In this webinar, Newsletter guru Steven Screen will teach what he’s learned from 25 years of creating money-raising newsletters!

Full Transcript:

Steven Shattuck: All right, Steven. I’ve got 1:00 on my watch Eastern. Is it okay if I go ahead and kick us off officially?

Steven Screen:Steven, let’s do it.

Steven Shattuck: All right. Well, good afternoon, if you are on the East Coast and good morning, if you are on the West Coast or somewhere in between. Thanks for being here for today’s Bloomerang webinar, “Donor-Delighting, Money-Raising Newsletters.” Those are the kind of newsletters we want, right? We don’t want just plain newsletters.

My name is Steven Shattuck. And I am the Chief Engagement Officer over here at Bloomerang. And I’ll be moderating today’s discussion, as always. And just a couple of housekeeping items before we get started. I just want to let you all know that we are recording this presentation. And I’ll be sending out the recording as well as the slides. I’ll link the slides later on, if you didn’t already get those. So if you have to leave early, we’d hate for you to do that, but we understand that sometimes duty calls. So don’t worry about it too much. We’ll get all that good stuff in your hands later on this afternoon.

But most importantly, as you are listening today over the next hour or so, please send us your questions and comments. I’m going to be keeping an eye on those throughout the hour. And we’re going to try to save just as much time as we can towards the end of the hour for questions and answers. So don’t be shy. Don’t sit on those hands. You can even send them over on Twitter. I’ll be keeping an eye on the Twitter feed, as well.

And one last technical note, if you have any trouble with the audio, if you’re listening to us from your computer speakers right now and it’s starting to sound a little garbled or maybe you lose audio, try to dial in by phone. In fact, I would kind of recommend you do that now, even if everything’s going okay. We find that the phone audio is a lot better. So if you have a phone nearby and don’t mind doing that, give it a try. Don’t give up on us before you try that. There is a phone number you can use in the email from ReadyTalk that went around noon Eastern.

And if this is your first webinar with us, I just want to say an extra special welcome to you. We do these webinars at Bloomerang basically every Thursday. We did about 45 webinars last year. We’ve got a great schedule going for 2018 already, but what we are most known for, hopefully what we are most known for, is our donor management software. So if you are in the market to switch to a new provider or maybe looking for your first provider or maybe you just want to know more about Bloomerang, check out our website. Don’t do that right now. Wait until the hour has passed to check us out, but we’d love for you to learn more, if you are curious.

But right now I am super excited to introduce someone I’ve had a little bit of a crush on and I’ve been kind of keeping an eye on Steven hoping that he would join us for our webinar series. And I was just floored that he said, “Yes.” We’ve got Steven Screen here. Hey, Steven, how is it going?

Steven Screen: It’s been great, Steven. Thank you for having me. The crush is reciprocated.

Steven Shattuck: Ah, thank you. This is a big treat. And you guys are about to find out why. I just want to brag on Steven really quickly before I turn things over to him. If you don’t know Steven, he’s the newsletter guru. He is not a newsletter guru. In my mind, he is the newsletter guru. If you ever have any newsletter questions, please go to Steven first. He’s got over 25 years of experience creating very effective fundraising newsletters. And you’re going to get all that knowledge here in just a minute. He is co-founder of Better Fundraising.

He is also the host of “Fundraising is Beautiful” podcast with Jeff Brooks, another hero of mine. Check out that podcast, definitely a good one. And he’s also a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year Award. I saw Steven speak at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference last fall. And I just knew that he had to come on and share all that knowledge with you. You guys are going to enjoy this one. So Steven, I’m going to hand things off to you to tell us all about newsletters. So take it away, my friend.

Steven Screen: Great. Thank you very much. Let me take over and start presenting. Steven, can you see my screen?

Steven Shattuck: Yes. It seems to be working good.

Steven Screen: Excellent. Okay. So let me sort of do what my seventh grade English teacher taught me, which is to tell you what I’m going to tell you. And then tell you and then tell you what I told you. And so I want to start off sort of how to create a donor-delighting, money-raising, donor-retaining newsletter by giving you a really simple idea. And that first simple idea is that as you’re creating your newsletter, it is an exercise in giving credit away. It is an other-centered exercise where you are writing to your donor and telling her the good things that have happened because she gave a gift. It’s not so much marketing. It’s not so much advertising. It’s really true fundraising and giving away the credit.

Now, this is hard for lots of organizations to do, but that’s the big idea in a nutshell for what we’re doing today. And so next I’m going to sort of give you a big idea why newsletters are so important and why they work. And then we’re going to get into some tactics, some like how many pages should this thing be, and get right into the details and show you examples so that you walk away with not just with a theory and some ideas, but some examples and some tactics that you can use to make your next newsletter better.

So let’s get to it. I want to explain as we do this one really big idea first. And I want to walk you through something that we call the virtuous circle. And this is going to show you why your newsletter is so important, why it’s so important to have on hand, why it works so well, why you can be raising money and retaining donors with it. The first thing to talk about is that almost all fundraising interactions start with an ask. Unless you’re one of those, you know, lucky 3% of organizations where you have a whole bunch of money coming in and you never have to ask for it, almost all of your transactions start out with an ask.

