FYI Blog

Are Your Emails Being Delivered?

The 2018 NTEN/M+R Benchmark Study reports that nonprofits sent 11% more email messages per subscriber in 2017 than in 2016. With greater volume in everyone’s inbox, it’s becoming increasingly more important (and more difficult) to find a way to stand out in the crowd.

But the first challenge to contend with is ensuring your emails actually make it to donors’ inboxes.


According to the 2017 Return Path Deliverability Benchmark Report, more than 20% of nonprofit email messages don’t appear in their recipients’ inboxes—instead, they are sent to the spam folder, or blocked altogether by the email service provider (Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, etc.).

The primary method that email service providers use to decide whether to deliver or block your messages is to analyze your organization’s sender reputation—determined by your domain reputation and the reputation of the IP address sending the email.

A negative sender reputation can be caused by a number of factors, including poor list hygiene, high spam rates, and low engagement (open and click through). Even with a perfect sender reputation, it’s still important to vigilantly monitor these three key factors to maintain good deliverability year-round.

But first, you should check your sender reputation, and/or the sender score of your organization’s domain, or the IP address sending your emails. Online service companies use varying methods and metrics to calculate sender score and reputation, so it’s important to not overanalyze the ratings. Nor should you stop actively working to maintain or improve deliverability if your score seems strong. Furthermore, many situations can affect overall email deliverability, including (but not limited to) the reputation of your organization’s domain and the reputation of the IP address that’s used to send your organization’s emails.

Here are a few examples of the service companies that do these analyses:

Maintaining good list hygiene

Beyond monitoring your reputation, ongoing email list hygiene is crucial to making sure you maintain that good sender reputation. Consistently delete undeliverable and bouncing addresses from your list, and be sure to also remove inactive subscribers. If you keep emailing subscribers who aren’t opening or clicking through your emails, you’re not helping your online fundraising program, and you might be actively harming your sender reputation.

We recommend sending your organization’s emails to a smaller, more engaged audience that will be most likely to open and click on your emails. This helps you maintain better delivery, which solidifies your sender reputation, and ensures you’re reaching your core audience who are primed to engage.

We find that a good rule of thumb is to stop emailing subscribers after 12 months of no engagement. You will find that your metrics improve, and it will be better for your deliverability in the long run. Of course, you can always include those unengaged subscribers in larger, more lucrative e-Fundraising campaigns, such as year-end or matching gift campaigns, since they expressed their interest in your mission at one time.

Reducing spam complaints

Spam complaints obviously contribute to a poor sender reputation, and in turn, can lead to your emails not being delivered at all. It’s one thing to have your message delivered to a subscriber’s spam folder, but to have it blocked altogether by the email service provider can mean that your sender reputation is in serious trouble.

It might sound counterintuitive, but the easier you can make it for uninterested subscribers to unsubscribe from your email list, the better it will be in the long run for your deliverability. If subscribers no longer want to receive emails from your organization, it is far more preferable for them to hit the unsubscribe button than it is for them to mark your email as spam.

The more spam complaints you receive, the less likely your messages will be delivered to actively engaged subscribers. Even subscribers who open and click on every one of your messages might stop receiving your emails if their email service provider sees one too many spam complaints against your organization’s domain or IP address.

The simplest solution? Make sure your unsubscribe links are prominent in every message sent. And if you’re noticing particularly high spam rates, it might be worth adding what’s known as “list-unsubscribe” information to the hidden email headers of your messages, for example:This technique is used by many of the most popular email service providers to give users a one-click unsubscribe option at the top of the email, instead of forcing them to find the link that’s traditionally buried in the footer of the email. This usually leads to fewer frustrated subscribers hitting the spam button, because they now have a hassle-free way to unsubscribe.

Increasing subscriber engagement

Without strong engagement by your list’s subscribers, your email deliverability will suffer—but this is an often overlooked factor in email list health.

Focus on getting your email subscribers to both open your email, and click on its contents. The current assumption is that if constituents continuously ignore your emails, future messages are more likely to be sent automatically to their spam folder. And as more messages from you are ignored by subscribers, your sender reputation will be affected, which can compound the problem.

Here is Avalon’s four-step plan for preventing this situation:

  1. Slow down or stop sending emails to people you know are not engaging with your email. Remove these non-responders from your list at 12 months, or as little as six months.
  2. Draft compelling subject lines to drive open rates. An open is the first level of engagement, so make sure you’re getting subscribers into the email.
  3. Draft emails that will drive a click. Reconsider emails that are content only and don’t drive clicks—like long, text-heavy newsletters. More engaging content like quizzes, surveys, pledges, and action alerts might be more effective at driving click-throughs.
  4. Poll your subscribers to find out what content they want to see. The more relevant your content is to your subscribers, the more likely it is that they will stay engaged with your emails. Making sure your messages are highly personalized for your audience is key to making sure your emails stay out of the spam folder.

These steps have been email best practices for years, but the new rules for deliverability make them much more important and urgent. Maintaining and improving your organization’s sender reputation is well worth the effort, to ensure that your emails are getting into the inboxes of people who want to read them and act on them.