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AFP eWire Skill Builder Printable Version: June 16, 2009

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Writing Effective Newsletters, Online and Off  

By Tom Ahern

Award-winning journalist and communications trainer Tom Ahern answers some of the most common questions he hears about nonprofit newsletters—about how they are sent and what makes people want to read them in the first place.

Question 1: Can I replace my paper newsletter with an e-newsletter instead?

This is the most commonly asked question at my workshops. My considered answer has stayed the same for the last five years: " You really want both."

A well-done paper newsletter can produce significant revenue. Witness the Gillette Children's Foundation in Minnesota, which went from generating $5,000 per issue to $50,000 per issue just by changing a few things.

Understand, too, that paper and electrons are two very different media.

Paper is slow—the good kind of slow, the kind that's made the "slow food" movement so popular among the health-conscious. Paper is a reader's medium, a relaxing place where you have the elbowroom to tell stories, show terrific pictures and report results.

An emailed newsletter, on the other hand, is fast. It's an ACT NOW! medium. Words are kept to a minimum.

In December 2008, Jeff Brooks shared with me some conclusions from the company Domain's ongoing research into e-newsletters. "I had a hypothesis," he wrote, "that e-newsletters were radically different from print newsletters. Not about story-telling," he clarified, "but about the actions you can take. We've tested that notion a couple of times, and so far, that's proving to be true. It seems what works is to have one topic with 3 to 5 actions a reader can take, at least one of which is to give a gift, but the others aren't."

A fully firing communications schedule stays in touch with the donor base at a minimum once a month. Electronic newsletters help you satisfy that torrid pace. But if you pull the plug on paper and switch to utterly electronic, your donor income will almost certainly fall.

Here's a tantalizing bit of confirming data from Convio, via Ted Hart: Donors you contact with BOTH email and conventional mail give $62 on average annually versus a $32 average gift for those donors whom you contact ONLY through postal mail.

In other words, it's NOT an either/or situation, paper or electronic. It's a BOTH situation: paper AND electronic, if you want to maximize results.

Of course, that assumes you are actually getting results. If you aren't currently making money with your paper newsletter, don't expect to do any better with an e-newsletter. Really good donor newsletters are few and far between, in my experience. Most nonprofit newsletters sent to me for audits are unwittingly built to fail, due to a variety of unguessed fatal flaws.

Question 2: How can I get you to open my emailed newsletter?

One thing determines pretty much by its lonesome whether I bother to open your email or not, and that one thing is your subject line.

In 50 characters or less, you need to grab my attention, intrigue me, convince me there's something inside worth reading. (Why so short? Many email in-boxes only display the first 50 or so characters of the subject line.)

In direct mail, the purpose of the envelope is not to protect the contents. The true purpose of the envelope is to get opened—because the rest of the mechanism can't begin to work unless someone dives inside that envelope. Similarly, with emailed newsletters, the purpose of the subject line is not to label the contents. The true purpose is to get someone to open the email.

I send out a tips-and-opinion newsletter about donor communications roughly twice a month through a service called Constant Contact. Constant Contact reports back to me a number of revealing metrics about my emailed newsletter: bounces (sent but not received), opt-outs, forwards, which items people clicked on and how often. But the most important metric by far, the one I'm glued to, is my opening rate. That measures one thing: how well written and how relevant my subject line was to my target audience. Here's the subject line that fared the best in 2009, garnering a 44 percent opening rate:

The dirty truth about cases.

Why did that particular subject line work well? Because it promised to reveal a nasty secret. Did you know that some of the best-paid writers in journalism worldwide are the people who write headlines for tabloid newspapers? Publishers of the gossip rags know that a good headline is worth its weight in gold. They also know that the human brain is a curious beast. Promise to show it something it does not know, and the brain will snap to attention.   

Tom Ahern is the author of How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money, and Raising More Money with Newsletters than You Ever Thought Possible, available in the AFP Bookstore. His newest book is titled Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes. Ahern is an international communications trainer and an award-winning magazine journalist.

To access the AFP Bookstore, go to and click on AFP Marketplace & Bookstore.

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How NOT to Get Results With a Fundraising Letter  

In his book, How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters, direct mail veteran Mal Warwick describes the common errors in writing fundraising letters and explains how to avoid them.

