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Nonprofit Newsletters Donors Abhor

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nonprofit newsletters

Most nonprofit newsletters, sadly, are the antithesis of what donors crave.

In 2001 I attended my first workshop with Penelope Burk, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising. It completely changed how I approached fundraising. It also changed how I approached nonprofit marketing.

Specifically, I learned something most donors simply won’t tell you about your newsletter:

It’s boring them to tears!

Actually, let me rephrase. Not to tears. That would mean they’re feeling an emotional connection. Sadly, they’re not.

Most Donor Newsletters Are Boring To the Point Of Numbness

Donors want to be engaged, not anesthetized.

If you mostly brag and make broad promises, you’ll fail to create interest or trust.

TIP: People want evidence of what you do, not just your word for it. Tell a genuine, specific, compelling story. Share a moving testimonial.

Donors want to be inspired, not disheartened.

If you only talk about problems, you’ll drag folks down.  

TIP: Talk about solutions, and how they can join in to be one of the good guys.

Donors want to hear about impact, not money.

If you only talk about major donor gifts and grants you’ve received, you’ll fail to show your donors their rightful place in your community.

TIP: Tell a range of stories that showcase your inclusiveness, both in terms of those you support and those who support you.

Donors want to be invited on a joyful journey, not dragged onto a sinking ship.

If you only talk about depressing numbers of people suffering and not getting their needs met, your waiting lists and your budget deficit, you’ll fail to tell a specific, compelling, hopeful story that will draw donors in.

TIP: As much as possible, focus on one success story at a time. This creates a prototype that sticks with people. They can visualize one starving child… one polluted river… one homeless veteran… one person newly diagnosed with cancer… then extrapolate to the larger number of people, places or purposes you seek to help.

Donors want to be thanked, not scolded.

If you only talk about the next dollar to be raised, you’ll seem ungrateful.  

TIP: Talk about the impact of the donors’ previous giving so they can feel the warm glow that comes from giving.

Happy, interested, connected and emotionally satisfied donors give again.

TIP: One of the key insights discovered in the commercial world is that emotionally satisfied customers are substantially more profitable than rationally satisfied or dissatisfied customers. Help readers to feel something that will motivate them to act. Otherwise, it’s just in one eye and out the other. Easily forgotten.

For Newsletters to Be Appreciated, they Must Be Timely

Burk found donors would sometimes appreciate a newsletter. But not on your schedule.

On theirs. As in when you have something NEW to tell them.

TIP: Imagine your kid or spouse or boss came into your room or office every day just because they thought you expected them to arrive on that schedule. And then, each time, told you pretty much the exact same thing they told you yesterday. Would you pay much attention? Pretty soon, you wouldn’t even notice they entered the room. It’s the same with donors and your newsletter.

Donors love to hear from you when you have something exciting and emotionally compelling to share.  

Otherwise, not so much.

They wonder… why are you wasting their time? And your limited resources?

Rather than turning them on, this most decidedly turns them off.

TIP: Donors told Ms. Burk they’d rather get a one-page newsletter, occasionally, when something newsworthy transpires. Not a generic one-size-fits-none model designed for your purposes (i.e., bragging about yourself; selling your products; raising more money). Not a regular, cookie-cutter mailing sent out on your pre-ordained schedule (e.g., quarterly; monthly), without regard to whether there’s any “news” to report.

This doesn’t mean you can’t plan a vigorous donor communications schedule in advance.

Remember that Ms. Burk’s research came out well over a decade ago — before the digital revolution and the total disruption of consumer communication as we’d previously known it. Today, there’s just too much competition in the marketplace to go radio silent for any period of time and expect folks to remember you.

TIP: An occasional one-page newsletter is probably insufficient contact. But you need to think of each publication as if it were a stand-alone, unique piece of newsworthy content.

For Newsletters to Be Appreciated, they Must Be Relevant

Donors tell us they prefer news that is relevant to their particular interests (an argument for segmenting your list according to interest information you may have stored in your database).

TIP: Imagine you know they steadfastly support programs for seniors. Won’t they wonder why you continually send them a newsletter filled primarily with stories about children’s services? Imagine they’ve indicated to you in a survey they find your advocacy services of greatest interest and import. How inspired will they be if your newsletter is 85% about direct services?

Even if you don’t keep great data (and you really should start), and don’t know what floats individual donors boats (and you really should find out), there are certain things most donors adore. And abhor.

A relevant newsletter is a “donor-centered” newsletter.

So begin here.

Today, let’s look at what doesn’t work. In our next article, we’ll look at what does work.

Newsletter Content Donors Abhor

  1. Preachy, teachy stuff.

Direct mail guru Jeff Brooks says a common error is thinking you “should ‘teach’ donors into giving” and “avoid messy, untrustworthy emotional appeals.” He notes: “These fundraisers adapt a cool, journalistic, detached style of fundraising. They have no idea how irrelevant and off-putting it is.

TIP: Stop writing like your newsletter is a term paper or scholarly exercise. It’s not intended for you, or to impress the Ph.Ds on your staff or board. Philanthropy is a passionate, loving act. It comes from the heart, not the head. Strive for heart-filled content rather than all that “educational” stuff. Knowing all about your history and processes (dates, data, numbers served, geographic reach, staff bios, website redesign, etc.) does not engage people. If you want to include in-depth research and such, include a link to an article on your website. Or let folks know they can email or call you if they’d like to receive a copy.

  1. Stuff that makes them feel they don’t belong.

If you fill your newsletter with photos of the “in” group (e.g., rich philanthropists attending your Gala; board members at your retreat; foundation representatives presenting a check), it’s difficult for regular donors to see how they fit in. Rather than making them feel connected, it makes them feel disconnected. Not a good outcome.

TIP: Remember to include a mix of folks; not just stories about rich philanthropists to whom many of your donors can’t relate. The goal is both to reward and to inspire repeat and copycat behavior.

  1. Stuff that’s hard to comprehend.

This includes jargon, data, and writing at higher than a 7th-grade level. Your readers are pressed for time, and they will skim. Anything that slows them down is death to your prose, no matter how carefully you may have crafted it.

TIP: Be kind to your readers if you want them to be kind to you.

  1. Stuff so out of tune with donor interests it appears you’re simply checking something off your list as ‘done’ in order to justify your job.

You know you’ve seen these newsletters. They often have more or less the same content every month. A letter from the E.D. with nothing new. A dry program description that’s all about the organization’s processes, rather than outcomes. Some boring photos that look just like last issue’s photos.

TIP: If this sounds like your newsletter, it’s not worth your time. Because you’ll get very little out of the effort.

Which begs the question:

Is a newsletter worth making time for?

Yes, yes, yes!  


You believe donor-centricity is the pathway to passionate philanthropy.

If you don’t believe this, go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass GO. Do not collect anywhere near the amount of dollars you could be collecting.

There is no better tool than a donor-centered newsletter to help you build relationships with all your donors, not just those for whom you  have time for face-to-face contact.

Yes, they are a mass cultivation and stewardship tool. But the good ones feel like they’re individually tailored to appeal to your reader’s specific needs and interests.

In the next article, we’ll take a look at newsletter content donors adore. Meanwhile, go through your recent or upcoming newsletter and eliminate the abhorrent stuff. Your donors will thank, and reward, you.

Want to learn more about what to put in and what to leave out of your newsletter?  

Head on over to Clairification to read How to Improve Your Nonprofit Newsletter. Also be sure to grab our free Donor-Centered Content Marketing Worksheet and Checklist replete with very specific tips. Created by Claire!

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