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[ASK AN EXPERT] Should Nonprofits Send a Print or Email Newsletter?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a fundraiser who isn’t sure whether they should keep sending a print newsletter through the mail or convert it into an email newsletter.

Dear Charity Clairity,

We are a non-profit agency that still does paper newsletter mailings. Even though the trend shows electronic is the way to go, we still have the mindset that we reach more people if they have something to hold in their hands vs. the ability to “delete” an email without even opening it or it not even making it to their in-box due to filters, spam, etc. Are we living behind the times still with this mindset or is there even a right vs wrong way?

— One Right Way

Dear One Right Way,

I would never say there’s only one way to do things. That being said, you might be better off with an e-newsletter right now. Not exactly because it’s a ‘trend’ (I’m never one to advocate blindly following the herd). But, generally, trends come about for a reason.

I always like to look to research and donor feedback to see if it’s a good reason.

One good reason to send an e-newsletter:

Donors don’t love big paper ‘newsletters’ anywhere near as much as staff do. This is one of the most important pieces of wisdom gleaned Penelope Burk, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising, from countless interviews with donors across the United States and Canada. Why? The templated missives most nonprofits send several times a year are filled with lots of organization-centric stuff. They generally aren’t filled with what a donor considers news. Typical formats include (1) Letter from E.D./Board President; (2) Events; (3) Program updates; (4) Awards or grants received; (5) New staff or board member profile; (6) Campaign report; (7) Fundraising appeal; (8) Donor honor roll, and so forth. In other words, announcements and reports the organization thinks are interesting. Not necessarily information the donor may find relevant, important or inspiring. Burk found donors would much rather receive a timely, one-page piece of real news – whenever it occurs – than a pre-scheduled, templated, larger format ‘newsletter.’

A second good reason to send an e-newsletter:

They are much less expensive, and they’re delivered immediately. Hopefully while the news is still new. There’s no paper, printing, design, mail house or postage fees. If it’s merely your opinion folks would prefer something they can hold in their hand, why not send a brief donor survey and ask them? You might also ask them if they read what you’ve been sending in the past, and what their favorite features are. Not only will you learn valuable information; the very act of sending the survey is a great donor engagement strategy.

A third good reason to send an e-newsletter.

You can include active links so your supporters can take a desired action. People feel good when they do something, and this makes it easy. If you want them to donate, you can include a donate box. If you want them to view a video, you can link them to something they’ll find compelling and inspiring. If you want them to sign a petition or take an advocacy action, you can direct them there. Just make sure you test how the email appears on different platforms such as desktop, tablet and smart phone. You want to assure it’s easy to read and respond to no matter where your supporter encounters it.

A good reason to send an e-newsletter in the midst of a pandemic:

More people are likely to open your e-news than they might have been pre-pandemic. They’re at home. They’re in front of their computers a lot. They’re looking for things to connect them to community. They’re generally a bit more receptive.

You are right people are usually (probably) more likely to delete an email than they are to dump a mailed newsletter into the garbage before it makes it from their postal box to their kitchen counter. But we’re living in unusual times. That was before folks began wiping down their mail before opening it, so… who knows right now? You don’t really ever know, however, because there’s no good way to track this. You can, however, track email opens. One of the best ways to improve open rates is to spend time crafting the subject headline. You can even randomly split your email list; then do an A/B test and experiment with two headlines to see which performs better.

You can find some terrific examples of email newsletters here, here.

I hope you find this reasoning useful, and it helps to shift your mindset.

Charity Clairity

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