And after a donor gives a gift, it’s really good to remember this, she feels great. Us humans, us donors, we love to give. We get that hit of dopamine. We feel warm. We feel connected. And that is one of the reasons why so many people are donors. It feels great to give. And then just as an aside, never feel like you’re having to twist the arms of donors. Never feel like you’re bothering them. Always remember in all of your fundraising, the donors love to give.

But after she gives a gift, she doesn’t know what’s going to happen. This is sort of a real key difference here for how a gift is different than a purchase. When you make a purchase, you receive the thing that you purchased, whether it’s a phone or a computer or a pair of pants. You know if it’s good or not. You know if you like it, but when you make a charitable gift, you don’t receive anything, other than that hit of dopamine and feeling of connectedness. So you don’t know what’s going to happen. And you don’t really know if your decision to give was a good one.

So that’s where the, “Thank,” comes in. In all of your donor communications, this is why we send thank you notes. This is why we send receipts quickly is so that your donor knows that her gift we received and appreciated. Thanking, by the way, we think it’s one of the most open communications you’re ever going to send. So make sure you’re doing a great job with your receipts and your thank you notes, but that is for another presentation.

Here’s the thing I want you to know. She still doesn’t know if her gift made a different or not. She knows that she is appreciated now. She knows that you received her gift now, but she still doesn’t know if her gift made a difference. And so that’s why we report. A report is a way to show a donor that her gift made a difference. That’s what your newsletter is in this sort of virtuous circle in this area of fundraising. Your newsletter is a report to your donor to show her how her gift made a difference. It’s not, by the way, a report on what your organization has been busy doing. It’s on how her gift made a difference.

So today, we’re going to pull that apart and get into how you do that and actually how you can make a lot of money doing that too because if you report well, your donor feels great, she trusts your organization, and she’s more likely give again. And so then you can repeat the cycle. And you end up with this. Again, we call this the virtuous circle. If you’re acting well and thanking well and reporting well, all kinds of good things happen. You raise more money. Your donors trust you more. We’ll get into that a little bit too. And your retention rates go up. All kinds of good stuff happen, but today, we’re talking about newsletters. Specifically, we’re talking about [reporting 00:09:26]. So I want to share another couple little ideas here. And then we’re going to get into sort of the real deal, the results of the testing of hundreds, maybe thousands, of newsletters for hundreds of organizations to see what worked best most of the time.

So let’s dive in here. And the first thing I want to show you is this graphic. Donors are heroes. We made this and then were thrilled when Tom Ahern picked it up and included it in his most recent book. Well, let’s see. This really gets back to the first thing I said, which was a good donor newsletter is an exercise in giving credit away. This is donor-centric fundraising in a nutshell where we’re going to shine our spotlight on the donor and to talk about the things that she has done. And it’s just really good to remember that. And that is just totally different than the organization as hero narrative as a lot of small to medium sized and some large organizations do.

ut here’s what I want you to remember. And this is brand new. I have never shown this before. We’ve just finished this. Donors are heroes, but fundraisers are heroes. We are the folks manning the light. We can choose to point this light at our donor and talk to her about her, talk to her about what she has done, talk to her about the great things in the world that she has made possible or we can choose to shine the light on our organization, our programs, our staff.

And I’m here to tell you that the evidence-based conclusion is that if you are shining the spotlight on your donors, talking to them about what they did, you’re going to raise more money and keep your donors for longer. And fundraisers, it was about sitting in the fundraising seat. We get to be the heroes here. We get to help our organizations shine this light on our donor, translate the complex work that your organization is doing into ways that are easy for your donor to understand, not because she’s not smart, by the way, but because she’s moving really fast supporting lots of other organizations, making it easy for her to see how she can make a difference and has made a difference.

So remember, we talk a lot about donors are heroes, but fundraisers, those of us on this call today, we are the heroes getting to choose who is in the spotlight. And you guys, that’s an incredibly powerful place to be. And it is a gift to your organization, even if they don’t know it, to shine the light on your donors.

Okay. I feel like I just gave a sermon. Let’s move on into some stuff here. Here’s some results from donor-centric newsletters. This is a summary of probably 25 years of work. Revenue from newsletters increased because donors love hearing that their gift made a difference. So if you have a newsletter right now that isn’t making money or is only making a little money, if you can make your newsletter donor-centric, and that’s what I’m talking about today, your newsletter is going to start raising more money, every single issue.

And then number two, don’t risk giving more gifts to future appeals because they know their past giving has made a difference. Now that’s sort of a secondary benefit, but it is a real measurable effect. And to go back to that virtuous circle here, remember, most organizations are not reporting to their donors. Most donors don’t know that their gifts made a difference. So when you share to your donor that her gift made a difference, she loves hearing that because no one else is telling her that. Based on what our clients tell us, about one in five organizations is doing a good job reporting to their donors. So if you do a good job reporting, your donors are just going to trust you more. They are going to be more likely to give to you again. So your appeal performance is going to go up too.

And then finally, your donor retention increases. It’s fun to talk about that because donor retention is so core to what Bloomerang is doing and in terms of measuring this and focusing on it, but if you do a good donor-focused newsletter, your donor retention is going to increase. And you’re going to raise a lot more money over time. So to use this analogy that many of us have heard before, this makes your bucket, your donor bucket, less leaky. And when you do that, your organization just starts growing faster and faster.

