Friday, August 17, 2007

Recommendations for a great non-profit newsletter

The Nonprofit Communications blog recently publised Five Questions about Print Newsletters, which provides some excellent guidance for what makes a good nonprofit newsletter. In summary, the author recommends that a non-profit newsletter should be:

  • Focused on your specific target audience.
  • Limited to four pages in most cases.
  • Published quarterly.
  • Contain articles no more than 600 words.
  • Feature no more than two fonts.
  • Be printed in four-colors.
Below are some of my reactions, as well as some additional recommendations for items that need to be considered when publishing a newsletter. I would love to hear your thoughts, as well.

Focus on specific target audience
This is an obvious but often overlooked point. She spells it out very well here, but I think that an even better explanation can be found at the Donor Power Blog's reaction to her post, "One thing you need to know about your nonprofit newsletter."

As with most parts of the typical non-profit donor program, a newsletter generally lacks a specific goal. Staff and board want it to bring in funds, sure, but they also drop senseless lines about how the newsletter needs to "raise awareness," "build the brand," "change people's attitudes" and "put a stake in the ground."

On all of these things, I think that NPO staff/volunteers are mostly delusional. Donors are not looking at newsletters for these things. At least, those are not the main things that they expect. They want to know:

- Where was my gift spent?
- What did my gift do? (i.e. did it have an impact?)
- Who else supports this organization? (i.e. am I a fit with this organization?)
- Why should I continue supporting this organization?

This last question is the hardest to answer, but answering it is the critical task for any newsletter. Focusing on this goal will help non-profit newsletters to focus on their core audience -- donors.

Four pages limit
This makes a great deal of sense. The cost of adding pages -- not just the printing/mailing, but the staff time required to write and design extra pages -- is just not worth it when most readers just flip it open for a few minutes at most. If you can't raise money in the first four pages, the additional two won't make it easier. Focus on the donor, with the goal of telling them why they should continue to support you.

The only difficulty is that four-page newsletters generally require folding/sealing in order to have a remittance envelope. One of the things that we are dealing with at Central Dallas Ministries is our attempt to mail our newsletter "flat" (like a magazine), so that recipients are more likely to read it. When it mails folded, half of what they see is the side with the mailing label (which is reduce to 1/4 of what they see if it is mailed flat and unfolded). The thing you want to avoid is having your newsletter be thrown away without being opened (let alone read).

Published quarterly.
Considering how much mail some of your donors receive, this seems like a maximum amount of times you want to send your newsletter. A monthly newsletter sounds overwhelming -- unless it's a two-side piece with just the bare bones.

Whatever schedule you use, be sure to deliver your newsletter reliably and regularly. This makes it easier on your staff to produce the piece, and donors will be more receptive to it.

Contain articles no more than 600 words.
Amen! I struggle with this a great deal in my work at Central Dallas Ministries. I frequently end up with articles at nearly 2,000 words and try to cut back towards half that much.

I am going to start requiring this limit for our articles. It is unreasonable to expect that donors will read more about our organization than a newspaper article that interests them.

Feature no more than two fonts.
This is pretty clear. Featuring too many fonts looks very unprofessional, like you just learned how to download new fonts and are trying to take advantage of your new skill. Allow fonts to become an unnoticed but effective medium for your message.

Be printed in four-colors.
I actually disagree with this point, in some cases. At Central Dallas Ministries, we are often accused of producing direct mail that looks too "fancy." For a social services organization -- particularly one the deals with poverty -- it can look wasteful to produce a full, four-color newsletter with beautiful photos. Donors want to see that their money is being spent on feeding the hungry, not buying ink.

It's the opposite for arts organizations. They are supposed to look slick and cool, and cutting corners to save a few bucks implies that they don't have the capacity to advance the arts. The nature of your mission should determine the look and feel of your newsletter: everything from paper quality to ink colors.

A few final thoughts
Some additional things to consider when looking at your newsletter:
  • Build Your Newsletter Around Images, not Words. Tell your story with pictures whenever possible. Never use the same photo twice, however compelling it is (readers will think that they've already read the piece). Have a photo on every page. Integrates charts and graphs, as well, since different people are drawn to different images.
  • Small is Big. Don't talk about 10,000 starving orphans; talk about one whom you were able to feed. Don't talk about needing $1 million to meet your annual budget; talk about needing $1,400 to pay your supply budget. Allow your readers to see how they can fit into your organization by providing manageable opportunities for them to get involved.
  • Consider using postcards instead of newsletters. Their printing/mailing costs are dramatically cheaper, and there is no concern about whether or not donors open them. The problem is obviously space and lack of remittance vehicle, but a postcard can deliver a targeted message that drives readers to your Web site for their desired action (i.e. donation, registering to volunteer, etc.)
I'd appreciate any feedback that you have on this topic. What are your own do's and dont's when it comes to newsletters?