Nonprofit Newsletters – Are You Making These Mistakes?

If you are familiar with Penelope Burk’s Donor-Centered Fundraising, you know that communication plays a key role in retaining donors. Aside from your appeals and your thank you letters, how you connect with your donors throughout the year will reinforce their bond with your organization. The ubiquitous newsletter is one of the best ways to keep in touch with donors and keep them abreast of what’s going on with your organization.

So why do so many nonprofit organizations muck up in this area and fail to deliver?

The newsletter is too long.
Frankly I believe one page – two pages tops – is plenty long enough for a donor newsletter. People are generally far too busy these days to have more than the attention span of gnats and I can’t remember when I spent more than five minutes reading a newsletter. This isn’t a magazine, folks. You want your reader to sit down with your newsletter in hand and read it – not put it aside to read later (translation: never read and eventually tossed).

And save the full color with glossy stock for your annual report, if you publish one. Donors generally don’t like to think that their money is being spent wastefully.

Inconsistency.
In 2006 you published a quarterly newsletter. In 2007 you published a monthly newsletter. In 2008 you changed executive directors and only got out one newsletter.

Make up your mind!

My preference is a quarterly or three times a year newsletter. You want to give your volunteers, board members and donors enough information – but you don’t want to saturate them (and, by the way, don’t send your newsletters to those foundations who are supporting you). Studies show that a newsletter mailed three times a year is as effective as a quarterly piece.

The newsletter is boring.
Is your lead article a piece highlighting your “remarkable” executive director – complete with a glam photo?

Donors don’t wanna hear about it.

Donors want to hear about your work. They want engaging and heartfelt stories about the clients you’re serving, complete with photographs and testimonials. Highlight successes in every issue and volunteer involvement. Make note of any unique fundraising opportunities. Assign a regular column to a volunteer, donor or client.

Make the newsletter about them.

Other tips?
I’ve always left out the return donation envelope and saved it for my individual appeals. To me the newsletter is a key communication piece – not a solicitation.  However there are definitely two schools of thought on this.

Have short interesting articles that are easy to read. Avoid technical jargon and excessive bragging.

Make use of a number of photographs featuring close-ups.

Encourage two-way communication. Direct your reader to an online survey (survey monkey is one of many terrific online tools) or contest.

Begin cultivating email addresses and begin a shorter, monthly e-newsletter as well.

Provide up-to-date contact information.

What are your tips for effective donor communication?




19 Responses to “Nonprofit Newsletters – Are You Making These Mistakes?”

  1. Joanne Fritz says:

    I think some newsletter editors think too much in “journalistic” terms. A quarterly newsletter is not “breaking news” and it is perfectly ok to lead off with a feature story rather than a “newsy” story. After all, a newsletter is a totally optional read for the recipient. A warm fuzzy article showing people…donors, volunteers, public, clients…interacting in some way with the organization is more likely to get the piece read than the latest fundraising figures, or a message from the Executive Director.

  2. Kris Hoots says:

    I think you have some good points here — especially about inconsistent publishing and boring content.

    I think that the length and style of the newsletter is determined by the objectives of the newsletter.

    Is it merely a communications piece? Are you using it to only tell of your successes? OR is it integrated with your overall fundraising strategy and you are using it to tell a story, to show your donors how they can help — but in a more visual presentation?

    We have experience with newsletters outperforming direct mail appeals in astounding ways. For many small organizations, the newsletter has not been used for anything other than communication — with zero opportunity for fundraising. And so it becomes a matter of retraining the donors so they will read it and respond.

  3. Sandra Sims says:

    Two mistakes I see with small NPOS trying to “save money” –

    No photos – Pictures of clients, volunteers, donors are a must!

    Bad printing – Pictures lose effectiveness if you can’t tell who the people are. Shop around for the best printing for the price. If your current printer doesn’t cut it – switch.

  4. Jay says:

    For an excellent example of a quality newsletter, go to http://www.shilohranch.org – Click on “Shiloh Results Newsletters” in left column. Then download pdf. files.

  5. Pamela Grow says:

    Thank you for sharing Jay! Great newsletters – I like that you have “Follow us on Facebook” too and the photos and stories are truly compelling!

    So true, Sandra. A picture says a thousand words. I always check w/ board members too (re: printers) – sometimes someone knows someone in the industry (harkening back to the 6 degrees of separation theme).

    I have used print newsletters primarily as a donor communication tool and followed the Donor-Centered Fundraising model.