So hopefully, all of this is sort of selling you on the idea of why a newsletter is important and why it works so well. Donors are starving to know that their gifts made a difference. And if you do that in a way that really make sense to them, that really moves their heart, all kinds of good fundraising things are going to happen.

So let’s get into some tactical details. And by the way, Steven, feel free to interrupt me at any time with any questions that are coming in. This is a summary of a whole lot of research and testing. And what I’m about to give you is what I would call our default setting for newsletters. Not every newsletter needs to be like this. You can be successful using other ways, but if someone said, “Hey, Steven, make a newsletter,” this is what I would do. And so I share that with you because most likely, it’s your best course of action.”

Number one, it arrives in an envelope. So it’s not a self-mailer. And let me share some data with you from a test that I was a part of. We sent the same newsletter to an organization’s donors. For half the donors, we put it an envelope. And for half the donors, we put it in a self-mailer. And we measured the response rate. The response rate for the envelopes, excuse me, for the newsletters that went in an envelope was 2.7%. The response rate for the newsletters that went out as a self-mailer was 1%. So 2.7% for in an envelope versus 1% in a self-mailer.

Yes, an envelope is more expensive, but it is absolutely worth it for you to put your newsletter in an envelope. The basic theory is it seems more important and is more likely to get read, if you put it in an envelope. And by the way, the average gift for the versions of the newsletter that went out in the envelope was about $15 or $16 higher than the average gift for the self-mailers too. So not only did the response rate go up, but the average gift went up, as well.

Okay. Next, four pages or less. Four pages was about the right amount. We usually use what’s called a tabloid sized sheet of paper. That’s one 11 X 17. I blanked on the size there. And it’s folded in half to create a four-page newsletter. It can be longer. We’re seeing some success with two-page newsletters, but generally speaking, four pages seems to be about the sweet spot for costs versus expense versus revenue.

Next, three beneficiary stories written in the past tense. So you can have four or you can have five. You can have two really good ones, but generally speaking, we do three beneficiary stories where we’re sharing stories about people that your organization has helped in some way. And if your organization doesn’t help people, then you’re still trying to figure out who your beneficiary is and telling stories about that cause or that meadow or that arts program. There are lots of different ways to do it, but you’re looking for three stories. And then you’re writing them in the past tense.

You are reporting back on things that have already happened. This gets back to the idea in the virtuous circle of closing the loop, trying to let donors know that their gift arrived, that it was really appreciated, that their gift made a difference, and here’s evidence that their gift made a difference. And then when you ask them again, you have closed the loop. The donor knows that you have received their gift, that their gift made a difference, and that you’re now asking them to do another thing, not more of the same thing. And that’s a really big difference.

So first is take all headlines that end with the letters I-N-G out of your newsletters because that’s all present tense. That’s all, “These things are happening now.” And you want to be reporting back on things that have already happened, closing the loop with your donors, and letting them know great things have happened because they gave a gift. Okay. That’s a lot of information fast, but you are going to get a copy of this thing.

Two protagonists in every single story. The first protagonist is the beneficiary and the second protagonist is your donor. In most of the newsletters that I review, the article is about . . . The first protagonist is the organization. It’s about what the organization has been doing. And the second protagonist is the beneficiary. And the donor is maybe mentioned, maybe, at the end of the article. And I’ll talk about why and that’s a bad idea later on, but every single article should be about the beneficiary and the donor. You don’t need to talk about your organization in your newsletter because your donor knows that the newsletter is from your organization. You don’t need to beat her over the head with it. You just need to talk to her about what she did, right? That’s the whole role of this thing, giving credit away to donors for things they did, shining a light on them, not so much on the organization.

Okay. One reader, a great pattern recognition here, right, four, three, two, one, one reader. Write your newsletter as if you are writing to one person. So you don’t want to say, “All of you are doing this amazing thing,” or your editorial perspective, this is a message to one person. So watch the word “you.” You want her to sit down and feel like the newsletter is for her, not for all your donors. And the sort of pithy way to say this is if a donor sits down and she realizes that the newsletter is to everyone, that means that the newsletter is not to her, right? If it’s to everyone, that means it’s not to you. It’s for everyone. So you really want to write to her. Use the word “you” all the time. Say things like, “Thanks to you, Mary was rescued and is now in the shelter,” all kinds of examples like that, but just remember, one reader. Don’t write to everyone. Write to one person.

A couple other details here. Lots of photos. Humans love photos, specifically of other humans and faces. So have a lot of photos. It’s not always possible to do this. Some organizations struggle because they can’t show their beneficiaries. So in that case, you want to use stock photography and you want to use illustrations. You want to paint word pictures instead of photos, but as much as you can, try to be photo heavy.

This is a recommendation that I’m not super firm about, but generally speaking, we go away from glossy paper. Over the years, we’ve had more success with matte or flat papers. They just don’t look as slick. And to donors, the general theory is they feel more real and it feels more like direct reporting than marketing or advertising from an organization. So we default to not glossy paper.

Include a reply card and an envelope. In your newsletter you absolutely want to include a reply card and a reply envelope for a couple of reasons, but one of the main ones is that many of your donors will be so thrilled to hear that their gift made a big difference, especially when they haven’t heard that from the other organizations they’re donating to, they will want to send you a gift right now. And you want to make it as easy as possible for them to do that. So we are recommending including a reply card and a reply envelope in every single newsletter you’ve sent.

