Nonprofit Newsletters – Are You Making These Mistakes?

March 25, 2009

If you are familiar with Penelope Burk’s Donor-Centered Fundraising, you know that communication plays a key role in retaining donors. Aside from your appeals and your thank you letters, how you connect with your donors throughout the year will reinforce their bond with your organization. The ubiquitous newsletter is one of the best ways to keep in touch with donors and keep them abreast of what’s going on with your organization.

So why do so many nonprofit organizations muck up in this area and fail to deliver?

The newsletter is too long.
Frankly I believe one page – two pages tops – is plenty long enough for a donor newsletter. People are generally far too busy these days to have more than the attention span of gnats and I can’t remember when I spent more than five minutes reading a newsletter. This isn’t a magazine, folks. You want your reader to sit down with your newsletter in hand and read it – not put it aside to read later (translation: never read and eventually tossed).

And save the full color with glossy stock for your annual report, if you publish one. Donors generally don’t like to think that their money is being spent wastefully.

In 2006 you published a quarterly newsletter. In 2007 you published a monthly newsletter. In 2008 you changed executive directors and only got out one newsletter.

Make up your mind!

My preference is a quarterly or three times a year newsletter. You want to give your volunteers, board members and donors enough information – but you don’t want to saturate them (and, by the way, don’t send your newsletters to those foundations who are supporting you). Studies show that a newsletter mailed three times a year is as effective as a quarterly piece.

The newsletter is boring.
Is your lead article a piece highlighting your “remarkable” executive director – complete with a glam photo?

Donors don’t wanna hear about it.

Donors want to hear about your work. They want engaging and heartfelt stories about the clients you’re serving, complete with photographs and testimonials. Highlight successes in every issue and volunteer involvement. Make note of any unique fundraising opportunities. Assign a regular column to a volunteer, donor or client.

Make the newsletter about them.

Other tips?
I’ve always left out the return donation envelope and saved it for my individual appeals. To me the newsletter is a key communication piece – not a solicitation.

Have short interesting articles that are easy to read. Avoid technical jargon and excessive bragging.

Make use of a number of photographs featuring close-ups.

Encourage two-way communication. Direct your reader to an online survey (survey monkey is one of many terrific online tools) or contest.

Begin cultivating email addresses and begin a shorter, monthly e-newsletter as well.

Provide up-to-date contact information.

What are your tips for effective donor communication?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Joanne Fritz July 30, 2009 at 8:34 am

I think some newsletter editors think too much in “journalistic” terms. A quarterly newsletter is not “breaking news” and it is perfectly ok to lead off with a feature story rather than a “newsy” story. After all, a newsletter is a totally optional read for the recipient. A warm fuzzy article showing people…donors, volunteers, public, clients…interacting in some way with the organization is more likely to get the piece read than the latest fundraising figures, or a message from the Executive Director.

Kris Hoots July 30, 2009 at 8:44 am

I think you have some good points here — especially about inconsistent publishing and boring content.

I think that the length and style of the newsletter is determined by the objectives of the newsletter.

Is it merely a communications piece? Are you using it to only tell of your successes? OR is it integrated with your overall fundraising strategy and you are using it to tell a story, to show your donors how they can help — but in a more visual presentation?

We have experience with newsletters outperforming direct mail appeals in astounding ways. For many small organizations, the newsletter has not been used for anything other than communication — with zero opportunity for fundraising. And so it becomes a matter of retraining the donors so they will read it and respond.

Sandra Sims July 31, 2009 at 7:28 am

Two mistakes I see with small NPOS trying to “save money” –

No photos – Pictures of clients, volunteers, donors are a must!

Bad printing – Pictures lose effectiveness if you can’t tell who the people are. Shop around for the best printing for the price. If your current printer doesn’t cut it – switch.

Jay July 31, 2009 at 7:32 am

For an excellent example of a quality newsletter, go to – Click on “Shiloh Results Newsletters” in left column. Then download pdf. files.

Pamela Grow July 31, 2009 at 7:48 am

Thank you for sharing Jay! Great newsletters – I like that you have “Follow us on Facebook” too and the photos and stories are truly compelling!

So true, Sandra. A picture says a thousand words. I always check w/ board members too (re: printers) – sometimes someone knows someone in the industry (harkening back to the 6 degrees of separation theme).

I have used print newsletters primarily as a donor communication tool and followed the Donor-Centered Fundraising model.

John Lepp March 14, 2010 at 7:54 am

great post Pam. Another tip – a client of ours used to publish a tear away coupon as part of their 4 page newsletter. We would fold in a BRE as well. We tested taking out the coupon and included it as a separate piece with a BRE and it beat the pants off the tear away.

Pamela Grow March 14, 2010 at 8:32 am

Thanks for sharing John … I’m going to use this idea with a client of mine!

Megan Groves April 25, 2011 at 8:10 am

The organization I recently worked at always included remit envelopes with their newsletters (of course, no ask in the newsletter) and they did very well.

I am interested in the research showing that newsletters 3x a year get the same results as quarterly ones! Especially for small nonprofits with limited printing/postage budgets, that is good info to have.

Mary Cahalane August 3, 2011 at 7:25 am

Guess what I’m working on right now? 🙂

I think there is definitely a place for color and lots of photos. With color printers sitting in every office now, it’s really not very expensive, and makes the newsletter so much more inviting! In fact, our 3x a year newsletters are pulling much, much better than our annual report. So I don’t want to save there!

I find that I don’t use a lot of copy. Pictures and headlines do the heavy lifting – easy to browse, and then read more if the donor is interested.

And John – I’m finding that a separate envelope and coupon does pretty well, too.

Pamela Grow August 3, 2011 at 7:29 am

Absolutely Mary. With today’s technology even the small nonprofit needs to cut “we can’t afford that” from their way of thinking. Thanks for commenting.

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