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Deciding What Goes Into Your Donor Newsletter

Resource Center - Foundation

By Tom Ahern

June 8, 2010

I was asked to speak at a conference of young, grassroots agencies. My topic: donor newsletters.

So what I assumed was this, as I planned what to say: that maybe none of the people attending my workshop have been trained as professional journalists or sales copywriters; or had any other sort of exposure to the black arts of writing to persuade a skeptical, time-challenged, over-solicited, anxious, unsure, compassion-fatigued, modern audience.

Which led me to wonder: How easy can I make all this stuff?

I don't know if the final result was easy easy. But it was by far the simplest description of the secret ingredients of donor newsletters that I've yet managed. And I want to share.

What follows is the checklist I developed for that particular workshop. These are the FEW things you really MUST remember, to make your donor newsletters succeed at: (1) retaining donors and (2) increasing gift revenue.

Thing #1: Donors should feel something as they read your newsletter. Something. Glad, angry, relieved, hopeful, happy, proud, satisfied ... something. Judge everything you put in your newsletter by one standard: Is this news item, anecdote, statistic, or photo likely to make the donor feel something?

Thing #2: Are you marinated in "donor love"? Do you make the donor feel like a VIP? Have you switched from the "donor-negligent" voice ("We did this. We did that. And, oh by the way if you sent a check, thanks!") to the proper "donor-centric" voice ("With your help, we did this and that. And without your help, we can't.") You simply cannot flatter a donor too much. In fact, "flattering donors too much" is right at the top of a fundraiser's job description, in my opinion. Why? Because flattery stimulates more revenue. And it's not a cynical ploy. Donors are never really gulled. They know flattery for what it is. But they don't reject it. Truth? They like the feeling. And, truth, you like the feeling. Fact: we all like the feeling. Flattery reminds us, in case we've forgotten, that we're worth something. That we're important. And that feels really good.

Thing #3: They want to trust you. They're just not sure they can. We have something like 1.5 million 501(c)(3) nonprofits in the U.S., but almost no regulatory oversight. Charity fraud is common in the news. You need to reassure your readers repeatedly that your organization is business-minded and trustworthy.

Thing #4: Surprise me. This is mere neuroscience: our brains tend to pay more attention to anything new. Even the word "new" excites us. Show me something I haven't seen before. Tell me something I haven't heard before. The rule: do anything but bore me. The reality: 99 out of 100 donor newsletters violate that rule religiously. No wonder your newsletters produce so little.

Thing #5: Prepare to be skimmed. More science: first, we look at all the bigger, bolder, briefer things in a publication, like headlines and photos, before we dig into the articles. And we seldom ever dig into the articles: no more than one in five readers will penetrate the first paragraph of any story. Plus there's the BI vs. AI phenomenon: Before the Internet vs. After the Internet. The Internet tossed a grenade into people's attention spans and blew them all to shards.

Thing #6: If you want response, you need to make offers. It's simple cause and effect. What kinds of offers? Information. Tours. Matching gifts. Special fund drives.

Thing #7: Is it easy to give? Inertia is the real enemy in fundraising, I am totally convinced. Simply getting someone to act (write a check, go online and donate) is hard. Convenience is key. Include a reply envelope. Remind the reader on every page on your newsletter that online donations are fast and safe. And then make sure they are fast and safe. I tried to give $350 online to a favorite charity the other day and their PayPal mechanism required me to set up an account first. No, thank you.

Thing #8: Collect email addresses so you can send e-newsletters. An effective donor communications program will field both (not either) printed newsletters and e-newsletters. Brief emailed updates let you keep your supporters informed at almost no cost. Yet most charities I know have email addresses for no more than 20% of their donor base. Boo hiss.

Thing #9: There are key messages you need to repeat over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and.... Some of those messages will be specific to your charity. Though some are apt for almost all charities, messages like: (1) The success of the mission depends on donors. (2) Your support is vitally important. (3) Nothing feels better than helping your neighbors and your community. (4) The more you give, the more good we can do.

>>> Takeaway>>> A good donor newsletter stirs pleasure in its readers. It reassures them that the mission is still urgent and relevant. And it renews in them the certainty that they are accomplishing something worthwhile by continuing their support.

Tom Ahern of Ahern Communications, Ink. in Foster, R.I. is the author of How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money and Seeing Through a Donor's Eyes. This article was reprinted, with permission, from

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