And I have some more data here to share. This is from another test that we did. We sent the same newsletter out. And by the way, I’m going to show you samples of all of these things in a couple minutes, but we sent the same newsletter out. One of them had a reply device and a reply envelope. And one of them did not have a reply device and a reply envelope. So, again, we sent the same exact newsletter to the same number of donors randomly selected. Some got a reply envelope and a reply card and some didn’t. The response rate for the group that got a reply card and a reply envelope was 3.4%. The response rate for the folks who did not get a reply card and a reply envelope was 1.4%. So a full two points higher, if you include a reply card or a reply envelope in this test.

And this test is representative of all the times I’ve ever tested this. It is absolutely worth your time and money to include a reply card and a reply envelope. And then just by the way, the version that included the reply card and the reply envelope raised 111% more than the version that didn’t. So if you’re not doing these things now, this is a relatively easy way to get started.

Finally, you’re going to hear me say this a lot, but remember that the donor is the hero. As you’re writing this, to go into a journalistic way of talking about it, think about your editorial perspective. Your editorial perspective is not that this is a newspaper. It’s not that it’s marketing or advertising for your organization. It’s not that you’re sharing all the good stuff that your organization has been doing with the assumption that then your donor will donate more. What it is, is it is a love letter to your donors sharing real stories of lives she has changed. That’s your job. That’s the job of a newsletter. And if you do that well, all kinds of good stuff are going to happen.

And I’ll also tell you that it’s really hard to do that well because there are lots of other voices in your organization saying things like, “Hey, but we have an event coming up. We should mention that,” and, “Hey, we just got a big check from the foundation. We should mention that.” And generally speaking, I try to keep as much of that stuff out of the newsletters as possible because of all the testing done over the years where anything we included in the newsletter reduced response and money.

The one thing I’ll tell you, and this is fun, I’ve had to change my position on this, I used to never want to talk in newsletters about legacy giving programs. And now we’re finding that if you mention some sort of legacy giving program and give the donor a person to call, that does not decrease . . . If you do it right, that does not decrease the response and money raised. And you will get some people who will sign up for your legacy giving program. So that’s fun. That’s a recommendation that I had to change because of testing results that have happened recently.

Okay. Let’s look at a couple other things, a couple other big ideas, before I show you some samples. Number one, this is fun, reporting is different than bragging. Most organizations in their newsletters or in their e-news are doing more bragging than reporting. So again, what you want to be doing is tell your donors what their gift accomplished. You want to tell her what she did, not what your organization did. I know that I’m repeating this a couple times, but this tends to be the biggest idea that folks have a hard time wrapping their mind around. You want to be talking about what she did, not what your organization did.

Back in the virtuous circle there, you saw, “Ask, thank, report, repeat,” which is a fundraising rhythm of communications that I wouldn’t say we developed but we kind of codified it. And that’s what we follow. And most organizations ask, thank, brag, repeat or they ask, ask, ask, thank, ask, repeat. And I’m here to tell you today that those rhythms don’t work as well as ask, thanking, and reporting.

Okay. A couple other big ideas. Reporting with your newsletter. Over the last 50 or so years, maybe 60 or 70, in direct mail fundraising, the role of the newsletter generally speaking has been reporting. That’s what newsletters are really, really good at. If you’re with us today and you don’t have a printed newsletter, you should. You know, we could go into lots of details, but generally speaking, you should have a printed newsletter.

A couple other big ideas in here, in your newsletters you want to be sharing stories, not statistics. So we did multiple tests where we took newsletters and we would replace certain stories with statistic-based articles rather than beneficiary-based articles. And in general, any time we led off with a statistic like, “One in nine kids will never go to the opera in our town,” or, “Three thousand three hundred children are dying in Africa each day of preventable causes,” anytime you do something like that, results went down. The general belief there is that statistics are loved by and make sense to experts. And your organization is an expert, but most donors who are moving fast, they see the numbers and they sort of gloss over them and look for something else to read, but if you share really good stories about people or your cause or whatever it is you’re working on, not statistics, you’ll raise more money.

The next idea I want to share here is that donors fund outcomes, not processes. This is probably the most important lesson I ever learned in fundraising. I learned it in my first couple months on the job back in . . . . This would be in 1993. Most organizations want to talk about their processes, how they do the work, but most donors are involved because they want to save the meadow or teach the kid math or, you know, any sort of outcome. So what does that mean about your fundraising? It means that your fundraising should be mostly about the outcomes, not the processes.

Now, are there some major donors who love your process, really understand it, and realize that’s how you add value? Absolutely. Are there some foundations that have the same, we call it a high organizational, IQ? Absolutely, but for most donors most of the time, especially in your newsletter, talk about outcomes, not processes. So talk about the lives you’ve changed, not how your programs changed the lives. That will really ratchet your reporting up to [eleven 00:30:04].

Then the final thing here before we jump into some samples of some more tactics is to tell the before and the after. The best analogy I use to explain this is weight loss commercials. If you only saw the after in weight loss commercials, you would think that they just went down to the local modeling agency and grabbed some people and shot them, but it’s the contrast of the people today versus how they were six months ago or a year ago that makes you think “Oh, wow. That really works.” And it’s the same thing in fundraising and reporting.

