A Few Good Email Discussion List Tools

Many organizations would like to foster community and information sharing using email discussion lists. What software packages can help? We asked six nonprofit experts about the systems that have worked for them.


When everyone’s together in the same room, discussions are usually straightforward. You take your turn to speak, others listen, and then respond. The system is simple and effective. Everyone has a chance to share their knowledge and to weigh in on topics. But things get more complex when your group can't be in one place at one time. How can you apply the same principles to an audience spread out across the country —or the world?

One solution is email discussion lists, often called “listservs” for the original software application that made them possible. They’ve been around nearly as long as email itself.

How does a discussion list work? People “subscribe” online or via email to these topic- or group-oriented discussions. Any subscriber can then post to the list by simply emailing a message to a specific automated address. The automated server receives the email and then sends it to the entire pool of subscribers—everyone who belongs to the list. Other subscribers can respond, and just like that, an ongoing discussion unfolds in their inboxes.

Simple and effective. But today, we have platforms that offer more than just email lists. The features available to list-owners range from a central repository for file posting and photo galleries, to online forums in which subscribers can gather, to searchable archives, branding and customizability, and integration with existing Web sites and databases.

If your organization wants to create a discussion list, or a number of them, how do you find a solution fully featured enough to meet your needs but affordable enough to fall within your budget? We spoke to a six different nonprofit experts and compiled their comments and advice. Here’s what they said.

Benefits of Discussion Lists

Email discussion groups can effectively reach a broad spectrum of people. Email lists facilitate dialogue and cooperation among people - old and young, savvy and newbie, broadband and dialup, domestic and international - who may otherwise have very different online habits. Anyone who knows how to send and receive emails can participate. Some researchers have found that more than half of all Internet users are subscribed to at least one email list, a number that dwarfs the participation of even the largest online communities like Facebook and MySpace.

For most audiences, discussion lists are an easy way to follow a conversation. Many people prefer receiving messages in their inbox rather than regularly visiting a Web site to search for updates or information – and the email messages will be more likely to be viewed.

Email lists are also useful for people who have limited bandwidth, or who are frequently offline while traveling. Participants can download, read, and respond to messages offline, and then send them when they are back online again.

What might you use the lists for? Nonprofit organizations tend to be involved in community-building efforts, and many of their missions focus on sharing information with their constituencies and facilitating conversations. Discussion lists are an excellent way of meeting those goals easily and inexpensively.

For example, email lists can be handy to foster conversation among any group that isn’t always in one place, from internal groups like board members or staff, to your clients, partners, volunteers, or a larger community. They’re useful for mundane tasks, like scheduling meetings or disseminating information and simple notifications. They can be used to host online conversations in which opinions and information are shared, documents reviewed, feedback gathered, and group decisions are made.

Discussion List Features

Discussion lists can be simple, text-based affairs or sophisticated applications that allow both administrators and subscribers to do more and more all the time. What features are available?