Chaotic Thinking

Effective writing begins (and ends) with clear, disciplined thought. As William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White put it so elegantly in The Elements of Style: “Design informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose. You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision, a cathedral from another. This does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into.” So before you lay a finger on the keyboard or position your pen on paper, make up your mind what it is you want to communicate. Decide where you want to go and how you’ll get there. If necessary, outline the steps you’ll take along the way. If you don’t decide in advance what the point is, it’s unlikely you’ll get it across.

Hemming and Hawing

There may still be a place for slow and easy writing that meanders from point to point, but I think that approach went out of style with William Faulkner—and there is no room for such laziness when you’re writing to achieve results. Get to the point—the quicker the better! Unless you can devise a clearly superior lead sentence, I suggest you start a letter with the words, “I’m writing to you today because…” That approach won’t win a prize in a creative writing contest, but it does force you to communicate quickly and directly the result you’re hoping to achieve with your letter. Creativity doesn’t raise money, but directness does. If your writing doesn’t get to the point, your readers’ eyes and minds will wander off to more satisfying pursuits. Bluntness is usually a wiser and more productive course than subtlety.

Boring Leads

If you’re faced with the task of writing a six-page letter or a ten-page memo, you’d better be sure your opening paragraph—and especially the opening sentence—is intriguing enough to pique your readers’ interest. And that goes double for a letter intended to secure a gift or sell a product. Writing that engages the reader often begins with a question, a challenge, a human interest story, a bold assertion, a familiar phrase turned on its head—or straightforward, unalloyed directness. The special circumstances and conditions of your writing assignment (or simple inspiration) may suggest that one of these approaches is ideal. But it may be enough simply to sum up the points you’re going to make—if you state them dramatically enough and set the proper tone for the audience you’re addressing—for example:

I’m writing today to invite you to join me in launching a historic initiative with vast potential to improve the quality of life in our community.

For a general audience, that pompous lead might guarantee your letter will quickly make its way into the proverbial circular file. But for a highbrow group with a demonstrated commitment to your community and a connection to the person who signs the memo or the letter, the boldness of your claim may be captivating.

Run-On Sentences

Writing of any type suffers from overlong sentences; a letter to raise money or sell software can die a horrible death from this malady. If a sentence is longer than three typewritten lines, analyze it, looking for a way to break it down into two or three simpler and shorter sentences. Almost always, you’ll get your point across more effectively if you do so. Keep this in mind: a reader dedicated enough to tackle Proust or Joyce may be willing to concentrate hard enough to follow a tortured thought all the way to a long-overdue period. (Understandably, the period is sometimes known as a full stop.) But your readers aren’t likely to pay that much attention. Long sentences will test readers’ limited attention span, and you’ll come up the loser.

Failure to Use Visual Devices to Guide the Reader

A novelist who is highly skilled in moving the reader from one page to the next may be able to do so with the power of words alone. Most of us aren’t so lucky, and our readers, who often have far more meager incentives to read on for page after page, are typically far less tolerant. To write effectively for impact, you’ll probably need to make liberal use of subheads, bulleted or numbered series, boldfaced section headings, and other devices to break the monotony of gray, unbroken text. Only by providing your readers with clues that are visible at a glance can you make your writing actually look easy to read—and you’ll substantially reinforce that impression by using short sentences and short paragraphs. Signals such as these send an important message to the reader: that you’re writing for her benefit, not for your own.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, from How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters (w/CD), 2nd Edition by Mal Warwick. Copyright (c) 2008 by Jossey-Bass. All rights reserved.

Mal Warwick is the author of several books on fundraising. His latest book is titled Fundraising When Money is Tight. This and several other titles are available in the AFP Bookstore. Simply search by subject or author’s last name. To access the AFP Bookstore, go to and click on AFP Marketplace & Bookstore.

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Take the “Numb” Out of Numbers  

By Ann Wylie

Fundraisers work with numbers every day, and often are faced with the task of turning cold numbers into a lively call to action for donors. Learn how to help your audience understand new, difficult or complicated information through the power of metaphor.

This article, written by for-profit communications coach Ann Wylie (, was reprinted with permission.

Numbers numb.

But sometimes only numbers can demonstrate the depth or breadth of an issue. Make your statistics more meaningful by comparing them to something tangible and familiar to your audience. That's what P.J. O'Rourke did in this passage about bailing out the S&Ls for Rolling Stone:

The United States government is about to spend $150 billion to preserve the nation's savings and loans. …

"How much is $150 billion?" a reader might reasonably ask at this point. O'Rourke continues:

…That's enough to send every member of our country's high-school class of 1989 to Harvard for four years. Enough to buy a fair-sized commercial building for each of America's homeless people. Enough to get every welfare mother a new mobile home in your suburb. And it will cost every man, woman and child in America $650.

