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Making Money With Donor Newsletters - A Review

Why Nonprofits Should Keep Their Print Newsletters

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Tom Ahern

Making Money with Donor Newsletters: The How-To Guide to Extraordinary Results, Tom Ahern, Emerson & Church, 2013. 
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Let’s be honest. Nonprofits have been trading in their printed donor newsletters for emailed ones at an increasingly fast clip. One of the charities I donate to just recently asked me if I’d be willing to stop receiving its newsletter by mail and start getting it by email. At least they asked. Many times, the switch just happens.

Why? Because it’s just so much less expensive to email than to mail.

But a funny thing has happened. At the same time that charities have been transforming their printed newsletters to email format, the retention of donors has gotten worse.

A coincidence? Maybe not.

I knew that I love the printed newsletters that I get. I sit down with them and usually read them completely. But I thought I was just an oddball.

Reading Tom Ahern’s new book, Making Money with Donor Newsletters: The How-To Guide to Extraordinary Results, convinced me that I’m not alone. Many donors still prefer a printed newsletter, and, when done well, those newsletters leave emailed newsletters in the dust when it comes to bringing in donations.

If you haven’t read this book by now, I urge you to get a copy and then use its tips for your very next printed newsletter. I think you might be amazed at the results.

Here are just three of the many reasons to keep sending printed donor newsletters, according to Ahern:

  1. Donor Retention – Donor acquisition is a money loser UNLESS you retain those donors. Yet research has found that 70 percent of first time donors are gone within a year! Donor newsletters, when done well, retain donors and build loyalty.
  2. Reach – Ahern says that providing extraordinary experiences for donors is crucial, but hands-on experiences only reach a small number of people. Through the stories in your newsletter, donors can experience emotional gratification over and over.
  3. Reporting – Today’s donors want to know about results. A donor newsletter can be a fantastic reporting mechanism. It can show how the donor’s gift made a difference.

The kicker, of course, is that your donor newsletter needs to be well designed and written to certain specifications in order to be an effective money raiser. Just any old newsletter won’t do.

And Ahern knows, through his own and others’ research and testing, just what the formula for an effective donor newsletter is. He lays it out with examples of what to do and what not to do.

Here are a few of his dos and don’ts:

  • Don’t make the newsletter a self-mailer. Self-mailers are cheaper for sure, but they just don’t make the grade. Put the newsletter in an envelope. It’s far less likely to be tossed into the trash.
  • Do send the newsletter exclusively to current donors, all of them. Don’t use your donor newsletter as a PR device. It should be written and designed for donors alone.
  • Do include a reply envelope and a reply device. If your newsletter celebrates donors and makes the case for your cause, donors will give.
  • Don’t use a corporate tone. Donor newsletters are about heart. They are not “corporate communications.” Start with stories and end with stories.

Ahern answers your most pressing questions about newsletters too, such as:

  • How often should I send a newsletter? As often as possible. Monthly is optimal – quarterly is the bare minimum.
  • How long should the newsletter be? Four pages, in a standard format, works well, says Ahern.
  • Should the newsletter be 4-color? Four-color pulls the best and donors won’t think you’re wasting money. That’s an old myth.

If print newsletters are so effective, should you give up on your emailed ones?

Ahern devotes considerable time to comparing print newsletters and emailed ones. He suggests that email newsletters do have a place in your communications, but says they don’t raise money very well.

However, emailed newsletters are good for reaching people fast in an emergency, to create buzz about an issue, for reminders about events, and they are more acceptable to younger people. But, in the US, the typical donor is an older one. So, unless your specific donor base is young, do give printed newsletters a chance.

Very interest-specific organizations also do well with emailed newsletters. Ahern cites the example of the LadyBird Johnson Wildflower Center, which achieves a whopping 25% opening rate for its many emailed newsletters. Every email’s subject line includes the word “wildflower.”

The best chapter, I thought, of Ahern’s book describes the nine fatal flaws that kill response to a newsletter. Here are four of them:

Fatal Flaw: Your newsletter avoids using the word “you.” Get intimate, embrace the reader with “you.”

Fatal Flaw: Your front page is boring! If it has a letter or message from the Executive Director or the Board Chair, it’s dead on arrival. Start with a story that warms the heart.

Fatal Flaw: Too many statistics, not enough anecdotes. Ahern cites research that found anecdotal information (stories) raise more than twice the money as statistical information. Think mixing the two is a solution? Nope. Ahern says, “Numbers kill response….it’s that simple.”

Fatal Flaw: Weak or dysfunctional headlines. This is the most deadly flaw for Ahern. He is a former journalist and knows his way around headlines. He devotes three chapters to how to write good ones.

There is much more in Ahern’s book. I can’t wait for you to read it.

You’ll learn how to find the “news” that is all around you at your organization; discover lots of “just add water” ideas for newsletter articles; how to help your reader “skim” your newsletter; how to use pull quotes effectively; and why knowing the age of your donors is so important.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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