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Managing emails in a not-for-profit setting

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Email communication is a gift to not-for-profit organizations. It is economical, efficient, and available to staff and most volunteers. So why do so many of us sigh when the subject of the functionality of email is raised? This article offers advice on how to manage emails, as well as tips and tricks.

So you want to send an e-mail?

Who really needs to receive it? Many email senders use the "cc" feature too liberally. Be very selective about who wants and should receive a copy of your email. Does the committee chair or board chair (or your boss for that matter) need to receive every email? If you are not sure, ask him/her. Also, before sending your email, proof the "To" line. Many a Michael and Susan have received misdirected emails because of the handy "auto-fill" feature. Don’t become a victim of auto-fill.

If you are writing to a group of people who do not know each other (e.g., non-members whose email addresses your recipients would not likely have), consider not showing the email addresses in the "To" line, but rather send it to yourself and "bcc" the rest. Many people are sensitive about the privacy of their email address. Do not become a target of the "privacy police". On the other hand, if it is relevant to the facts that recipients know who was sent the email...use good judgement and/or ask.

Some members and senior staff filter incoming email they are copied on into a special 'read later' folder and guess what? They somehow do not manage to ever read those emails! Avoid being "foldered".

Tip: If you are sending an attachment, attach it first, lest you forget.

Make your subject line a complete message

Newspaper headlines are a great example of how to create a subject line for your emails. Always use verbs. Not more than seven words. Think of your message as a story (with a point). Let your subject line tell the story of the email succinctly. In addition, if your email is TIME SENSITIVE or ACTION REQUIRED write that in the subject line too. Busy people delete after reading senseless subject lines - avoid being deleted.

Following through on the newspaper article example, lay out the key parts of your story in the first paragraph. Additional paragraphs should provide supporting details to the essential facts in paragraph one. This includes stating your call to action in paragraph one.

Tip: Highlight the time etc. of a meeting or a key message by using a colour font.

When replying to e-mail...

Use an appropriate subject line that tells the story of your reply, which are not necessarily the words used in the subject line you received. If you do not use the reply feature that shows the email you are replying to at the bottom of the email, then recap the date, subject, and other relevant information of the email you are replying to, to help the recipients relate to the connection you are making.

Tip: You can change the subject line of an email you received and want to file "your way" by simply highlighting the original subject line, typing over it, and hitting enter.

Reply is different from forward

We often hit reply and add names to the cc field. However, if the message we are replying to had attachments, reply will not share attachments with the cc’d recipients, which can leave them confused or unable to understand the full context of your reply. In cases when everyone receiving your reply needs to see the original attachments, use the "Forward" function.

'Reply to all' can literally reply to all when that was not your intention

If a member of a board or committee uses a message group list in the "To" line, and you hit a simple "reply" it will reply to the entire group list, which may, and usually should not, be your intention. Always check that "To" line. If it is a group, hit forward and reply only to the one person who needs your reply.

No need to thank me

Many of us are overwhelmed with the volume of email we receive. Refrain from replying "Thank you" when you receive an email unless you need to acknowledge its receipt; if that is the case, say so. While saying thank you is the polite Canadian way, less email is more appreciated by most of us.

Tip: DO NOT SEND MESSAGES IN CAPS. In email culture, that is viewed as "shouting". Avoid shouting at people you should be communicating constructively with.

No fighting via email

Email senders demonstrating unprofessional behaviour send nasty, critical and otherwise inflammatory messages. Do not respond quickly lest you succumb to such inappropriate ways to deal with concerns. If you feel you must compose a reply, take a time-out before sending it. Re-read it several times to see how your words might be misconstrued, thus fuelling an even worse situation. Ask a colleague to read it and give you suggestions.

Walk down the hall, pick up the phone, or suggest meeting in-person to resolve issues. Email is most often a poor substitute for conflict resolution.

Be your toughest critic

Before you send an email, read it as if someone asked you to vet his or her work. Is the tone effective (aka positive)? Are the words properly spelled? Is the grammar correct? Do the dates and days match? Are the numbers correct? Are names properly spelled? Are the facts accurate and defensible? Have the right people been copied? Have the wrong people been copied? Would any of the people copied resent you sharing their email address with the others? Are the attachments attached and are they the correct and readable versions (think Word/Excel 07)?

Your emails belong to your employer

When you are sending emails using an address provided to you by your employer, remember that the employer owns those emails, not you. You should not use your work email for personal emails. Nor should you use your Internet access at work for searches unrelated to your job. When you leave your current job, your computer use files stay behind. They will be part of your legacy.

How many emails are too many?

Some people trying to eliminate the amount of emails they send may cover a number of different subjects in one email. This can make it difficult for recipients to recall where to find your information. If you have been asked to do this, ensure your subject line identifies the key subjects covered in your e-mail. While not intending to encourage more email, it may be helpful to cover major topics in separate emails. Use good judgement.

Finally, why would you send emails to people in your own office? Get up and walk over. Then you can send a confirming email. Your body will thank you.

There will always be exceptions

The advice in this article comes from working with many not-for-profit organizations. There may well be exceptions to the strategies put forward here, because of corporate culture, established directions, and other criteria.

Have an email/Internet policy

High performing organizations publish Internet/email usage policies. We Googled and found one (PDF) from the Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion. We recommend your organization create one too.

Paulette is president of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the not-for-profit association community. Paulette co-authored two manuscripts on risk management & not-for-profit organizations and regularly conducts risk management, strategic planning and board development workshops. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or

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