Celebrate Spring by Tidying Up Your Mailing Lists

Marketing and Social Media

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If you’re anything like me, warmer weather puts me in the mood to throw open the windows and doors, air out the house, and give everything a good cleaning… or at least binge-watch “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.”

Once you’ve applied the KonMari method to your home and office (do those old conference handouts really spark joy?), it’s time to turn your organizing skills to a less tangible task: cleaning up your mailing lists.

Instead of eliminating material goods that no longer “spark joy,” we’ll focus on getting rid of contacts that no longer merit your time and resources.

Here’s how to clean up your mailing lists

Remove donors who aren’t around any more

There are probably people on your mailing lists who have passed away. While it’s sad to remove those people from your lists (especially if they were very close to your organization), it’s time! For one, it will help you save money if you’re paying to send them direct mail or if you’re paying to email large lists. For another, mailing those people can make your organization come off as out-of-touch with your deceased donors’ family members.

Unless people directly inform you of a donor’s passing, you may end up removing them from your lists using methods we cover below. But, if you’ve had a close enough relationship with a donor that you’re aware of their death, remove their name from your lists. Then, if possible, send a sweet card to their family letting them know that their loved one left a legacy through the work their donations funded.

Remove contacts that are no longer mail-able

If you’re getting lots of “email undeliverable” messages, high numbers of bounced emails, or regular “return to sender” messages on direct appeals, it’s time to tidy up your lists. Remove emails that have bounced repeatedly — I say “repeatedly” because there are reasons an email recipient may temporarily not receive email from you. There are “soft bounces,” wherein an email can’t be delivered because of a temporary issue. If your donor’s inbox is full, for an example, or if an email service provider is dealing with server issues, you’ll get a soft bounce. There are also “hard bounces,” which are due to permanent issues. This is usually due to email addresses being expired or having an incorrect address on file.

Emails that receive hard bounces should be removed. If an email address has multiple soft bounces, it might be time to consider removing them, too. This is because your email’s “deliverability” (made up of different elements that will determine whether email service providers think your address is legitimate or not) depends, in part, on the number of emails you bounce. Bounce too many emails and you may see more and more of your emails being filtered out of your donors’ inboxes.

Mercifully, returned mail doesn’t require you to differentiate between “soft” and “hard” returns. If you get a letter returned to you with a “Return to Sender” label, it’s fairly straightforward: either you’ve not added enough postage, the address is wrong, or the donor no longer resides at that address. If the first two reasons can be eliminated, go ahead and remove that address from your database.

Remove super lapsed donors

I’m not sure that “super lapsed donors” is an industry-recognized term. But I am positive that, at some point, you have spent time and resources sending appeals to someone who hasn’t supported you in years and years. They are not just lapsed… they are super lapsed. And you can save yourself a lot of headaches by removing them from your lists.

“But Abby,” you might think. “How do you know those donors won’t see an appeal and be inspired to give?”

Well, I don’t. Wilder things have happened! But I do know that the odds of converting a super lapsed donor are pretty low, but the odds that they’re costing you money — either in postage or in your email service — are pretty high.

To an extent, the timeline you use to define a super lapsed donor will probably be unique to your own organization. Have they been lapsed 10 years? They’re probably not coming back. 5 years? I’d get rid of them. 3 years? 2? It’s up to you.


Cleaning out your mailing lists is probably about as fun as cleaning out your sock drawer… but it needs to be done! Eliminating these three groups of people — deceased donors, donors with inaccurate email or physical addresses, and donors that you haven’t heard from in years — will save you money and make you more efficient. Now those are the kind of results that spark joy!

Want to learn more about email best practices?

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