The “how many is too many” question has supplanted the “which day is best” question as the most pondered issue in email fundraising. The planetary alignment of a grueling presidential campaign followed by the usual end of year email fire hose has made this question especially timely.

There’s no easy answer. Maybe that’s why people keep asking.

Following are some guideposts you might follow, however, to answer that question for yourself.

  1. Once a month is too few. Are you sitting down? I have to break it to you: You are not the only one sending email to your donors and prospects. Our research suggests that your email recipients are on a plethora of lists. All those other groups are sending emails out weekly or more. It’s a tragedy of the commons situation. You will be invisible unless you are emailing 2-3 times per month.
  1. If your sole objective is money, then more is better, with almost no limit. I don’t even want to tell you this, but here goes: There is loads of evidence that increasing email frequency will increase income, and almost no evidence that high frequency emailers risk list burnout. I don’t know why people seem not to get annoyed with constant email, and for sure a few do. But most seem not to mind or care. That said, we would not counsel the fire hose approach, not because it’s ineffective. It’s just rude.
  1. Don’t shovel shit on a schedule. The caveat to ‘1’ and ‘2’ above is that if you continue to send content that is uninteresting or irrelevant to your people, you’re training them to ignore you. If you take nothing away from this blog post than the following it will have been worth your time: what you send should be entirely about what your donor cares about and not at all about what you ‘want them to know.’ You’re nodding like you agree, but we see that rule broken on a daily basis.
  1. Don’t view email solicitations as intrusions. Giving makes people feel good. Neuroscientists have found that giving to charity causes an endorphin rush akin to having sex or eating really good chocolate. There’s an unspoken notion in many organizations that solicitations for funds are necessary evils. Get that thought out of your mind. You’re providing opportunities for your donor to be a hero.
  1. Keep the cultivation to solicitation ratio at 2:1 or better. All that said, donors do not like being treated like ATMs. They need feedback, success stories, progress reports, recognition and gratitude. Always asking, even if you’re asking them to be a hero, is wearing in the absence of good consistent cultivation.
  1. Ask your audience what they want. I have been in countless meetings where red-faced debates take place among non-profit staff about what their readers want without a single piece of real evidence on the table. You have no excuse not to be surveying or talking to donors on a regular basis. Wan extra credit? Provide multiple feedback channels. And pay attention to the feedback. Otherwise you’ll never know what your donors really want, will you?
  1. Let your audience set their frequency. Not everyone is indifferent to high frequencies of email (though if you’re taking care to send stuff that is personal and relevant then the annoyed few will be very few indeed. And what better way to keep them than giving them the option of choosing fewer messages. This has become standard practice throughout the corporate world, but seems all but absent in nonprofitlandia.

So how many emails are too many? You’re going to have to figure that out for yourself.