Editors’ note:
This article, first published in print during Mar/April 2012, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.


IF YOU HAVE AN ONLINE COMMUNICATIONS PROGRAM, odds are your constituents are used to hearing from you. They probably like you. Heck, they might even like you a lot. And if yours is like many organizations, they’re hearing from you when you need them most—when you’re in the midst of a fundraising campaign, or to sign a petition, show up at a meeting, or call their elected officials. This is great—this is you getting your sup-porters to help you do what you need to do in order to make a difference in the world.

But your relationship with them is just like any relationship you might have in the “real” world—it’s a two-way street, and it needs to be nurtured. Part of this is making sure your supporters don’t only hear from you when you want something from them. The care and feeding of these relationships requires that you remind them what you’re doing in return for their actions and donations.

So what have you done for your supporters lately?

It’s not so much that your communications need to tell them what you’ve done for them per se—depending on what you do, that might not make sense. But how do you convey what you’ve done to deserve their attention, support, and trust?

One answer? The e-newsletter.

Do I hear the sound of the needle being pulled off the record? A collective groan? Why do e-newsletters have such a bad rap? Sadly, they’re all too often poorly executed and a source of organizational conflict over what’s included, and they can wind up being a huge time suck with little payoff. But you can’t afford for them to be.

One large organization we worked with used to produce an e-newsletter that required upwards of 90 hours a month to produce. This simply isn’t a reasonable amount of work for most organizations, regardless of the potential bigger picture return. And unlike a donation appeal or action alert, for the most part you can’t track your success rate or ROI from an e-newsletter.

So sending them can sometimes seem like sending an email blast out into a proverbial black hole.

Some organizations manage to tell their constituents what they’re doing for them (and the cause) effectively without an e-newsletter. Using standalone cultivation emails, they report back to action takers on the progress of a campaign, tell donors how close they are to their goal, and update volunteers about new developments in a project or plan, without asking for much in return.

The downside? This can mean a flurry of single-issue emails and complicated segmentation. And the reality is that no matter how exciting a new development is to our organizations internally, our audiences typically aren’t as jazzed about topics like website redesigns as we are—and we should think twice about dedicating a single email to spreading the word press release–style. This is where an e-newsletter can especially come in handy.

So how do you avoid the common pitfalls and implement your e-newsletter efficiently and effectively?

Who’s the Boss?

First and foremost, someone has to own the e-newsletter, just as someone should be overseeing your online program. That person should be thinking about your e-newsletter in the context of your larger messaging strategy. They must be empowered to make decisions—including saying “no” when content isn’t appropriate to the medium and your mission.

Don’t Send for the Sake of Sending

If you find that you’re putting content into the message just because there’s empty space in your email template—or because someone in