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Managing ListServs

When organisations create an e-mail list for supporters to subscribe to, it can be used to mobilise a community quickly and effectively. Engaging with supporters through e-mail allows an organisation to cultivate a powerful support base that can be drawn upon to strengthen campaigns.

E-mail lists, often called listservs, are electronic mailing lists to which users subscribe to join a particular group or to access more information about a specific topic. Subscribers can receive messages from anyone belonging to the same listserv and they can also post to the list by sending an e-mail to an automated address that sends the message out to all subscribers. Listserv software uses a single e-mail address that "contains" all the e-mail addresses of the subscribers. These lists can be set up by organisations or individuals 1.

There are many listserv applications available online which are easy to use and available for free or at a low cost. However, free services may appear less professional since they are supported by advertisements that would be included on the listserv page. If your organisation is already hosting a website on a commercial-shared hosting service, a listserv application may already be included in your hosting package 2. Listserv services are also available through e-mail management software.

Listservs can be divided into two major categories: announcement listservs and discussion listservs. Many non-profits and NGOs use announcement listservs to communicate with the public. These lists only permit the creator or owner to write messages, which are sent out to subscribers; they are also known as "receive-only" listservs. With discussion lists, any subscriber can write a message to a single address and it is automatically sent out to all subscribers. Each type of listserv serves distinct purposes and involves different communication strategies and etiquette.


These e-mail lists make it easy for organisations to communicate with their members about upcoming campaigns, events and organisational news. E-mail requests can be sent for donations, volunteers, and participation in advocacy efforts such as signing an online petition.

Collecting E-mails

E-mails can be collected both online or offline. Online, organisations can provide a link on their website through which users can join their listserv by entering their e-mail address. Alternatively, users may be prompted to e-mail a designated account with their e-mail address. The details of these online methods depend on the listserv application software the organisation is using, but are all equally easy to navigate for anyone who is familiar with e-mail.

Offline, organisations can take a more proactive role in building their subscriber list by using every opportunity to invite people to join the listserv. For example, whenever your organisation sets up an information table at an event, or hosts its own event, be sure to provide a sign-up sheet for people to join the listserv and provide their e-mail addresses. Include a form on all your organisation's communications materials to encourage sign-ups to your listserv as well 3. Continue to build your e-mail list at every opportunity. Subscribers can become donors, volunteers and dedicated advocates for your cause.

Once you have a list of subscribers, develop an e-mail communications strategy that will turn subscribers into committed supporters. Please refer to Section 3.4 to learn more about Effective E-mail Communications.


A discussion list is an e-mail list that creates space for a community to respond to messages posted by an individual on the listserv; anyone can post a message and everyone will see it. You may set up a discussion listserv for your staff, event planning committee, volunteers or other activists so that participants can exchange ideas about upcoming campaigns, or simply pass on information more effectively. As well, if you belong to any sort of discussion list, consider publicising your cause through your participation in that listserv. Your decision to do so should be based on whether you think the other subscribers would be interested in the campaign. Furthermore, your organisation can create its own discussion list focused on your cause or particular campaign.

Creating a discussion list can foster a greater sense of community among your members and supporters, while promoting greater awareness about your cause. These lists can facilitate healthy debate that encourages members to be educated about the issues at stake, as well as forge connections between supporters from different regions.

Monitoring Discussions

Although a discussion list is a great tool, unrestricted access for subscribers raises some important concerns. As the creator, you may want to consider moderating the discussion. If the creator does choose to moderate the discussion, each message will be sent to the creator first, and then he or she can decide whether to post it or not (1). Any listserv application will provide the creator with the option to do this. Another process allows the creator to receive all the messages first and create new content based on what people have written, and then post it.

Moderated listservs allow the creator to control the email traffic subscribers are receiving, which can be particularly helpful for larger listservs. Sometime lively discussions can generate a lot of traffic or even become heated and devolve to the level of personal attacks. If listserv owners choose not to monitor discussions, they may want to develop a set of rules to be followed, to encourage respectful discussions among subscribers, without insulting comments.

Listserv owners may also choose to restrict subscribers to a single post per day, forcing subscribers to read others' opinions before responding themselves. Because discussion lists can be very active, listserv owners should give subscribers the option to receive messages immediately, every time a subscriber posts a message, or to receive one e-mail per day containing all the messages from that 24-hour period 4.

Moderated lists may not be preferred by those who feel that encouraging open discussion and debate is important for their listserv. Also, because the moderating process takes time, unmediated discussion can allow for more efficient communication among subscribers.

Discussion Etiquette

Messages to a listserv should be as brief as possible and they should be well written emails or postings. See tips on this here: Effective E-mail Communications. Keep in mind the audience receiving your postings and refrain from sending messages directed at only some members of the list. It is important to give everyone the opportunity to speak and not lecture others on your own opinion. Take time before responding to ensure you do your part toward achieving a thoughtful and meaningful discussion on a listserv.

More on the Web

Listserv applications

If your web hosting service does not include a listserv application, check out these free services for listserv management:

The following tools allow anyone to create a listserv for free:REFERENCES

1 Tenby, S. (2000), Introduction to E-mail Listservs and Internet Mailing Lists, Tech Soup, http://www.techsoup.org/learningcenter/internet/archives/page9178.cfm, retrieved 2010-1-25

2 Idealware (2008), A Few Good E-Mail Discussion List Tools, Tech Soup, http://www.techsoup.org/learningcenter/internet/page11128.cfm?cg=searchterms&sg=listservs, retrieved 2010-1-25

3 ONE/Northwest (2004). Gathering and Using E-Mail Addresses From Your Members, Tech Soup, http://www.techsoup.org/learningcenter/internet/archives/page9169.cfm?cg=searchterms&sg=writing%20e-mails%20effectively, retrieved 2010-1-25

4 Cowan, R. (2002). Controlling Listserv Overload, Tech Soup, http://www.techsoup.org/learningcenter/internet/archives/page9159.cfm?cg=searchterms&sg=listservs, retrieved 2010-1-25

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