So you want to share the tough situation, the meadow that had oil running down the stream, the person who was homeless in a tough situation, the child who was hungry, the county that had no presence of the arts or music, right? Share that darkness. Share that before because the donor doesn’t really remember it. And then you tell them the after. Then you share the light. Then you share the triumph because that contrast before the before and the after is going to help your donors see how powerful their gifts are. And when they see how powerful your gifts are, they’re way, way more likely not only to give you another gift of right now, but to give you another gift down the road the next time you ask them. So share the before and the after. Be brave.

Okay. More tactics. Here was have an example newsletter. And I want to share some sort of design principles, so how we picked out some things. Number one, the donor should be able to see what their gift did in under five seconds. This is getting into the heart of a mistake that almost all every nonprofit makes. It’s a terrible mistake. And that is assuming that your fundraising is going to be read. Most organizations send out and they assume the donors are going to read it. And you guys are not going to read it. They’re going to scan it. And they’re going to give it a quick blip over that takes, you know, about five seconds, plus or minus. And they’re going to look for something that, hopefully, catches their attention.

So make sure using tactics that we’re about to talk about that in five seconds, she can see what her gift did. And by the way, if this is sort of a new idea that donors scan things, not read things, go look at any of the eye-tracking studies that were done specifically by the German guy, with the best name ever, Siegfried [Vögele 00:32:43], who did some foundational research for how to make . . . Let me rephrase that, for what made successful direct mail work. And one of the things is design so that scanners can see what is either they’re gifted or what is being asked of them today. So, five-second test.

Number two, it’s got to be really, really easy to read. Make sure that your text is large and easy to read. If you have a designer who is 25 years old and loves their sans-serif fonts and their super fancy monitor and reverse text, which is white text on a dark colored background, you’re in trouble because that’s really hard for donors to read. It has to be easy to read because nobody has to read your fundraising, right? They can set it down and stuff, life, will keep going on. You have to make it really easy to read because readability is directly related to fundraising results.

Again, make this about what the donor did, not what the organization did. So let’s just talk about a couple of things here. If I zoom in, it is obvious what my gift did, right? “Blind Baby Girl can See.” I even have photographic evidence right here up in the masthead. A couple other things. The most read parts of any newsletter you send are the headlines, the picture captions, and the first paragraph. So what does that mean? It means that you need to work really, really hard at making your headlines, picture captions, and your first paragraph tell the donor that she did some amazing things. And I would say that this one did a really good job, right? The headline, “Blind Baby Girl can See,” that first picture caption at the bottom. “Mayuri holding her baby daughter, Shria. Shria was born blind, but thanks to your help, she can see,” right? In the first paragraph, “Baby Shria was born blind, but she can see today thanks to you.”

Most organizations, by the way, save a paragraph like that for the last paragraph in your story. The last paragraph in your story is one of the least read paragraphs in your story, but this is the most important idea for you to be communicating. So you want to take that most important idea and give it its due. Put it right up front. Put it in multiple times because nobody reads the whole thing except for your board and your program folks and maybe your mom. You want to make it so easy for them to look at this in just a few seconds and know what their gift did.

Is it overly-simplistic? Absolutely, but that’s where I would start. And then in the story pull apart how their gift made such a big deal and why that’s so important, but start simple and powerful. And then go in-depth. Don’t make the mistake most organizations make is write really complex stories that the donor has to read the whole thing to understand. This is the part of fundraising that fundraisers get to do, which is translate complex stories and translate problems, complex problems, of release and development, community and development, all kinds of stuff into super simple ways that donors can understand that their gift made a difference. And then give it the complexities, but start simple.

Another thing to mention are pull-quotes. This is not as important as the other things that I mentioned, but pulling out a quote, you see this in magazines all the time, that you really want your donor to read is another way to give her eye something to catch on as she’s looking through your newsletter. This is way down in the [notary 00:36:57] here, but what you’re looking for is called multiple visual points of entry. Your donor is scanning this thing. And you want her to land on the most important stuff. So you highlight things by using headlines, picture captions, pull-quotes. And, ideally, in a few seconds, you can give her a super simple explanation of what her gift did.

By the way, let me pull something apart for just a second. I’m using the female pronoun, she and her, to talk about your donor because in North America, most donors are females and most giving decisions in couples are made by females. So as you’re writing your newsletter and all your fundraising and you’re writing it to one person, remember that the vast majority of the time, that person is female. So if that helps you do your writing to write to her more accurately, use that, but picture a female in your mind. And then also remember that the average donor in the United States is about 69 years old. That’s one of the reasons, by the way, why you want to use big type so that it’s easy for that 69-year-old donor to read. Those are the types of things you should know as you design this thing and as you write this thing.

Okay. Let’s take a look at another example. And by the way, there’s a question I’m sure many of you are asking, which is wait a minute, my organization doesn’t do something where it is as easy to talk about what happened, where it is as easy to show results. I’m showing examples like these because it is the easiest way to communicate the principles that I’m trying to share with you, but what you want to be doing is looking for ways to oversimplify what you do and personalize what you do.

It’s harder, right? It is harder to do that about a meadow or teaching math to junior high school students, but you can do it. You want to use this thinking and do your best. Just as an example, this is slightly off-topic, but we worked with one organization that was the Center for Wooden Boats. And so we had one of the wooden boats write the letter to their donors. And it worked like crazy, right? That is a personalization, a humanization, of the main beneficiary. So take that principle and apply it to what it is that you’re working on.

