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Learn how to set up an email list to distribute information inexpensively and quickly to people within your organization and community.


  • What is an email list?

  • Why should you consider using an email list?

  • When is a good time to use an email list?

  • How do you set up and use an email list?


A diverse group of people checking emails on various computer devices.


In the last few years, the explosion of the Internet has brought about a revolution in how we communicate. About 1.5 billion people worldwide are now online, and almost all of those people use email.

Along with the increase in the number of people who use email, more and more people are also subscribing to email lists, with which they can either periodically receive information or regularly communicate with others who share an interest in just about any topic you can think of. Email lists exist for thousands of topics: Google Groups lists over half a million groups in well over 100 languages.

What is an email list?

With your email client (whatever program you use to access your email – Gmail or Microsoft Outlook, for example), you might already have experience with setting up your own small lists of email addresses. And you've probably already gotten at least one piece of much-forwarded (and usually untrue) chain email – like the one about the kidney snatchers or the one about how Bill Gates wants to give you $1000 – showing the email addresses of dozens of other people who have also been sent the same message. Well, these are not what we're talking about when we discuss email lists.

An email list – also sometimes called a reflector or listserv – is a group of people who communicate by email with one another through one single address. When people subscribe to (sign up for) a list, their email addresses are added and then, when anyone who is subscribed sends a message to the main email address, a copy of that message goes out to each person on the list. People can respond to the list address, entering into a group discussion, or they may wish to respond off-list or privately by emailing another list member directly without using that mailing list address. Mailing lists vary in size; some are very small, with only a dozen people or so, while others have thousands of subscribers. Sometimes large mailing lists are connected to Usenet newsgroups, so that postings to those mailing lists also show up on the corresponding newsgroups and vice versa.

Email lists are run through mailing list management software; some of the more commonly-used programs are ListProc and Listserv (which is so common that sometimes people refer to an email list as a "listserv" – much like some people call all tissues "Kleenex" or all soda "Coke"). These list management programs allow the list owner or administrator – the person in charge of running the list – to easily add and remove subscribers and change various settings.

Types of email lists

Announcements: Most lists are set up so that everyone who is subscribed can send mail to the list, allowing the subscribers to use the list for discussion. Sometimes, however, lists are "announcements-only;" in this kind of list, the list owner is the only person who can send mail to the subscribers. An announcement-only list can be a good way to get information out to people who don't want to deal with the large amount of email that some lists can generate, and they give your list manager complete control over what goes out to the list.

In the U.S., announcements-only lists – often with links to a website where users can take action or find out more – have revolutionized political campaigning in the past several years. was a pioneer in this area, and the 2008 presidential campaigns used email lists to an unprecedented degree, allowing candidates – Barack Obama particularly – not only to get their messages out, but to raise staggering amounts of money.

Moderated lists: With this type of list, the list owner must approve any messages sent to the main address before they are sent on the list. This allows for a great deal of control over what goes out to the list and eliminates irrelevant messages, but it can be time-consuming for the list owner if it's an active list.

Unmoderated lists: In an unmoderated list, any subscriber can send a message to the list address and it will automatically be sent out to the entire subscription list. This makes for less maintenance by the list owner and free communication among list members. Unfortunately, this also means that the list can be something of a free-for-all. Some control can be exercised by the list owner in removing subscribers who don't follow the rules, but he or she should be careful to avoid falling into censorship.

You might find it useful to establish two email lists for your organization: one that is announcements-only for those who don't want to deal with a large volume of email but still want informational updates, and a separate unmoderated list for those who are interested in discussing issues related to your initiative.

Depending on what type of list management software you use, subscribers to your list may be able to choose the option of subscribing to a digest version. In digest mode, the list management software bundles together several messages to the list into a single email, so that the subscriber receives list messages in one or two single emails per day, rather than with individual messages for each email sent to the list.

Where can you find out more?