  • Subscriptions. Subscribers should be able to subscribe and unsubscribe from the list without your assistance. With many discussion list platforms, people can join or leave by emailing a particular email address. This is a useful, simple option that many people expect. Other systems require subscribers to join through a webpage – or offer both options. A number of systems require those interested in the list to create an account – with a user name, password, and other information – before they may subscribe. While this helps you know who is on the list, it’s often a deterrent to joining. Many people are tired of creating new accounts and find it to be a hassle.
  • User preferences. Most systems allow subscribers to change their own email address and to choose the general format in which they receive posts—either as individual emails every time someone posts to the list, or in a compiled digest once a day or once a week. This is typically done through a web interface. Some email lists tools have features that allow users to also perform these tasks via email, which is important if you have users with limited or no web access.
  • Reading and posting online. While all lists allow subscribers to send a message to the group via email, some users prefer to post or read messages on a Web interface. It can also be very useful to let them search list archives through a Web interface, especially if the list is used to share information or answer questions. Without a searchable archive, information is very difficult to use after it’s been posted, and subscribers may ask the same questions again and again. If a Web user interface is important to you, make sure it’s intuitive and easy to use.
  • Other group features. Often these Web pages can also be used to offer other features—say, to let subscribers create a personal profile to encourage networking or let them know who they are exchanging information with. You may also want subscribers to be able to upload files and photos, which is easier and less bandwidth-intensive than attaching them to emails distributed to the entire list.
  • Customization and branding. Some discussion list platforms let you change the look of the discussion list tools, by, for instance, adding your logo and changing the colors. This is important if you want to make the discussion site look like it's part of your organization’s Web site. In addition, some let you host the site on your domain, or on a domain that mimics yours—such as “lists.yourorganization.org”—rather than on a domain associated with the application’s host.
  • Subscription screening. If your list is targeted to a specific or private group, you may want the ability to screen subscribers to ensure they qualify, by asking them a few questions before approving them as subscribers. Alternatively, some tools allow you to setup a system where people need to type in the letters from an image of a wiggly word (called a CAPTCHA) before they can subscribe. These types of screening help prevent spammers from joining and sending junk mail.
  • Message moderation. You might also want the system to hold all messages that are submitted, to allow a list moderator to read them first and decide which get posted. Primarily a safeguard against spam or inappropriate posts, this can also be used to keep a list on-topic or maintain a narrow field of focus. Depending on the size of the list, moderating can be a daunting task. Some users dislike moderated lists, both because it can delay posts and because it can discourage participation—or appear to. In any case, whether you moderate via a queue or just by reading your list regularly, watch for posts that become hostile or uncivil or drift substantially off-topic -- then it’s time to intervene.
  • Data integration. Surprisingly few of these applications allow you to collect much information about who is on your list, let alone easily integrate that data with other systems - for instance, to be able to consider them as potential donors, volunteers, or clients. Platforms that tie in with the data and systems you’ve already got tend to be more expensive. If it's important to your organization to be able to pull your discussion list data into another system, be sure to speak with the vendor in advance to make sure it’s possible to do so.


The Tools

Discussion list platforms range in complexity from very basic to powerful and sophisticated, and in cost from free to very expensive. Costs tend to vary based on everything from whether your organization is a nonprofit or commercial enterprise and the number of groups and subscribers you plan to have, to additional features or programming required to modify the out-of-the-box software.

Tools You May Already Have

Basic discussion lists – with simple tools to allow people to subscribe, unsubscribe, and send messages to the group – are fairly straightforward, and a number of different kinds of tools offer them as a feature. Take a look at anything you’re using that stores email addresses or allows you to send email to see what might be available to you.

Or if you’re using a hosted integrated system that both allows you to store substantial constituent data and to do blast emailing, it’s likely to also support discussion groups. For instance, Democracy in Action, Kintera, Convio, Joomla, and Drupal all support discussion lists (you’ll need to have your own email server and someone with technical know-how for Joomla or Drupal.)

Finally, if your needs aren’t sophisticated, check with partner organizations or universities to see if any can offer you a free discussion list or two. A number of larger organizations run open source discussion list platforms that make it easy to support a few more lists. These discussion lists are likely to be a little less polished and user friendly than the options below.

Google Groups (http://groups.google.com) and Yahoo Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com)

Both Yahoo and Google offers very popular free, ad-supported discussion groups. They both have some nice features, including a searchable list archive, file uploads, and calendar tools. Google also offers wiki pages which can be edited by any group member. Both are fairly easy to use for both for administrators and subscribers, and within minutes you can have a discussion list up and running. While the tools are quite similar, our contributors generally found Google Groups to be somewhat more straightforward to use than Yahoo Groups.

There are some substantial downsides with both tools, however. Both include prominent ads in every email, which can be distracting and somewhat unprofessional looking, or even make it seem like your organization is endorsing the products. Google requires a Google account in order to subscribe to any list; Yahoo requires a Yahoo ID in order to modify any list preferences. For the older and less sophisticated Internet user, creating a Google or Yahoo! account just to access your email list can be a frustrating experience. Neither allows you to do much in terms of branding, and neither supports substantial integration with other databases. While there are forums and online help for both systems, there is no one official to call or email with questions.

