Your newsletter doesn’t need to be the Rodney Dangerfield of your fundraising program: Part 1

Pity the poor newsletter.

If there is one component of non-profit fundraising programs that is consistently overlooked and undervalued, it’s the newsletter.

Like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, newsletters “don’t get no respect.”

All too often, the newsletter is just an afterthought. Newsletters are not expected to raise a lot of money, and all too often they meet those low expectations.

What do you want your newsletter to be when it grows up?

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of newsletters from non-profit organizations. There’s the No-Ask Newsletter that simply reports accomplishments. This type doesn’t raise money because it doesn’t even try.

The No-Ask Newsletter may be of some long-term value by closing the loop with the donor. But most of the time this species talks about what the organization has accomplished and how effective it is. This information may reinforce previous giving, but the No-Ask Newsletter does not motivate immediate new donations.

Other newsletters are nothing more than fundraising appeals thinly disguised in newsletter clothing. In my experience, this type of Hard-Ask Newsletter does raise some revenue, but in most cases not as effectively as straightforward appeals.

Another variety is the institutionally focused Navel-Gazing Newsletter written for insiders.

Without the accountability that comes from revenue expectations, newsletter strategy becomes fuzzy. This leads to one of the worst dangers, the loss of audience focus.

It is very common for newsletters to attempt to serve many different masters. These All-Things-to-All-People Newsletters are created for several different audiences in addition to donors. For example, some organizations use their newsletter to communicate with donors, volunteers, employees, board members and even the general public.

This desire to be all things to all audiences makes it difficult to effectively focus on any single audience.

When the newsletter devolves to this point, it usually doesn’t make anyone happy and slides into irrelevancy.

“All too often, the newsletter is just an afterthought. Newsletters are not expected to raise a lot of money, and all too often they meet those low expectations.

The Extreme Donor-Focused Newsletter

In recent years, my colleagues and I have resolved to do something about this sorry state of the newsletter. We started by attacking the problem at the root. We decided to reverse the diffused audience focus and create newsletters with an obsessive, laser-like focus on donors.

The result is the Extreme Donor-Focused Newsletter. It is aimed squarely at the donor. In fact, it is all about the donor.

This approach assumes donors give because they love to give and love to make a significant difference in the world. It combines reporting back about what the donors have accomplished, and offers them a clear opportunity to give again.

We had considerable inspiration to draw on. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I worked at a feisty little Seattle agency called the Domain Group that preached donor loyalty and created newsletters that raised money. In fact, in some cases newsletters made more money than appeals.

Domain was acquired by a much larger agency and is long gone now, but that experience lives on today to give hope that newsletters can be better. My former Domain colleague Jeff Brooks, who writes the blog Future Fundraising Now, is a strong advocate for donor focus. Longtime fundraiser and blogger Tom Ahern has also written brilliantly on this topic.

The accumulated experience gave me the confidence that it was really possible to build a better newsletter and the inspiration to keep tinkering. I wanted to shake off the curse of Rodney Dangerfield once and for all!

A chance to put up or shut up: The Extreme Donor-Focused Newsletter Challenge

Then, the perfect opportunity to test these theories fell into my lap. One of my current clients asked us to test against an internally produced newsletter.

This was one of those test situations you dream about: Head-to-head A-B panels set up for a statistically valid test and spread over 3 different newsletter mail slots.

The internal newsletter was a classic blend of the All-Things-to-All-People and the Navel-Gazing Newsletters. It was aimed at a wide variety of constituents and contained a lot of organizationally focused stories. It did ask for donations, but not consistently.

The results of the test were gratifying, with the Extreme Donor-Focused Newsletter showing dramatic improvement across the board:

  • 419% lift in response
  • 19.5% lift in average gift
  • 521% lift in revenue

In the next blog post, I’ll go into detail about specific tactics we used to get these results. Stay tuned and discover how you can create your own Extreme Donor-Focused Newsletter.