Okay. Let’s get back into some real tactics here. Again, we’re speaking to the donor about what their gifts have done. So look at this really big super header across the top. “You have the power. Your gifts are multiplied to send urgent help,” right? That’s about the donor. The donor can read this thing and know, “Wow. I make a big difference.” And they’ll know, in this case, that their gifts are multiplied to send urgent help, right? That’s about the donor. It’s not about your organization. We have outcome-oriented headlines, right? Donors fund outcomes, not processes. So it’s, “Rare epilepsy treated,” not, “Our disease team did its job in this country,” right? “A fragile life’s saved.” It’s about this little kid whose life was saved, not about how the organization did it.

A couple other things here, every main picture has a caption. Most . . . I shouldn’t say most. Too many nonprofits donor newsletters don’t have picture captions. And you should because the eye-tracking studies show that people read picture captions. It’s one of the most important pieces of real estate in your newsletter. And by the way, let me share my general rule of thumb about nonprofit newsletter picture captions. The caption should not be about what’s happening in the photo, which is counterintuitive, but here’s where it lands.

The caption should be about the donor’s role in what is happening in the photo. So if you look at the one on the right here, it’s the best example of this. “You helped supply supplements for babies whose health is at risk,” right? So right, that’s not so much about the baby. It’s about the donor’s role. So main picture has a caption. And then always have an offer. You always want to give your donors the opportunity to give again. You always want them to know what their next gift will accomplish. And so in every newsletter that we do, we try to know exactly what offer we’re talking about, which is a fancy way of saying what the donor’s next gift will accomplish with a specific outcome and a specific dollar amount. That is a really big . . . That’s a hornet’s nest for some organizations, but you want to make it clear what your donor’s next gift will do because many people reading about the great things that they have done will want to do more of that with you.

Okay. We’re moving through the newsletter. We’re coming to the back page. And the back page is where we take a whole bunch of reporting goodwill that we just developed and can turn it into action. So here’s our default setting. Again, lots of newsletters are different, but here is our default setting is on the back page of your newsletter, you should have some current need that your donor can meet. This is a newsletter that was all about water. And there was one drought that as happening then. So we’ve talked about that drought on the back page of the newsletter. There is a clear evidence of need. There is an obvious offer. It costs just $20 to provide clean, disease-free water to family. And your gift multiples three times.

So on the back of the newsletter, and our thinking here is, you’ve just done three pages of generous donor-focused reporting. You have given the credit away. You have proven to her that her gifts were needed. And you have proven to her that her gifts made a difference. And because your organization is still doing work right now, because not every donor opens every piece of mail, you still want her to know that there is a need out there and that she can choose to help today. And a lot of people will, if you do this right. So there is a clear way to take action.

On the bottom of the back page, we do something that we call faux reply device. When we started doing that, response rates to newsletters went up between 15 and 20%. And we think what it is, is that we are reminding donors that there’s an easy way that they can make a difference today. We’ve just proven to them that their gift works. And now here is an easy way for them to do something else today. And so that’s our default setting on the back page of all our newsletters. We do this faux reply device. And then we include a real reply device in the letter with it.

A couple things to note. The best newsletters in our experience are all about one part of what your organization does. It’s three stories about one program. And then the offer is to help that program or the beneficiaries of that program, not one story about one program, one story about another program, and one story about another program. Another way of saying this is that your newsletters are a theme. And you hit multipole themes during the year, but generally speaking, you only talked about one theme in each newsletter. That requires lots of discipline, but if you do it, your results will go up.

The other thing I want to mention here is you’ll notice the similarity in language between that faux reply device in the red on the lower left, “Yes, I’ll bring clean, safe water,” and on the real reply device, “Yes, I’ll bring clean, safe water.” You want those things to look as close to exactly the same as you can. And that repetition there is a really good thing. Many organizations will change up what’s happening on these two things. And that generally reduces response.

What you want to do is say the same thing, right? Ford will play the same car commercials four times during the first half of the soccer game or the football game or the Olympics. Why are they doing that? They’re doing that because they know repetition works. You should apply the same principle in your nonprofit fundraising. That repetition works. And it helps organizations really feel like you’re only talking to them about one powerful, important thing, not all the things, which is what most organizations do accidentally.

So that’s the back page. We’ve talked through the big ideas. We’ve talked through the design and the tactics. We’ve talked about how there are other ways to do this, but also about how this is our default setting. It’s what we do. It works really, really well for most of the organizations that we do it for. That’s reporting in the mail in a nutshell, right? If you’re doing a really good job here, in just a few seconds your donor is going to see how her gift made a difference. And when she does that, do you see why that’s so important? Because she doesn’t know that her gift made a difference. And you see why that’s so powerful, how you can raise a bunch of money right now by showing her, especially when the other organizations are not showing her?

And then when you do that, all these good things happen, right? You raise money from your newsletters. You raise more money from your future appeal letters because your donors trust you. And then you have retained more of your donors. So your bucket becomes less leaky. And you raise more money over time. Raising retention, right, Bloomerang will tell you this, it’s like compound interest. You keep doing that every year. And all of a sudden, you are raising more money than you ever expected just a couple of years previous.