There are tons of email lists out there on just about every topic you can imagine (and some you probably don't want to imagine). Several web directories list some of them; you might want to look at some of these directories to get an idea of the breadth and variety of topics that mailing lists can address. You might even find one you'd want to try out yourself!

For lists that focus on topics related to community health and development, you might want to check Public Health List page at

Why should you consider using an email list?

Email lists can serve many functions. They can serve as a way to:

  • Quickly and inexpensively get information out to a large number of people: For example, you can use a list to send out a reminder about tomorrow's meeting or an update on some project your initiative has been working on. You can send a message out to 10, 100, or even 1,000 people and not have to buy a single stamp!
  • Create a forum for discussion of ideas and issues: For example, you could use an email list to brainstorm online for fundraising ideas.
  • Encourage people interested in your cause to offer each other support and assistance: For example, you could use the list to organize a carpool for members attending an out-of-state conference
  • Spur people on to political action: For example, you could send out a message with phone numbers for your area's representatives in Congress with an appeal to call about an upcoming vote on a bill related to your cause.
  • Raise money for your organization or your issue. Appeals for funding to fill gaps in service or to support advocacy or other initiatives can generate the cash you need to carry out your community work.
  • Monitor the interests of your list subscribers. For example, you can start a discussion on your list to see what services people want the most.

...or just about anything else you can think of!

However, when deciding whether to set up an email list, it's obviously important to consider your audience. If most of the people you hope to reach don't have Internet access, then it should go without saying that an email list is unlikely to do your organization any good.

Depending on where you are, the number of people without Internet access keeps shrinking. In the U.S. and Canada, about 75% of the population is active online (with Europe not far behind), and that percentage is probably considerably higher for people under 40. Many people worldwide can and do receive email on their cell phones, at Internet cafes, at their workplaces, at school, or on public computers at libraries and universities. Email at this writing (2008) has gone from being a questionable mode of communication to being the preferred one for over a billion people worldwide. At least in the developed world, an email list is a pretty safe bet for reaching most of your intended audience.

In this section, we're going to talk about how you can use email lists as an organizing tool, and how to set up an email list for your initiative.

When is a good time to use an email list?

Any time is a great time to set up or use an email list. Creating an email list at the beginning of your work can help you communicate with others involved in your work and be a great organizing tool. You might also consider starting one up at the beginning of a specific campaign or project. Adding an email list can enhance your communications at any point in your organization's development.

How do you set up and use an email list?

Decide who will administer your email list -- whether that's you or another staff person, member, or volunteer of your agency or organization.

Your list owner--the person who will actually be running the list – should be someone who is fairly experienced and knowledgeable about email and the Internet, but she doesn't necessarily have to have administered a list before – the software involved is usually pretty easy to learn. It should be someone who knows a good deal about your organization, or at least knows the people towards whom a variety of questions should be directed. Since the list owner will be dealing with a lot of people who may or may not be familiar with your group, it should be someone you feel comfortable permitting to act as a representative of your organization. You may wish to add email list responsibilities to the job description of one of your staff members, or create an official volunteer position for it. Some advocacy or other large organizations may even hire someone specifically to manage an email list, especially if the organization depends on it for advocacy organizing and/or fundraising.

Running an email list can occasionally be time-consuming, but most days it should only take a few minutes of the list owner's time. Keep in mind, however, that the list owner must be able to monitor the list closely, respond to emails promptly, and be around to react if something needs attention. Your list owner should be someone who is punctual and responsible, and who has easy access to his or her email. This may be the most important thing about the person you choose – it must be someone who is able to commit to monitoring the list closely and keeping it up-to-date.

If you don't have one already, work with your list owner to select an Internet service provider and set up an email account to be used ONLY for the mailing list.

We are assuming that if you are looking at this website, your initiative probably already has Internet access. If you do not, however, you will need to select an Internet service provider (commonly called an ISP) – a business that provides Internet services to individuals, businesses, and organizations.