OK — now I understand what $150 billion is like.

So how does a writer come up with brilliant passages like O'Rourke's?

1. Do the legwork.

I wish I could tell you it's easy to develop a passage like this. But finding numerical comparisons takes a lot of research.

I found that out when I was writing an annual report about charitable giving in Kansas City. I wanted to compare the $770 million total amount Kansas Citians gave to charitable organizations in one year to make that number more meaningful to the audience. To track down the comparisons, I:

  • Used the Business Journal's Book of Lists to report that $770 million was "more than the annual revenues of Blue Cross/Blue Shield" and "more than the combined annual budgets of the metropolitan area's three largest school districts."
  • Called the city's economic development authority to find the city's average wage. After a few minutes with my calculator, I was able to report that: "To achieve that amount, some 24,000 people would have to work full time for a year at Kansas City's average hourly wage of $15.59."
  • Did the math. From the Book of Lists, I learned the size of the student body of one of the city's largest school districts. I divided $770 million by the number of students. The result: in the neighborhood of $35,000 per student. Then I asked: "What would that buy that students might want?" (That helps you sync your metaphors with your topic.) My answer: some kind of car. That year, Jeeps were popular, so I …
  • Called the local Jeep dealership to find out what kind of Jeep I could get for $35,000. As a result, I was able to report that $770 million was "more than enough to buy every student in the Kansas City, Kan., School District a brand-new, 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee."

Doing the legwork for numerical comparisons is hard work. But it's worth it to help readers comprehend your statistics.

2. Browse these resources for numerical comparison.

Looking for statistics to give your numbers context? These resources will help you find comparisons to make your numbers more interesting and understandable to your audience members:

  • FedStats. This Website bills itself as "the gateway to statistics for over 100 federal agencies." You'll find statistics on everything from how much wine Americans drink (less than one-third of a gallon a year, which means I'm definitely upping the averages!) to the average income of Salt Lake Citians. Don't miss MapStats for comprehensive data on the 50 states.
  • Statistics, demographics and other information about 25,000 U.S. communities. If I were writing about a 20-minute surgical procedure for a health system client in my hometown, for instance, I'd do a little research here. Then I'd be able to report that the surgeon could perform the procedure in less time than it takes the average Kansas Citian to drive to work.
  • Finding Data on the Internet. Journalist Robert Niles provides a list of helpful links to "reputable data on everything from public safety to campaign contributions."

3. Make sure your comparison aids understanding.

The magic of metaphor in translating numbers is that you compare the unfamiliar to the familiar to aid understanding.

So when you compare, say, the cost of a new program to a stack of dollar bills that go to the moon and back, you have to ask yourself how familiar that is. How many of your audience members have been to the moon and back?

Don't let statistics stultify your copy. Every time your finger reaches for the top row of the keyboard, ask yourself: "What can I compare this to?"

The result: clear, compelling copy—regardless of how complex your numbers may be.

Take the numb out of numbers

Want to learn more about how to make statistics more interesting and understandable? Join Ann Wylie at "Writing That Sells," her intensive writing workshop ( on Sept. 22 and 23 in Overland Park, Kan. 

About the author

Ann Wylie, president, Wylie Communications Inc., works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. Ann is the creator of, a toolbox for writers. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at Get a FREE subscription to Ann’s e-zine at  

Copyright © 2004 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

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AFP Awards Materials Now Available—Nominations Due July 15  

Nomination forms for AFP’s Awards for Philanthropy and other honors are now available on the AFP website and are due on July 15. The nomination booklet can be downloaded from the electronic version of this eWire article or can be found at under National Philanthropy Day and AFP Awards.

The only exception is the Campbell & Company Awards for Excellence in Fundraising, nominations for which are due on Sept. 15.

Nominators should be aware that several changes have been made to the criteria and nomination process for the Awards for Philanthropy. Supporting materials for most awards are no longer accepted, and nominations MUST address the criteria in the indicated format. These changes were made because of the increasing number of entries and to ensure fairness and consistency as judges reviewed the nominations.