So she feels great. She trusts your organization. She’s more likely to give again. That’s the power of a really great donor-centered newsletter. And that is the presentation. So thank you very much for listening. That was a whole lot of information really fast, but Steven, any questions or any questions I can answer?

Steven Shattuck: Oh, my goodness. My pen is broken from taking notes. This is crazy good. I knew it would be. And yes, we have some questions. We have more questions than I can ever remember seeing in a webinar, which is fitting because this is now . . . You’re the king of the Bloomerang webinars. This is our highest attended and registered for, if that’s a term, webinar ever. So thank you.

Steven Screen: Thank you.

Steven Shattuck: Steven, this is awesome information. We got a lot of good questions. I’m going to try to get to as many as possible, but real quick, how can people get in touch with you, Steven? Visit your website, follow you on Twitter? What’s the best way?

Steven Screen: Yeah. Yeah. So @StevenScreen on Twitter or, excuse me, with a V, Screen, just like your computer screen. We’re at We have a blog that’s fun. And we try to put out a couple really good pieces of content per week. And the other thing people can do is we have a free e-book on Storytelling. We call it “Storytelling for Action.” It’s what I’ll be presenting on at AFP in New Orleans in a couple of months. And that has helped a lot of organizations really think about how they tell stories, treating stories as a defined tactic that you can use for how and when you tell which types of stories rather than just looking at storytelling as this sort of magic, organic unicorn that works, right? So anyway, a free e-book on our website.

Steven Shattuck: Yeah. Go get that. I just chatted the link in the chat, of course. So go get that. And then you’ll get on Steven’s list. And you’ll get all the goodies from him. Okay. So you did indeed, Steven, anticipate one of those common questions about, you know, what if our org doesn’t necessarily have something that we can illustrate the before for the after. So I’m glad you touched on that. I want to ask another question though that a lot of people were asking, emailing newsletters. Do all of these concepts apply to a digital newsletter that they . . . The things that you said for your print newsletter. Any insights on that email newsletter?

Steven Screen: Yeah. So let’s see. I’m going to share our experience. I’m also going to say that there are lots of different ways to skin this cat, but in our experience e-newsletters generally speaking don’t work.

Steven Shattuck:[Inaudible 00:50:54].

Steven Screen: And we are now advising our clients . . . And, again, this is just our perspective, that we’re now advising our clients not to do them, but to instead . . . But you still need to report, right?

Steven Shattuck: Yes.

Steven Screen: So instead, we send out, ideally monthly, but not everyone can do that, ideally monthly a very personal sounding email from your executive director stripped of as much formatting as you can that tells one beneficiary story and gives the credit to the donor. And that is . . . Oh, and there is a subtle link at the bottom, if the donor would like to help more people now. That’s how we’re seeing engagement go up and retention go up, but to my mind, to my experience I should say, very few organizations are raising money with their e-newsletter that don’t have email lists of 100,000 people. And the open rates tend to get really low, in part because it’s usually just a grab bag of stuff. So it’s for everyone. And that means it’s for no one.

Steven Shattuck: Right. Yep. Yep.

Steven Screen: I would love to be wrong. I would love to hear someone who is making that work, but I have not run into that. And my podcasting partner, Jeff Brooks, hasn’t run into that. I’d love to hear from someone because we want to get better at that. That’s where things are going. The mail is still dominant right now, but personal newsletter and personal email from the executive director with one story giving all the credit to the donor.

Steven Shattuck: I love it. And then still doing your print newsletter that is the more substantial piece and all the things you said today, so a kind of companion.

Steven Screen: Absolutely.

Steven Shattuck: I like it. Give it a try, folks. Give it a try. Okay. Speaking of audiences, a lot of people asked a variation of this question, which is should you have versions of these newsletters for different audiences? And the kind of audiences people mentioned were non-donors versus current donors, either that they are lapsed or they’ve never given and you want to them to give their first gift, you know, volunteers versus donors? Is there any credence to segmenting your newsletter and having different versions or should you just send that one to everyone? What do you think?

Steven Screen: So a great question. And this is a complex answer that I’m going to try to simplify, but I would only send your donor-centric newsletter to donors who have given a gift in either the past 18 months or 24 months. I would not spend the money to send it to volunteers. I would not spend the money to send it to non-donors because newsletters are, in my experience, a lousy vehicle for getting a non-donor to give a gift. I would be sending them a targeted . . . When you’re trying to acquire a new donor, you want to send them an appeal, not a newsletter.

So should you have different versions of those things? Yeah. If you have the money and the human resources to do different versions, yes, but if you . . . And again, I’m having to sort of take a complex situation and distill it down to the gravy, but the most important thing you can do is retain your donors. So you want to write a newsletter that is only to your donors and send it only to your donors. And when you’re having success there and you have more time and money, great. Then start talking to your other audiences.

Steven Shattuck: I love it. You’re speaking my language.

Steven Screen: Yeah, I’ve watched you talk, Steven, about setting the vision report. So knew that we were [singing from 00:54:54] the same song sheet.

Steven Shattuck: One of my favorites. Okay. So getting to the nitty gritty, lots of questions came in when you were talking about the reply card and the reply device. And you were on a roll. I didn’t want to interrupt you, but lots of people were asking about, should it be stamps, pre-stamped? You know, should it be kind of a tear-away, kind of a BRE type thing? Anything tactical in terms of what that reply card or what that reply device should look like?