You may find it easiest to deal with an ISP in your own town because you can meet with them face-to-face when necessary, but you might be able to find an affordable service elsewhere. As with any sort of service, it's very important to shop around – talk to different ISPs to find out what sort of services they offer and what sort of rates they charge. There are many, many companies out there that provide Internet services, and you should talk to several before you make a decision. The customer service representatives at these places should be able to ask you questions that can help you get a better idea of what options might be best for you. Be sure to let them know you're interested in running an email list for your account; they may just be able to do all of the setup work for you.

Given that you're online right now, you probably already have an email address of your own. It is very important, however, that the email address that is used to administer the list is not someone's personal account. It needs to be a separate address. Tell your Internet service provider that you want to set up an email list and need a separate account for it.

It's also a good idea to check with other organizations and agencies in your area that use the Internet, especially any that use email lists in their work, to find out what ISP they use, how they feel about their service, and how much it costs them.

Decide which list management software to use.

This step might be unnecessary, depending on your ISP. Some Internet service providers may have a particular type of list management software that they prefer you use; others may leave that decision up to the individual consumer. There are several types of list management software out there. You can look at the websites for some of them to learn more about them and how they work:

These are the most commonly-used mailing list managers, but you can find a list of some of the other ones on Vivian Neou's Email List Management Software page online.

Lots of information on how to run these programs is available on their websites, but we've included a few basic commands below to give you a rough idea of what you can do with them.

The Basics of Email Lists

Most email lists have two email addresses: the subscription address, for administrative requests (like subscribing or unsubscribing), and the list address, which is the address to which subscribers send messages to have them distributed to the entire list. The commands below are usually entered by sending an email to the subscription address with the command in the body of the email message.

Please note that the brackets below shouldn't be typed in when you execute the commands yourself; they simply show where you will add in the relevant information for that particular list.

Listserv (this is the most common mailing list manager used for University-based lists)

  • To subscribe: subscribe [listname] {firstname lastname}
  • To unsubscribe: unsubscribe [listname]
  • To receive the digest version: set [listname] digest
  • To stop list mail temporarily ("vacation mode"): set [listname] nomail
  • To resume mail: set [listname] mail
  • To get a list of subscribers: review [listname]
  • To receive a copy of your own posts: set [listname] repro
  • To receive acknowledgment that your posts have been sent to the list: set [listname ] ack


  • To subscribe: subscribe [listname] [email-address]
  • To unsubscribe: unsubscribe [listname]
  • To receive the digest version: subscribe [listname]-digest
  • To cancel the digest version: unsubscribe [listname]-digest
  • To get a list of subscribers: who [listname]

Note: With Majordomo, a copy of your post is sent to you automatically and there is not a vacation/no mail option.


  • To subscribe: subscribe [list] {firstname lastname)
  • To unsubscribe: unsubscribe [list] {firstname lastname)
  • To stop list mail temporarily ("vacation mode"): set [listname] mail postpone
  • To resume mail: set [listname] mail ack
  • To receive the digest version: set [listname] mail digest
  • To cancel the digest version: set [listname] mail ack
  • To get a list of subscribers: recipients [listname]
  • To receive a copy of your own posts: set [listname] mail ack

There are also several web-based services that automate mailing lists. Some of these are free and some charge a small fee. Be aware that some of these services send advertisement emails out to all people subscribed to their lists. On the Internet, unsolicited advertisement email is considered spam, and many people really resent it. (Some people also consider chain mails, virus warnings, and the like to be spam).

Here are a few of the web-based list management services:

  • Google
  • Yahoo!
  • TalkList
  • Topica

You might also check out the big directory of Internet Mailing List Providers at Vivian Neou's website.

Whichever type of list management software you use, make sure your list manager has taken time to become familiar with the basic commands needed to run the list: adding new subscribers, removing those that want to leave, setting the list for discussions or announcements-only, etc.

Write a formal policy for your list.

