The Better Newsletter
Ask donors what they want from nonprofits, and they’ll seldom say, “Appeal letters.” Even more rarely do they say they want e-mails. And do they ever ask for telemarketing calls?
But many donors do want newsletters. A newsletter can improve donor retention and upgrade rates. It can pull donors into deeper, more involved relationships. And it can raise net revenue at enviable rates.
Sound good? Here, in four steps, is how to give your newsletter maximum positive impact:
1. Make it about your donors — not you.
This is all you really need to know: The topic of every issue shouldn’t be how great you are, but how great your donors are. That’s how you catch and hold your readers’ attention, and lead them into deeper relationships with your organization.
Not by standing on a soapbox and preaching to them. Not by trying to educate and improve them. Not even through objective journalism and facts about your organization’s success.
The pages of a truly motivating newsletter are packed with “mission accomplished” stories — always clearly tied back to the donor’s involvement. Nearly every word and every image should be proof that the donor’s giving matters. If it’s not about the donor, leave it out!
2. Tell stories.
We humans comprehend our world through stories. Facts and figures are important, but not memorable or persuasive. They should play a supporting role to the stories. Newsletter stories should more or less follow this outline:
* Beginning. The situation before you were involved. Something was broken, incomplete, dramatically wrong.
* Middle. You got involved. Things started to turn around. Maybe there were setbacks and difficulties, but things got better.
* End. Success! It worked. You — and your donors — made the world a better place. At this point, it’s good to directly address the donor and thank her for her part in this transformation.
3. Write powerful headlines.
Headlines tell readers what they’re going to read. If your headlines are boring, it hardly matters how exciting the copy is.
Check out this headline from the newsletter of a nonprofit that shall remain nameless: “Empowering Partnership.”
I’m sorry to say I didn’t make this up. As so often happens in nonprofit newsletters, the writers stayed away from drama and specificity, and instead defaulted to meaningless, flat jargon. It might as well say, “Warning: If you read this, your eyeballs will turn purple and drop out.”
Here are some hallmarks of strong headlines:
* Strong action verbs. The verb is the heart of a good headline. Once you have a vigorous verb, the rest of the headline falls into place. Avoid “ing” verbs.
* Multiple elements. You aren’t stuck with just one sentence. You can enrich headlines with kickers (smaller copy above the main headline), subheads and other elements that add clarity or drama.
* Conflict. That’s what a good story is. Make sure the elements of the conflict are in the headline.
* People. Good verbs need good subjects and objects. People in relationships are about as interesting as it gets.
4. Make it readable.
No matter how good it is, your newsletter is a waste of paper if people don’t read it. It’s critical to focus on the principles of readability. Among them: grade level (use short words and sentences, and aim for a fifth- or sixth-grade reading level); rip-roaring narrative, not bland, inverted-pyramid journalistic copy; and many entry points like subheads, pull quotes, captions, bold copy, etc.
The other side of readability is good design. By good design, I don’t just mean pretty or cool — I mean reader-friendly: lots of images and white space; large, black text in a serif font; no reverse type, type over photos or patterns, or type over dark tints. All these things kill readability. I know they look cool. But if it’s so cool nobody can read it, where does that get you?
Jeff Brooks is creative director at Merkle.