Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Jan/Feb 2007, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
It was already September and the July newsletter still wasn’t done. I was especially concerned for two reasons. We had two events coming up that we wanted to promote in the newsletter, and we had a lot of new donors as a result of the recent humanitarian crises in the Middle East who hadn’t received any information from us except a short thank-you letter.
I decided to get a newsletter out fast. To make it easier, I reduced the number of pages from twelve to eight and decided to focus the content on our recent humanitarian aid efforts, with an autobiographical piece by our partner in Gaza who was carrying out much of the work. Our upcoming events were announced in a few places, and an article by our featured speaker was included to generate interest in what he had to say. The design showed off our new logo and was printed in four colors for not much additional cost. I also included a page with basic information about the Middle East Children’s Alliance, both for the benefit of new supporters and because the newsletter had to serve as our informational piece for event attendees.
In many ways this issue was a departure from the kind of newsletters we had been doing. It was shorter, more time-sensitive, and more focused. Nonetheless, it had all the elements I consider essential for a newsletter to be an effective part of our fundraising program.
NEWSLETTERS BUILD RELATIONSHIPS
The relationship between an organization and its supporters is essentially a long-distance one. Even local organizations communicate with their donors primarily through the mail. While websites and e-mail communications are important, most donors still like to get a paper newsletter. Many people do not like to read things on a computer screen, and you just can’t reach everyone via e-mail. That said, you should also post your newsletter on your website and send a version of it through e-mail. (Though, for the privacy of your donors, I would exclude lists of donor names from those more public places.)
A newsletter serves several purposes in a fundraising program. First, it’s an important benefit people get in exchange for their financial support. Even if they don’t actually read it, it gives them something tangible that reinforces your organization’s existence and efforts. It gives them another opportunity to give, shows them how their money is being used, and recognizes their support. Newsletter articles — and photos — can deepen a donor’s commitment by expanding their understanding of the issues your group addresses and by introducing them to the leaders of the organization and the people the organization serves. People who attend an event or sign a mailing list often give their first gift in response to getting a newsletter.
Ideally, a newsletter should go out at least four times a year in order for supporters to perceive it as a regular publication and a benefit of membership (even if you’re not technically a member organization). For some very small organizations, though, this is just not possible, and producing a newsletter twice a year may be all you can manage. If you’re short on time or funds, four-page newsletters are fine; supplementing your newsletter with an occasional one- or two-page memo from the director or board chair — especially to major donors — is great.
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Although a newsletter is not a direct appeal for funds, it is a key part of any fundraising program and shares many features of fundraising letters. The articles should be short, the writing simple. It should be pleasing to look at, and people should be able to flip through and see things that catch their attention, such as photos with captions, pull-quotes, headlines, and subheads. I get a monthly newsletter with good articles from an organization I care about, but the articles are long and there are no photos. The type is small and in a sans serif font. (OK, this may seem picky, but a serif font is just easier to read.) Most months, I put it aside to read later, and then I rarely do.
People are generally busy when they pick up their mail and get their first look at your newsletter. They need to see right away that there are a few things of interest to them and that it won’t demand an enormous amount of their time and concentration.
WHAT TO PUT IN YOUR NEWSLETTER
Newsletters should have a variety of articles and announcements of different lengths. Here are a few things that should be in every newsletter:
- A donation form. The text of this form can be very general, such as reinforcing a recent fundraising letter or ongoing campaign, or it can be a pitch for a monthly giving program.
- A reply envelope. A “remit” or “wallet-style” envelope folded or stapled into the newsletter is best, as it allows space for the fundraising message and for the donor’s name and address. Although this information is also on the donation form in the newsletter, some people will hang on to the envelope after they’re done with the newsletter, and vice versa.
- A message from the director, board chair, founder, or anyone who’s perceived as a leader of your organization. This brief essay should capture the person’s voice and be more like a friendly personal letter, rather than an article.
- Photos with captions. Here’s where you can show off your recent accomplishments. People almost always read photo captions (and often don’t read anything else), so try to put something in the captions that reinforce the donor’s giving.
Other things you may want to include:
- A list of donors — particularly major donors — who’ve given in the period since the last newsletter.
- A reprint of an article by someone closely associated with your organization, if it’s not too long and technical. Also, announcements of public appearances or publications by people in your group or people who are considered leaders in the area your organization addresses.
- A question & answer or advice column. Such a column is good if your organization deals with legal, health, or consumer matters that directly affect your supporters. The Breast Cancer Fund, an organization in San Francisco that addresses the environmental links to breast cancer, includes in its newsletter a regular feature with a question from a reader and an answer from an environmental health expert about reducing personal risk.
- Personal stories. If you’re a direct service organization, stories by or about clients or “people in the field” are great.
- Event announcements. Ours always go on the back page, below the address panel, so it’s the first thing people see when they pick up the newsletter — even before they open it.
- Stories about lesser-known aspects of your work. Several years ago, I gave to a local children’s organization because a child I know was helped by their well-known program for kids with very sick parents. Later, I learned through their newsletter that the organization did other important work with kids in my community; now I’m an even more committed (and generous) supporter.
- Profile of a volunteer, donor, or board member. Getting to know people inside the organization gives readers a more personal sense of your group.
- Information about leaving money in your will, and profiles of supporters who have done so.
So far, my recent “seat-of-the-pants” newsletter is generating the same size and amount of donations as other newsletters have in the past. So, I’ve learned a few lessons. The main lesson: just get the newsletter out. Second, shorter may be better – or at least as good. No more twelve-pagers from us. Third: start working on the next newsletter as soon as the current one goes in the mail. This habit will help keep you on schedule to get a newsletter out each quarter. Keep an eye out for good photos and story ideas all the time.
By keeping in mind the essential and desired components of a newsletter and its place in your program’s fundraising, it should be less of a chore to “think up” what should go in the next one. That way, your chances of actually getting out a newsletter each quarter grow larger — along with your fundraising success.