s and membership assistant’s script to gather email addresses when supporters contact you by phone.

Re-write your donor acknowledgement letters to mention your email list in thank-you letters and ask them to join. Also add an email address line to mailed donation response forms, with opt-in language setting the expectation that person will receive email from your organization. If these efforts are slow to take hold, you may consider offering a small incentive (like a decal or temporary tattoo) that can be easily mailed to the person if they submit their email address.

Ensure staff, volunteers, and others working out in the field on your behalf are gathering email addresses and getting them back to the office. If you have a physical location the general public will visit, include an email signup box there. You’ll need to be sure there is a procedure in place for email addresses to be hand-entered on a regular basis.


All efforts that increase site traffic are likely to improve the chances of the signup box being successful. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) will help in that regard and can even be geared toward list building as a goal. You can direct more people to your website by optimizing use of your (free) Google Grant (or paying for search terms if you do not qualify for one). If the email signup box is easy to find, this should result in additional organic signup.

You can also adapt your Search strategy to direct people to sign up for your house file. You may want to create a special search landing page explaining your work and why people should sign up for your list, with a short email signup form.

You can also request email signup directly in a Google Ad, like this example from Crate & Barrel (click to enlarge):

Third Party Sources

Look into campaigns with organizations that allow you to gather email signups for free on their site.,, CARE2 and Causes are community Web portals that allow you to create actions on their site and will send you contact information for the people who sign up.

Once your organization is ready to make a financial investment in growing your list, working with co-registration vendors like and Care2, placing paid advertising, and sending chaperoned messages with publications like Mother Jones and Alternet are a great way to continue building your list and create a good balance of organic list members and people who would not otherwise have known about your work.

Follow Up

It’s important to keep tabs on your own house file and know your own benchmarks. As you increase your list-building efforts and conversion efforts, you know what to continue to invest your resources in, whether that is time, requests of partners, or financial.

Recommended benchmarks to set and then keep an eye on are the number of new list joins per month and new list abandoners per month as well as email performance metrics (open, click-through & unsubscribe rates) for your new constituents. Plan in advance so you have a method to identify how people are joining the list. Source codes in URLs are a good method.

Once you bring new folks onto your email list, you’ll need to have a stellar “welcome series” of messages ready for them right away.

Tune in to a future edition of the Donordigital newsletter for ideas for how to reduce churn on your house file.

Wendy Marinaccio is a Senior Account Executive at Donordigital, the online fundraising, marketing, and advertising company. 

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