The Internet is, by its very nature, a chaotic place. Given the relative anonymity of being online, even the meekest of milquetoasts can turn into swaggering John Wayne wanna-bes via email. A flame war --in which a simple difference of opinion escalates into a heated and often vicious verbal showdown between two or more people on an email list – can quickly fill other subscribers' in-boxes with dozens of nasty, off-topic bits of vitriol, causing subscribers to leave and the level of the discussion to drop.

Other dangers abound for the novice list owner. Off-topic posts that don't have anything to do with the list's purpose can also annoy and drive away subscribers. Spam, or unsolicited advertising, can be another threat to a mailing list. These irritating by-products of the information age can ruin the email list experience for both the subscribers and the owner. Therefore it's important to have a written, formal policy for your email list explaining the following:

  • Basic directions for subscribing and unsubscribing: This will vary depending on what sort of list management software you end up using.
  • A mission statement or statement of purpose: This should explain what the list is all about.
  • Rules for subscribers: These can be as detailed as you'd like. You might decide to be very specific about what people can and can't do in postings to the list, or you might take a more hands-off approach. Some things to consider here are whether you will require list participants to stick to a particular subject area, whether you wish to make any requirements for subscribers (e.g., is it going to be a list for professionals in a particular field or can laypersons subscribe as well?), and whether you should have a particular policy regarding online advertising for your email list. Keep in mind that some rules can be hard to enforce; it's generally best to establish a few basic rules at the beginning and make changes only if they turn out to be needed.
  • If you've decided on an announcements-only list, a description of what sort of announcements will be accepted and sent out to the list.
  • Contact information for your organization: This should be fairly thorough; be sure to include ALL information (contact person, address, phone number, fax number, email addresses, etc.).

There are other things that are more or less optional; you might decide to include these in your policy statement, or they might be in separate documents that are also mailed out to new subscribers:

  • Information on your services or programs, including information on qualification requirements and how to apply or find out more.
  • Resources and links for further information: where people can go to find out more about things related to your organization's purpose, such as suggested websites, other email lists, books, agencies, etc.
  • Frequently Asked Questions (also known as an FAQ). An FAQ provides the answers to those questions that people ask most often about your organization, activities, or services. Having an FAQ for people to read can help save you from answering a lot of those same questions over and over again.

Your policy should be sent out to each new subscriber. Most mailing list management software can be set up to do this automatically. Your policy should also be updated every so often. It wouldn't hurt to display a copy of it somewhere on your organization's website, if you have one.

You should have a pretty good idea of what you want your email list to be like before you write your policy. You might also take a look at the policies for some existing email lists for ideas.

Start letting people know about the email list.

  • Send email messages announcing your list to relevant email lists and post the information on Usenet and other discussion boards.
  • If you have a web page about your email list on your organization's site, submit your site for inclusion on the major web search engine sites and directories.
  • If your list is specific to a particular geographic area, let any local "community guide" websites that cover that area know about the list and ask that they include information on it on their own pages, if possible.
  • Let other groups and professionals in your area know about your site.
  • Include information about your email list in your regular media campaigns – posters and flyers, press releases, public service announcements, paid advertisements, your organization's next print newsletter.

As people begin subscribing and using the list, be sure that it is well-maintained and that adjustments are made to the policy as necessary.

This step is fairly self-explanatory; this is the point at which you will be trying to make your subscribers feel welcome and keeping information posted to the list relevant and interesting. Your list owner will need to be vigilant about making sure any discussions or announcements are related to your list's topic, and, if it's a discussion list, he should closely monitor the discussions to keep things under control. A good reference on how to keep electronic discussions civil and worthwhile can be found at the Netiquette Home Page. The amount of work that goes into maintaining an email list will depend mostly on how many subscribers you have – the more subscribers, the more work.

If your list is one where discussion is allowed (as opposed to an announcements-only list), you will probably find that the general "feel" of the conversations will change as time goes on.

Use the list for all sorts of things

We talked a bit earlier about some of the many uses for an email list. Now that your email list is up and running, you can start using it for some of these things:

  • Action alerts with information on your list subscribers can take action on an issue related to your organization.

