Email is still important.

Of all the marketing tools available to you, it’s got the highest return on investment. According to Salsa, if you spend $1, you’ll get $40 back. And, if you’re a nonprofit, it drives a third of your online fundraising revenue.

Especially for a non-profit, choosing the right email platform is essential. But there are so many to choose from. Where do you start? How do you know which one is good for you?

There are plenty of articles out there that will grade the top platforms. Like this one from PC Mag. Or this one from Top Ten Reviews. They do a great job of breaking down all the features available so you can easily compare.

But I’m going to do something a little different. As someone who deals with this stuff everyday, I’m going to share some of my own real experiences with three popular, but very different, platforms: Mailchimp, NationBuilder and Salesforce Marketing Cloud



Good for: a nonprofit just starting out

Here’s the big thing about MailChimp: your account is free – yes, free – up to 2,000 contacts. For that fact alone, MailChimp is the favorite of any nonprofit on a budget. Once your list grows beyond 2,000, their prices are reasonable and they offer nonprofit discounts.

But it’s not just the price that’s good here.

MailChimp is one of the easiest email platforms to integrate into your website. Integrations are the hardest part of building a website because you’re depending on another company’s code. But many CMS, including WordPress, have an easy, out-of-the-box plugin you can use to integrate Mailchimp. This means you can connect your website to your MailChimp account very quickly and in some cases without a developer.

And MailChimp easily integrates with many other tools. For example, if you’re using Stripe for your donations, MailChimp offers a free tool that lets new donors automatically sign up for your email list. Fair warning, though – some of the integrations, like PayPal, are paid.

MailChimp has some great pre-fab templates with easy, drag-and-drop functionality. Even the most low-tech person on your staff can create a beautiful email. If you want something custom, you can create an effective template with lots of flexibility.

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And the reporting isn’t too bad. The interface is clear and intuitive with a nice graph showing your open and click rates over time. A plus here – you can filter the graph to specific lists. But a downside – you can’t filter to segments of a specific list. Another plus – industry open rate data is right in the graph so you can see how you stack up. But another downside – you’ll have to do some math to see what your own average open rate is.


Overall, MailChimp is a good, solid, all-around option. But if you want something a little more robust…



Good for: a nonprofit getting most of their donations from their email list

NationBuilder is an “all-in-one.” It doesn’t just do email. It’s a site builder, a donation platform, an event registration system, a CRM, and more.

If you’re using NationBuilder for more than just email, you can get crazy-specific with your targeting. You can filter your users by a number of criteria including what lists they’re on, their gender, whether they clicked a link in a particular email, the average amount they’ve donated in the past, and more.

Think about it. It’s #givingtuesday. You sent out an email early in the morning asking people for donations. The following day, you want to send a reminder email that people can still donate all holiday season. Well, if you sent the reminder email to everyone, you might seem desperate and spammy. However, with NationBuilder you can target only people who did not open your first email and people who have donated in the past. These people want to get your reminder email!


Talk about a good return on investment.

There is a downside to NationBuilder though. Email isn’t their focus. So, from a strictly email perspective, it’s not the best product.

Most of my clients copy and paste their email content from a word document into their email platform. This always has it’s share of headaches, even if you use a “paste from word” function. However, because the WYSIWYG in NationBuilder is so limited, this can be a real headache. Nearly every week, I’ll have a client using NationBuilder call me because they can’t understand why their paragraph is magically in the same font as their heading. If you don’t know HTML, this can be a real pain.


Additionally, the email analytics are the most bare-bones I’ve ever seen. It should be simple to find your average open and click rate for your emails over time. I hope you like spreadsheets, because you’ll be exporting and manually calculating nearly everything.


How much does NationBuilder cost? It depends on the size of your list and what features you want. Assuming you don’t need much beyond email and donations…The low end is $29/month to email 1,000 people. The high end is $539/month to email 35,000 contacts.


Salesforce Marketing Cloud

Good for: a nonprofit with a huge, complicated database

If you have a huge database with hundreds of lists, it can be difficult to keep them organized.

Salesforce is primarily known for being a CRM, or customer relationship management platform. So it makes sense that their email platform, which is a part of their marketing platform, really stands out when it comes to list organization and segmentation.

Say you ran ads sending users to a series of landing pages with email sign-ups. You can create a folder for advertising, and then have a separate list for each of those landing page sign-ups.

And then, you have local branches of your non-profit. You can create a folder for local branches, and then have a separate list for each branch.

But say you want to reach people across different lists. For example, maybe you need to reach everyone in your database who lives in Ohio. Easy. You can filter all your lists for particular profile attributes and save it as a group.

And just like with your lists, you can organize your groups into various folders.

Salesforce email kinda has it all. Great analytics with data visualization. A/B testing. A powerful editor that doesn’t require HTML. And, if you’re using Salesforce for your donations, an easy integration.

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The downside to Salesforce? It’s not very intuitive. It’s easy to get lost in the admin interface and difficult to figure out how to do what you want. The learning curve with Salesforce is one of the steepest I’ve seen. And also, it’s one of the more expensive platforms out there. Pricing starts at $400 a month.


About the Author
Katie Fulton
Katie Fulton is Director of Account Management and Marketing at Brick Factory. She works with a diverse roster of nonprofits and has extensive experience in content creation, email marketing, and digital advertising. She also won an episode of Jeopardy!