AFP Awards for Philanthropy

AFP offers a number of different awards for exemplary work in philanthropy and fundraising. These include AFP’s Awards for Philanthropy, which include the following categories:

  • Paschal Murray Award for Outstanding Philanthropist
  • Freeman Philanthropic Services Award for Outstanding Corporation
  • (CCS) Award for Outstanding Fundraising Professional
  • Changing Our World/Simms Awards for Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy, Ages 5-17 and Ages 18-23
  • Award for Outstanding Foundation
  • Award for Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser

Nominations for the Awards for Philanthropy are due on July 15 and must be submitted electronically. No supporting documentation is allowed, only the answers to the questions and criteria that are found on the nomination form.

Other Honors

AFP also offers other awards for outstanding fundraising achievements, service to AFP and chapter efforts in diversity:

  • The Barbara Marion Award for Outstanding Leadership to AFP recognizes an AFP member who demonstrates outstanding leadership and service to the association and/or its related entities, such as the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy.
  • The Charles R. Stephens Excellence in Diversity Chapter Award recognizes the year's most outstanding demonstration by an AFP chapter of leadership, creativity, and initiative in building diversity in membership or programming. One award is presented in each chapter size category.
  • The Campbell & Company Awards for Excellence in Fundraising are presented to nonprofit organizations' development departments or fundraising programs that have developed an innovative initiative, program or project design, or technique that has increased their donor base, increased the amount of funds raised, and improved their fundraising return on investment. One award will be given in each of two categories based on organizational size. Unlike the other honors, nominations for the Campbell & Company Awards for Excellence in Fundraising are due Sept. 15, and supporting materials are allowed. More information can be found on the nomination form.

More information about these awards and the Awards for Philanthropy can be found on the AFP website,, under National Philanthropy Day and AFP Awards.

Research Prize and Chapter Ten Star Award

The AFP Awards Committee oversees all of these awards programs except for the Skystone Ryan Prize for Research on Fundraising and Philanthropy and the AFP Chapter Ten Star Award.

More information about the Skystone Ryan Prize for Research on Fundraising and Philanthropy can be found at under Research and Statistics.

For information on the Chapter Ten Star Award, members should log into the "Member Gateway" section of the AFP website.

Questions about the AFP awards program can be directed to NaTanya Lott at /about/.

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Nominations Being Accepted Now for AFP Board of Directors

AFP is seeking nominations of qualified candidates to serve on its 2010 Board of Directors as a district director or as an at-large director. Forms are due on or before July 31, 2009. To nominate someone for AFP’s Board of Directors, go to the AFP homepage,, and click on the item in the to-do list regarding board nominations. Or see the electronic version of this story in eWire.

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Nominations Open for Foundation for Philanthropy Board

The AFP Foundation for Philanthropy is now accepting nominations for chair-elect (due July 10) and for officers and directors (due July 24). For more information and for a nomination form please visit the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy website at

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Major Donor Fundraising—Innovation and Creativity on a Shoestring

Meet and learn from an international audience of fundraising practitioners, major donors, financial advisors and consultants at this February 2010 seminar in London. With a global selection of speakers and delegates from such locations as North America, Europe and Asia, this year’s conference will examine innovation and creativity in major donor fundraising and how this can be achieved on a shoestring budget. To learn more, go to and click on Education and Career Development. Then follow the link to Executive Institutes.

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Don't Miss Two Upcoming Great Webconferences to Improve Your Fundraising!

(To register go to and click on Education and Career Development—AFP Web/Audioconferences)

Making the Most of Email Marketing—Presented by Allison Van Diest of Blackbaud

June 25 | 3-4:30 pm ET

There's simply no faster or more cost-effective way to reach out to
As a benefit and service to help fundraisers through the current challenging economic envirosupporters and keep your organization top of mind than through a well-organized and managed email marketing program. This session will highlight proven messages to help you inspire action from your email recipients, as well as tools to help you plan, develop, launch and manage a successful program. Don’t miss Making the Most of Email Marketing: Optimizing Your Message for Today's Medium presented Thursday, June 25 at 3 p.m. Eastern.

Maximize Fundraising Through Your Website – Presented by Allan Pressel

July 8 | 1–2:30 pm ET

Learn how to plan and build a website which not only has a lot for the user to see, but a lot for the user to do as well. Consider the impact of a site that offers online donations, event tickets, membership dues, e-store purchases, affiliate marketing, even in-kind donations, planned gifts, investment donations and much more. Register today for Forty Ways to Maximize Fundraising Through Your Website presented Wednesday, July 8 at 1 p.m. Eastern.

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