Steven Screen: In a perfect world, the reply device is customized with the donor’s name and address.

Steven Shattuck: Got it.

Steven Screen: With a motivation code for that mailing and customized gift amounts based on how much they have given in the past. That’s sort of the best practices. Oh, and the ask amounts are based on the offer. So if you’re saying, “It costs $44 to send a kid to arts camp, you want your ask to be $44, $88 and $122.00 or something like that, if [inaudible 00:56:07] bad at math. I’m an [inaudible 00:56:11] person, Steven. [Inaudible 00:56:12] person.

So make it customized to that thing. Just don’t do the same reply card or the same reply envelope that often is a bank [tail 00:56:26], right? It’s got the fold-over top where the donor has to write in their information. And they have to pick their gift amount from $10, $15, $25, $50, $150, $250, $500, $1,000, right? Those are proven to reduce your response rates. They’re proven to sort of save you money in the short term and lose you lots of money in the long term.

The two other quick things to mention. Number one, in some cases for some major donors, I would put a stamp on the reply envelope, but usually we use a business reply envelope or just a CRA. And then the other thing is we often . . . I should have mentioned this somewhere, but we often use newsletters to report back to major donors, but instead of sending it out in a number 10 envelope, we have some held from the printer. And we hand stuff them into 9 X 12 envelopes with the little cover letter from the executive director. And that is a great way to turn what can feel like just a regular old newsletter into a handcrafted report for a major donor who is then much more likely to open it and read it. So that’s a great way to sort of get two things for the price of one, with a little bit of extra work.

Steven Shattuck: I like it. A little segmentation in kind of the delivery device, not necessarily the content. That’s a good idea. I love it. Yeah, and I would add we’ve seen Bloomerang customers have success with kind of those weird suggested gift amounts, not the ones that end in zero, but, you know, end in sevens and threes and something kind of weird. So I’d definitely recommend that. Frequency. How often? Is this quarterly, monthly, annual? Does it depend? Lots of people are wondering about frequency, Steven.

Steven Screen: Yeah. So another great question that is complex because it depends on the organization and how much money you’re raising per newsletter, but generally, I would have [inaudible 00:58:26] because not everybody opens every piece of mail. So if you only have one, maybe half the people opened it. So I would try to do three a year and move up to quarterly. One specific tip, don’t do it in November or December. That’s when you want to be asking, not reporting. So if you currently have a November newsletter, move it earlier in the year. And replace that newsletter with an appeal. And that appeal will do better.

But yeah, I mean, I’ve been part of organizations that have moved up to 12 newsletters a year, one a month. And they did that because they were making more money and retaining more of their donors every time they added one, but at least a couple times a year.

Steven Shattuck: I love it. Boy, we are about out of time. I tried to get to the most common question seams. And you nailed all of them, even though I put you on the spot and kind of generalized the questions, but Steven, I’ll give you one more chance for a plug. I’m going to send that storytelling e-book out in the chat, but how can people get in touch with you, if we didn’t quite get to their individual question?

Steven Screen: Well, I’m going to do something dangerous, which is [inaudible 00:59:53].

Steven Shattuck: Go for it.

Steven Screen: You can email me.

Steven Shattuck: Whoa.

Steven Screen: Yeah, you can email me at [email protected] And I’ll do my best to get back to you, if you have a specific question, but I’m happy to dialog on Twitter too.

Steven Shattuck: Yeah. Send him a Tweet. And if you’re going to AFP in New Orleans, look for him. Tackle him in the hallway and tell him you were on the Bloomerang webinar and it was really awesome. And Steven, I guess I’ll see you there, as well. I might talk to you myself.

Steven Screen: That would be great. And I can’t wait to have you on the Fundraising [is Beautiful 01:00:29] podcast.

Steven Shattuck: Yeah. That’ll be fun. This was awesome. This I think is going to be our definite newsletter webinar. So thanks so much, Steven, for hanging out with us and sharing all this knowledge. This was really fun.

Steven Screen: Yeah, my pleasure. And for the folks listening, thank you for doing what you’re doing, right? You’re on the front lines translating complex problems into ways that a donor who gives you a few seconds of attention, can take action and make the world a better place. That’s a noble, awesome job. And it’s hard. And it’s great. And I’m with you. Thanks for letting me share this stuff.

Steven Shattuck: Yeah. Thank you all. You guys are awesome. We’ve got some great webinars coming up. I’m taking next Thursday off. I hope you don’t mind. We’ve been doing one a week since the first of the year, but we are going to be back in two weeks with Pamela Grow, another one of my favorites. She’s going to talk about development systems. Do you want to know what that is? You’ve got to come and listen in. It’s going to be a good one. Pamela’s awesome. Totally free, 1:00 p.m. Eastern two weeks from today. And we’ve got some other webinars that you can check out that you can register for well into the summer, as well, but we’ll call it a day there.

I know we ran a little over, but thanks for hanging out with us. Definitely worth it. Look for an email from me with the recording so you can dive deeper into all those goodies. I’ll be sending them out this afternoon. So hopefully, we’ll see you in a couple weeks. If not, some Thursday after that. So have a good rest of your Thursday. Have a safe weekend. Stay warm. And we’ll talk to you again soon. Bye now.

gift acknowledgement program

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.