Unraveling Development: Communications and Comprehensive Relationship-Building

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Want to keep your donors? Want profitable relationships that last? Do it with a comprehensive relationship-building program that includes communications (this column) and cultivation (next column).

Mostly organizations communicate through newsletters – and most newsletters are clueless. Wrong content. Poor writing. Lousy readability.

Tom Ahern finds these seven flaws in most donor newsletters:

  1. Failure to deliver news that donors care about
  2. Failure to put the donor on center stage
  3. Lack a friendly tone
  4. Skimp on emotional triggers
  5. Fail to tell stories
  6. Expect people to read in-depth
  7. Lack real headlines

How flawed (or flawless) are your newsletters?

I remember when I followed the directions of my various English teachers. You know, never start a letter with “I”. Never have just one sentence in a paragraph. Of course, all sentences must have a verb. Much of this is totally wrong for communications.

I’ve spent quite some time trying to learn to write better in order to communicate. So my first recommendation is this: Forget what your English teacher taught you. Hurry up and learn to write better!

One-sentence paragraphs are fine. One-word sentences are fine. Sentences starting with “and” or “but” are just fine. Sentences without verbs are just fine.

Other writing tips:

  • Improve your headlines! Headlines are more important than articles. Read any good daily newspaper. Their headlines tell pretty much the whole story. And headlines help people decide what they want to read. (Here’s a tip: Take your headline and show it to someone who doesn’t know the story. Ask them what the story is. If they get it right, your headline works.)
  • Avoid passive voice and complex sentences. Use short sentences and short paragraphs.
  • Make it easy for the reader. Write at 8th grade level. Use Microsoft grammar check to evaluate your writing.

Always remember, people don’t have to read your stuff. If you make it hard to read, they just won’t read! People skim. If the headlines don’t interest them, the story won’t either. So what happens when just about no one reads your newsletter? This isn’t good relationship building.

Here’s another surprise: Readability matters. Using reverse type reduces readability by something like 50 percent! Indented paragraphs are essential and mandatory because they make the text easier to read.

Another no-no: using sans serif typefaces like Arial. For reading on paper, a serif type (e.g., Times New Roman) is essential.

These are facts,not opinions. And sadly, graphic designers are rarely taught readability. Get prepared for a fight when you say, “use a serif typeface” and “no reverse type” and “indent the paragraphs, damn it.” Get prepared for another fight, because most marketing / communications staff don’t know this stuff either.

Compare your newsletter to the documented body of knowledge. Remember, your opinion (or that of your board members) doesn’t matter.

Use the body of knowledge to create the best newsletter possible. See all the details in Tom’s various books: How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money, Raising More Money With Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, Keep Your Donors: The Guide to Better Communications and Stronger Relationships, and Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes. Subscribe to Tom’s free e-news and read all the archives for more about writing.

  • JerryGladden

    This link details visual patterns in how people generally read articles:

    Eye Tracking Article

    Thank you for writing this article Simone!

  • JerryGladden

    This link details visual patterns in how people generally read articles:


    Thank you for writing this article Simone!

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thank you, Marc, for the eye motion study information. Readability is so important to the internet and to print.

    Hey everyone reading this column: Make sure you read Colin Wheildon’s research on print readability. See Tom Ahern’s books for tips about readability, thanks to Colin Wheildon.

    I think that Colin’s seminal book Type & Layout: How Typography and Design Can Get Your Message Across – or Get in the Way … has recently been reprinted.