The following is a fictional example of an action alert posting to a statewide disability-rights email list.

An email list action alert

Date: Tue, 22 Jun 1999 18:21:31 GMT

From: Annie

Reply-To: My Organization's List


Subject: Call your representatives now!

Dear ABLE-NY Members:

As you may have heard, New York State Bill #123 - the Access Bill - will be voted on tomorrow in the New York State House of Representatives.

If this bill passes, a system will be funded to allow people who use wheelchairs in state districts one through four to file complaints with the state accessibility offices if their employers have not provided accessible restroom facilities.

As we know from the discussion among many members of this list from those districts, this is a big problem. Please take a few minutes to call your district representative and urge him or her to vote FOR New York State Bill #123!

District 1 - Rep. Lisa Winkelstein, (123) 555-0987

District 2 - Rep. Alfred Presley, (123) 555-2345

District 3 - Rep. Patricia Martinez, (123) 555-8778

Thank you,

Annie B. Caldwell

ABLE-NY District 3

1234 West 9th St.

Anytown, NY 09876

Phone: (123) 555-4567

Fax: (123) 555-2968

Do's and Don'ts of Email Action Alerts:


  • Keep the message short and to the point
  • Include contact information for your organization in the email
  • Include contact information for anyone you're asking people to call or write
  • Have someone else look over the alert before you send it


  • Ask people to send email to elected officials
  • Include a lot of fancy formatting or fonts (not everyone has a sophisticated email client!)
  • Leave the subject line blank

Awards that have been given to your organization or its members.

An email about an award

Date: Tue, 22 Jun 1999 18:21:31 GMT

From: Annie

Reply-To: My Organization's List


Subject: ABLE-NY member wins recognition from the WAPD

Dear ABLE-NY Members:

We here in the ABLE-NY office have just learned that ABLE-NY member Latisha Freeman is to be honored by the World Association of People with Disabilities. Latisha, who has been involved with ABLE-NY since it started three years ago, will be honored for her activism and advocacy work at the annual WAPD awards banquet this September.

Everyone involved with ABLE-NY has known for some time what a valuable asset Latisha is to our community, and we are pleased to see her recognized in this manner. Way to go, Latisha!

Thank you,

Annie B. Caldwell

ABLE-NY District 3

Example: An email reminder about an upcoming meeting

Date: Tue, 22 Jun 1999 18:21:31 GMT

From: Annie

Reply-To: My Organization's List


Subject: REMINDER: ABLE-NY monthly meeting this Saturday

Dear ABLE-NY Members:

Don't forget - our monthly meeting will be held this Saturday, June 26 at 2:00 p.m. in the Walnut Room of the Anytown Holiday Inn, located just outside Anytown at Exit #123 off Highway 7.

As you may already know, we will be setting up the new fundraising drive committee, so anyone interested in being involved in this should try to make the meeting. Hope to see you there!

Thank you,

Annie B. Caldwell

ABLE-NY District 3

A quick tip for sending out emails about upcoming events or meetings: while email goes out almost instantly, not everyone checks his or her email daily. Whenever possible, try to send out emails about upcoming events as far ahead of time as possible. Then a day or two before the event you can send out a shorter, simpler reminder.

In Summary

The creation of an email list for your organization is a fairly simple, straightforward, and inexpensive way for your organization to communicate. While not ideal for every situation, email lists are one way for you to harness the power of the Internet to serve your community!

Chris Hampton

Online Resources

CataList, the official catalogue of ListServ groups.

Cnet Reviews – information on ISPs

Email list policy of the Environmental and Land Use Law Section of the Florida Bar.

Google Groups and directory of Google groups.

ListServ – list hosting

Listproc – list hosting

Majordomo – list hosting.

Netiquette home page – courtesy rules for using e-mail and the web.

Topica – list hosting, including a Public Health lists page.

Yahoo groups.