Deliverability is a Killer: Nonprofit Spotlight

When deliverability challenges go unseen and unmitigated, the impact on ROI and brand visibility can be incredibly damaging. For nonprofits that rely heavily on individual donations to fund their work and advance their causes, this can be especially problematic. According to M+R Benchmarks, in 2015 environmental nonprofits relied on email to drive 41 percent of their revenue.

In this post, I’ll review the placement and performance of six nonprofits that focus on environmental protection and climate change. In addition, I’ve included tips and recommendations on how to enhance deliverability and campaign performance in the nonprofit space.

The brands featured in this post include:


Deliverability overview
The chart below leverages data from real subscribers through our competitive intelligence tool, Inbox Insight. As shown, many of the nonprofits I reviewed have significant percentages of their mail being marked as spam by mailbox providers like Gmail and Yahoo! (shown below as MBP-Marked Spam %). While saw a reasonable 5.9 percent of all messages go to the spam folder, brands like Earth Justice and The Environmental Defense Fund saw the majority of all messages sent in the past 30 day being routed junk folders.


Poor deliverability represented a major and pervasive challenge for five of the six brands reviewed. From the onset, low inbox placement rates put these brands at a disadvantage as they tried to reach and engage their subscribers. We have seen that recipients are far less likely to open or click messages that land in junk so placement rates such as those seen above can severely damage the revenue potential of the email channel.

In order to better illustrate the relationship between inbox placement and engagement, I created the chart below.

For each nonprofit, I sorted all campaigns from the last month by read rate, then split the campaign list in half and created average engagement (Read Rate) and spam folder placement (MBP Spam) metrics for each group. In addition, I created index numbers to reflect the average campaign sizes compared to the average.


As expected, the half of sends with low read rates had much higher spam folder placement rates. This was the case for all brands expect, which had a far more acceptable spam rate with less variability from campaign to campaign. The most extreme example was seen for The Environmental Defense Fund where their bottom performing bucket saw extremely high spam rates and dismal read rates despite relatively similar average list sizes. There was a clear correlation between read rates and the percentage of mail being delivered to subscribers inboxes.

In addition to infrastructure basics and list hygiene, mailbox providers rely heavily on subscriber engagement (and a lack thereof) to make their filtering determinations. Negative subscriber behaviour such as spam complaints and negative SRD feedback can immediately raise a red flag while positive behaviour like reads and forwards can help boost reputation. A lack of subscriber activity with the brand can also contribute to troubled placement rates—especially with Gmail. Return Path has a wealth of resources throughout our blog as well as on our Help Center that provide additional detail on the factors that contribute to deliverability.

Optimization recommendations for nonprofits
In this section, I’ve outlined several areas of focus that can help nonprofit organisations enhance the placement and performance of their campaigns. By optimizing their campaigns, nonprofits can effectively leverage email to mobilize their subscribers and increase donations and participation.

Deliverability Monitoring
The first step towards repairing deliverability is gaining visibility into the extent of the problem and monitoring performance as reputation and placement are addressed. As with all things email, deliverability optimization needs to be results-driven to be effective. Consider the following as means to gain access to important deliverability data:

  • Senderscore.orgYou need to be able to see that there is a problem in order to fix it–If you’re just getting started, this IP address based tool will provide you with a high level view of your sender reputation and some of the factors that may be impacting it.
  • Gmail’s Postmaster tools–Among other helpful features, Gmail provides simple reputation ratings for both IP addresses and domains through their postmaster tools. Gmail has a notoriously complex filtering algorithm that has been the bane of many an email marketer. These tools help give marketers an indication of how they are perceived.
  • Return Path’s Email Optimization Suite–Gain access to campaign-level placement details, IP address reputation factors, spam filter checks, and more. If deliverability issues are severe, consider enlisting help from an account manager or the Professional Services team.

List Hygiene
When every dollar counts, a large list can seem like an advantage. While it’s tempting to keep building on top of aged subscriber files, lists with problematic data (like unknown users or spam traps) or a high percentage of inactive users can actually prevent brands from getting their messages in front of engaged subscribers that are more likely to donate.

I entered one of these nonprofit brands’ IP addreses into Reputation Monitor and found 586 recycled spam trap hits in the last seven days. This exceptionally high number of spam trap hits is undoubtedly impacting placement. The screenshots below leverages our Frequency Finder tool to dig into the list composition for this particular brand.




As shown above, 4 percent of subscribers are categorized as dead accounts, meaning that they rarely—if ever—interact with the entire mailbox that they are receiving mail in. Dead accounts are far more likely to contain spam traps and other problematic data yet only account for less than 1 percent of reads. The risks of mailing this segment of subscribers greatly outweigh the rewards.

Consider the following and work towards building a healthy list, not just a large list:

  • Trim out dead weight—Inactivity in itself can hurt inbox placement. Not only that, mailbox providers look at the rates of unknown users and spam traps as they make filtering decisions (read more on the dangers of inactivity here). While it can be a difficult decision and a tough conversation with the board, oftentimes brands will see a boost in placement and a corresponding uptick in performance from newer, more engaged subscribers when they cut inactives from their sends.
  • List validation services–Periodically sending your list through a list validation service can help remove problematic data from the file. If your brand leverages pen-and-paper opt-in forms or call centers as a means of acquiring new subscribers, validation services can help prevent malformed or bad addresses from ever making it onto your file.
  • Suppress complainers immediately–Be sure that your brand is signed up for all available feedback loops and remove those who click spam immediately.

Fine-Tune the Subscriber Experience
As noted earlier in this post, the impact of subscriber engagement on inbox placement is only becoming more apparent and important. Consider the following approaches and tactics to help improve response rates and show mailbox providers that your audience is active and engaged.

  • Create a clean and accessible user experienceIncorporate frequent testing—Implement subject line and content testing as part of the standard campaign planning and deployment process to drive gains in engagement. Be sure to measure relevant metrics that are appropriate for your goals. As an example, if your goal is to raise awareness and drive impressions, consider testing for opens/reads. If donations are what you’re after, use conversions as your success metric. Be sure to factor in negative metrics such as complaints and unsubscribes during testing.
  • Mobile aware, everywhere—Mobile devices are no longer just a means to browse content. Subscribers are increasingly purchasing via mobile devices so it’s essential that every part of the process is streamlined and user friendly. For nonprofits with donor demographics that skew older, consider increased font sizes and larger tap targets. Watch out for calls to action that force subscribers to stretch in order to reach buttons and links. As an example, avoid placing call to action buttons or clickable links in the top right or left corners of the creative as these locations are difficult to easily tap on mobile devices.
  • Build email content for brains, not for brands—Take a page from neuromarketing and craft content that is easy for subscribers to process and has a structure and content that does not demand time and attention to prove value… at least at first. Implement tactics that help slow skim speeds and help shift the recipient’s mindset from skimming to absorbing. Consider adding additional whitespace, leveraging bullets, reducing blocks of copy, and avoid cannibalizing attention by placing important copy or graphics in competition with one another. Read more about creative tactics here.
  • Add variety—Monotonous content or repeated appeals can quickly become easier to tune out. Create a more dynamic and interesting marketing mix by including messages that emphasise informational, editorial, and donation-driving content to help keep subscribers active and engaged.


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