Email Segmentation for Nonprofits

I worked with nonprofits for nearly a decade as part of a career in marketing, communications, and journalism. And successful development directors and leaders within almost every charity I know prioritize relationships.

That’s because relationships are the connections between people that help non-profit agencies garner noteworthy donations and unwavering support for their missions. That’s why we go out to lunch with prospects, hold special events for board members, and pause what we’re doing when big donors stop by the office.

Keep your organization growing with expert advice and all the tools you need, all in one place.

You want people to know you care and share the same values and mission as they do.

But there are only so many lunches in the week. You also need to integrate digital marketing to reach out to your supporters. Direct email is one of the most effective methods, if done correctly. 

“Dear YOUR NAME HERE” isn’t good enough. You can’t build relationships without mindful personalization.

To make your supporters feel like special members of your charity’s community, you need to integrate a marketing practice known as email segmentation. This refinement in your direct email campaign can more than double the engagement of your email recipients, and it’s not as tricky as you may think.

With email segmentation for nonprofits, it’s possible to divide your list into different groups, or segments. You’re able to tailor your messages to fit each group, giving each person a clear reason to open your email and respond with a click. 

Ready to learn more? This guide will help you understand the best practices of nonprofit list segmentation fast — so you can get back to making a difference in your community.

What is an email “segment”? 

In the world of real estate, people always talk about “location, location, location.” In marketing and customer relationship building, it’s “audience, audience, audience.” In other words, you need to create the right messaging and use the most relevant images in order to connect with specific demographics.

Email segments, then, are basically small target audiences that are separated out from your entire email list to tailor your content just for them. For example, a group of senior citizens who live in a retirement community will respond dramatically differently to a given prompt than a handful of single Millennials living downtown.

However, email segments aren’t just separated by age or location. You can choose to break out your email list into different groups in custom-designed ways that work best for your organization.  

Why should nonprofits use email list segmentation? 

When it comes to the effectiveness of email list segmentation, it doesn’t really matter if your organization is non-profit or for-profit — every business should segment their email lists. Here are two principal reasons:

1. More people will open your emails.

If you’ve never analyzed the backend of your direct email service provider, you may be in for a shock. If you’re getting at or above the average of 20.57% open rate for nonprofits, you’re doing great! But that means 80% might be missing what you want to share. Email segmentation helps improve this statistic for you.

2. More people will engage with your message.

Relationships are two-way streets. You want people to click, email, read, download, call, or — most importantly — donate. When you break out your email list into different groups, people know you’re talking directly to them and will be more likely to respond.

Habitat for Humanity has a subscribe option on their website
Habitat for Humanity has a section on their homepage encouraging people to sign up for their email list. You can automate emails so they receive a survey to segment themselves.

How to communicate with your segments

By now, you may be already coming up with ways to segment your email list. Here are a few from my years in nonprofits, with suggestions about how best to communicate with each:

Board members

These are your best development liaisons with deep-pocketed friends ready to support your mission. Limit communication to feel-good articles and photos, invitations to special events, e-newsletters, and important need-to-know information required for them to make decisions. Remember: they have limited time, so it’s important to get to the point quickly.


If someone attended a “friend maker” special event a couple of years ago — whether they bid at the silent auction or not — they’re a donor. Check the organization’s annual report for a list of the donors, and make sure they’ve got their own segment.


These generous, caring individuals are the heart of any nonprofit. Show that you value their interest and dedication by keeping them up to date on what’s going on in your organization. 

Not only can you send them all the updates that board members get, but you can also include surveys or update them on administrative needs that can help your agency grow stronger. They’re ready to help, so give them opportunities to do so.

Recipients of Service

It’s important to remember that everyone who benefits from your nonprofit is on the same level when it comes to representing your mission throughout the community. Whether it’s parents in an after-school program or nearby landowners for environmental initiatives, the people who benefit from your good work could become some of the most valuable advocates you have.


Don’t overlook the employees who spend every day working at your organization. Some nonprofits are large or remote enough that inter-agency communications can prove challenging. Those who are involved in the internal workings need to feel inspired and motivated to continue the work, and you’ll want to speak much differently to them than to anyone else.

How to begin segmenting lists

Sometimes it’s obvious based on your nonprofit’s structure. For example, I once worked as a communications director for an after-school program. We had five locations, with advisory boards for each location. It was simple to create email segments based on geography. Other ways to segment lists include:

Using your existing knowledge

You can cross-check lists of board members or volunteers with your email list. You can gather a list of local businesses in a certain town through a Chamber of Commerce membership. You should have access to a staff directory, too. You may be surprised by how far institutional knowledge can take you.

Research past behavior

When you come up blank, you may be able to use donation software or even internal donation-tracking spreadsheets to recognize members of different segments. If someone donated or volunteered in the past, you can use that information to put them in the right segment.

Conduct a survey

I worked, volunteered, and donated for many nonprofits over the years, so I know that organization and record-keeping isn’t always a priority. If you’re stumped on how to break up your contact list, you can ask them directly!

There’s no need for apologies: A simple emailed survey alerting them to your efforts to provide the most important and enjoyable news to them will suffice.

Get a tech lesson

If you’re still a little worried about your technical abilities behind the scenes, Constant Contact has got you covered. Check out this step-by-step guide.

Email segmentation saves time

Once you’ve figured out the backend, you’ll find that this process will help you refine your messaging in the long-run. You can increase fundraising efforts and keep your supporters engaged, all while saving time you would have spent crafting generic, non-targeted messaging.  

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