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 the organization wants to send an update and no one has the heart to tell him or her it’s not e-newsworthy—then drop your mouse and slowly back away from the launch button.

There’s no rule that an e-newsletter has to be sent every month or that it must adhere to a fixed format. Committing yourself to an inflexible schedule can increase the likelihood that you’ll send out messages that inspire yawns from your supporters. And a rigid vision of how an e-newsletter “ought to look” could be a hurdle to getting a message out when you have timely, juicy news to share. Some organizations we work with send e-newsletters in formats that are looser, more narrative, more like a letter. Other groups send their e-newsletter bimonthly or quarterly. These are all acceptable alternatives to the traditional monthly launch and may give you the flexibility you need to make the most of this communication tool.

Make It a “Newsy Letter”

To avoid putting your audience to sleep, your e-newsletter must not become the dumping ground for the updates that don’t warrant a standalone email. Likewise, they should not be the clearinghouse of news stories that are only vaguely (or not at all) connected to your work or your organization.

Your e-newsletter should contain—you guessed it—news, though not in the strictest sense. We’re talking generally of news about your organization and the work you do. Good news, bad news (though bad news should never be the sole focus), campaign updates—ideally delivered with a conversational, newsy, storytelling tone, in a way that highlights the impact your organization is making.

Stories that are focused on your impact should be front and center, as they establish the case for the “value” you provide—which is important to reinforce repeatedly as it ultimately contributes to the case you make when you ask your supporters for contributions.

So…What Does a Good e-Newsletter Look Like?

e-Newsletters provide a great opportunity for you to showcase what (and who) makes your organization stand out, so avoid using a dry, institutional voice. Consider having the e-newsletter consistently sent from the same person, and begin the message with a short, personal introductory note from her or him. The note should be in a friendly first-person tone that can be warm, welcoming, inspirational, thoughtful, or even humorous when appropriate. Employing authentic personality and emotion in the message, particularly in the introduction, is a great way to “hook” your readers and draw them into the rest of your content.

Whether you use a standard template with pockets for individual content or a more narrative format, make sure your e-newsletter features a clean layout and concise, timely content that can easily be scanned. e-Newsletters will typically contain bite-sized content, and that content will often drive readers to your website where they can “read more” about a topic or story that interests them. This medium isn’t the place for a long, direct mail–length message or press release. As is often the case with digital content, you’ve got a few seconds to capture your readers’ attention, get them to read your content and/or click through to your website—so you’ll want to keep it short, sweet and readable.

While it’s important that your e-newsletter cultivate your relationship with your supporters, this doesn’t mean you can’t give them something to do. If you’re in the midst of a big advocacy, fundraising or awareness campaign, highlight it and invite your readers to participate if they haven’t already.

Make your e-newsletter more interactive by adding a Q & A section. Or find a way for supporters to submit feedback that would be featured in an upcoming e-newsletter: for example, a “What We’re Reading” section featuring mission-appropriate books, blogs, or other websites selected by list or staff members. One organization that works with women in developing nations used to feature a short snippet from a supporter alongside one from a beneficiary. The snippets, accompanied by photos of the featured individuals, spoke about the organization’s impact on each of them. In addition to being a great way to highlight the ways the organization was making a difference, this feature served as an excellent way to make a nameless mass of beneficiaries into distinct individuals—and in doing so highlighted the shared humanity of beneficiary and supporter, despite differences in geography, culture, and privilege.

In addition to integrating interactive elements into your e-newsletter, take full advantage of your readers’ attention to include a passive ask for a donation. Think less generic “support us,” and more specific: “Like what you see? Help us do more x with your gift today.” After all, this is when your readers are most engaged and interested. They’ve just opened your e-newsletter and we hope they’ve read content illustrating your impact in the world, so including a contextual donation ask with a button that stands out in the layout of the e-newsletter is fair game.

You likely will not have many readers donating directly from your e-newsletter—and that’s fine as that is not your primary goal in launching it. But odds are that your supporters who receive cultivation messaging like e-newsletters will be more likely to donate down the line. Striking a balance between give and take in your communications will contribute to your supporters experiencing your relationship with them as a two-way street, instead of a one-way trip to the ATM. n

Nzinga Koné-Miller is an Account Director at Watershed, a consulting and services firm designed expressly to help organizations build, grow, and sustain relationships with constituents online. watershedcompany.com