Still, as free and fairly powerful tools, they can be very useful for more informal or internal groups.

Collective X’s Groupsites (www.collectivex.com)

Collective X offers a basic advertising-supported version of its group platform, Groupsites, for free, with additional features available for additional cost. The basic package includes listserv capabilities plus Web-based forums, file storage and photo galleries, and calendaring. If you want to customize or brand your site, it’s possible, but it’s going to cost you, as will additional features, such as blocking ads or Web site integration. Beyond the free version, costs are assigned on a nearly per-feature basis, but range from about $100 to $500 per year.

Electric Embers’ NPOGroups (www.npogroups.org/)

Electric Embers, a nonprofit-friendly worker-owned cooperative, offers a popular discussion list platform called NPOGroups. This platform has all the standard features – with web archives, file storage, and user preferences. The look of the web interface can be customized substantially to look like your website, and it’s possible to customize even the domain, for example, lists.yourorganization.org – to better match your website. If you want to integrate with your existing constituent databases, Electric Embers can help with that, too.

NPOGroups can at times be difficult to use, however—especially for administrators or list-owners. Some of the language used is fairly technical, and can be difficult for non-techies to parse. The Web interface for subscribers is more user-friendly than the administrative interface, but can still be confusing. However, several mentioned the great support - it’s easy to get a human on the phone to answer your questions (during business hours).

Fees are very reasonable – starting at $6/ month with a $120 setup fee, on a sliding scale based on organization budget.

GoLightly (www.golightly.com)

GoLightly is a more expensive but more robust package which integrates a suite of useful tools into a single package. Beyond it's solid support for email discussions, it includes strong and feature rich support for online groups, including personal and group blogs, wikis, libraries and photo uploads, video capabilities and more. The social networking aspect of the platform allows subscribers to search a member directory, specify “friends” from the larger community and create personalized pages and profiles. The look of the GoLightly web interface is very customizable, and the platform can support integration with existing databases and Web sites.

The system is fairly user-friendly for subscribers, though it can be convoluted for administrators to use until they’re familiar with it. Customer support is strong.

While GoLightly is significantly more powerful than most of the options here, it’s also significantly more expensive, and more time-consuming to setup. Pricing is based on a one-time setup and consulting fee, and then a monthly fee based on actual usage. The bottom line is, if your organization’s bottom line can support GoLightly, it’s got everything you need—and maybe more.

And more

There are a number of other available options which weren't as familiar to our contributors. For instance, DGroups provides integrated online and email discussion groups tailored to the needs of those in the global south. OnlineGroups.net (formerly Groupsense) provides email discussion lists with integrated online group collaboration sites - apparently free and without ads. And there's always the grandfather of the field, Listserv.

How to Choose

When considering what’s available, make sure you think carefully about your needs. What do you hope to accomplish with an email listserv? What features do you really need? A free, stripped-down solution might work much better for you than one cluttered with unnecessary functionality. Then compare your requirements to the list of features offered by the different platforms available to you. Seek out some mailing lists run on different platforms and subscribe to see how they work from a user’s perspective. Try the demos many vendors offer to see how the interface feels on the administrative end.

Whether your staff and constituents are in the same building, state, or strewn worldwide, email discussion lists make it possible for you to foster conversations with each of them—at their own convenience, and to your organization’s benefit. And with any luck, you’ve now got some ideas about how to start such conversations.

For More Information

Introduction to E-mail Listservs and Internet Mailing Lists

This article addresses the basics of listservs and the etiquette involved in participating in them.

Tips for Facilitating an Environmental Email List

A useful and detailed guide to facilitating any email discussion list.

A Network of Networks: Email Lists, Nature Protection, and Pollution Control (254 KB PDF)

Written with small environmental groups in mind, this white paper uses them as a framework for best practices for any organization using e-mail discussion lists.

Thanks to TechSoup for their financial support of this article, as well as to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help:

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