  6. John Lepp says:

    great post Pam. Another tip – a client of ours used to publish a tear away coupon as part of their 4 page newsletter. We would fold in a BRE as well. We tested taking out the coupon and included it as a separate piece with a BRE and it beat the pants off the tear away.

  7. Pamela Grow says:

    Thanks for sharing John … I’m going to use this idea with a client of mine!

  8. There was a big lull in our newsletter production, but now I’m trying to keep us on schedule. How do you feel about only 2 newsletters a year? I don’t want to over commit to doing more than that right now, especially if there are in between e-newsletters.

  9. Mary Cahalane says:

    We just started producing a print newsletter for our supporters. So far it has been very well received.

    Lots of pictures, captions and a focus on our supporters and what *they* make happen.

    (We do include an envelope, and results the first time out showed some pretty strong support from those receiving the piece.)

  10. diana hills says:

    Thanks for the post Pam. I have a question for you: Why do you recommend not sending your newsletters to those foundations who are supporting you? What about foundations that haven’t yet supported you that you are trying to reach out to?

  11. Pamela Grow says:

    I do recommend communicating with foundations – both current funders and prospective funders – however I believe a personalized letter is a better approach. And my advice was more of a knee-jerk response to working at a foundation and being deluged with newsletters that no one had the time to read.

  12. Pamela Grow says:

    Bentley, if you’ve created a schedule of e-newsletters to complement your print newsletter, 2-3 print newsletters a year is enough (read Don’t be shy – communicate!). The key is to communicate with passion consistently.

  13. Harry J Tucci Jr says:

    I would tend to disagree with two items, one being the length and the other the use of color. Done right a 4 page newsletter on simple paper stock with the strategic use of pictures to break it up, can go a long way towards increasing mission effectiveness. I do not want to be forced to sit and read some long winded appeal letter … show me concrete examples of what you are accomplishing and why my $$ are needed.

    The Maine Coast Heritage Trust recently sent me one like this and it immediately moved to the top of my donor pile. The Jesuit Center in Pennsylvania is another good example. With today’s technology it really costs no more to print than a boring black and white letter.

  14. Pamela Grow says:

    If a communications piece is compelling, almost any length can work. There’s the key word: compelling. And don’t forget donor-centric.

    Typically I recommend some color, even if the newsletter is merely printed on color stock.

    For more on this topic, please read: http://community.icontact.com/p/pamelagrow/newsletters/pg070809/posts/the-grow-report-another-take-on-donor-newsletters

  15. Harry, following a suggestion that I picked up from Tom Ahern, ours is four pages – it’s an 11 x 17 piece of paper, which means 4 regular sized pieces to work with. But it’s heavy on the photos and captions (color – which is really so cheap if you just print it yourself!), so a really easy read. Four pages can definitely work!

    And thanks again, Pam, for having these discussions!

  16. [...] Nonprofit Newsletters: Are You Making These Mistakes? Pamela Grow , March 25, 2009 [...]

  17. Courtney says:

    You’re right – you want your newsletter to be the opposite of long and boring. Think of who is reading it, and write to them, using short and entertaining chunks.

    For some more great tips…
    http://www.affinityconnection.com/index.php/blog/item/15-how-to-create-a-newsletter-people-eagerly-read.html

  18. Cindy says:

    I completely revamped our newsletter when I took over from my predecessor because it was so boring and uninspiring that even our staff weren’t reading it (and I didn’t blame them).

    I pulled the CEO’s message off the front page and put it on the second page, gave it a shaded background, and a ‘break out quote’ to cut down on the blocks of text.

    I did a staff profile each issue in a Q and A format and found out some really interesting stories that were never told before.

    I found that a mix of news and feature stories worked which showed that we had not just local perspective but a world focus as well. The news being our organisations response to something that is happening in the wider community and feature stories on our work/staff/volunteers or work that we were doing with families.

    It helped to get a better office camera, the worst photo ever taken of me in my life was on the dodgy office camera. And wrote more interesting captions. I would encourage newsletter producers not to put in the same two-shot of people looking at the camera–it gives the impression that every story is the same.

    We distribute this newsletter electronically to those on our databse with emails and via snail mail to those who don’t.

    The result? Great feedback and a spike in the number of subscribers. My advice is not to be afraid to shake things up just because “that’s the way they’ve always been done”. Even a good newsletter can be made even better!

  19. Bethany says:

    How have people done effective e-mail newsletters? Almost every e-mail newsletter I get goes straight to trash–not because I don’t care, but because I don’t have time, and it’s so easy to get rid of. I’d like to save printing costs by moving some of our newsletters online, but ONLY if they’ll still be read.