Nail Donor Communications with (Print) Newsletters and Watch Your Fundraising Soar

October 15, 2017

Folks,  I have three truths to share with you:

1. Fundraising begins with communications. Get good at donor communications and you will become adept at fundraising.

2. The smallest of organizations can become good at donor communications, particularly donor newsletters. With a few principles under your belt, you can probably put together something that’s better than the products of organizations two or three times your size because many are not attending to what works.

3. While emailed newsletters can play a role in donor communications, they should not be viewed as a substitute for a printed publication.

Let’s discuss each of these points.

1. Fundraising begins with donor communications

I once gave a fundraising presentation at a national conference of the Land Trust Alliance, an organization to which the small nonprofit I head currently belongs. (I billed myself as an old person, a long-time college fundraiser who changed careers, all of which is true). This was a session that was booked by the conference planners as something appropriate to newcomers to fundraising. In the session, which was packed, I explored the various channels through which people connect to nonprofit organizations – events, newsletters, social media, etc. and strategies that small organizations might use to enhance those connections to move people into and through the fundraising pyramid. At the end of the session, the first question was, “so where does fundraising fit in here?” YIKES! I was suddenly torn between screaming at the top of my lungs and crawling into a hole.


Okay. Perhaps I did not emphasize fundamentals enough. We live in a time when people want super-quick fixes to their challenges and if they don’t get them, they’re done – “out of here” – forget about understanding how all of this really works. So here’s the deal:  there’s no quick fundraising fix for most organizations unless you have an incredible endowment or a large, constant source of government funding (grant or contract).  If not, you’re like the rest of us, reliant on philanthropy for your bread and butter. And here’s what philanthropy looks like as a funding source: – it’s all about individuals, as shown in the graphic below from Giving USA.

Individuals Drive the Need to Become Good at Donor Communications

The graphic above has not changed dramatically in many, many years.  If you lump gifts from individuals with bequests from individuals, you quickly see that those two categories together comprise 80% of the pie!


Once you accept that philanthropy, and, primarily, gifts from individuals, will need to be a substantial part of your fundraising effort, you need to understand the traditional fundraising pyramid, i.e., how individuals go from being interested in your organization, to attending events, to making a contribution, to becoming major donors and/or to leaving you a bequest.  A substantial part of moving people up from the bottom tier of the pyramid is communication.


Donor Communications is Key to Advancement to Higher Tiers of the Fundraising Pyramid
Had I covered this in depth before I launched into my communications soliloquy, the outcome of my presentation at the Land Trust conference might have been different. Because, as the pyramid shows, it all begins with donor contact.  And in this post we are going to talk about a periodic newsletter as one of the most effective types of ongoing contact with individual donors.


2. becoming good at donor communications using periodic PRINT newsletters

The best, most straightforward resource I have come across when it comes to using newsletters as a vehicle for engaging donors is Making Money with Donor Newsletters by Tom Ahern (Emerson & Church Publishers, 2015). I’ve followed Tom Ahern’s entertaining and informative blog on communicating with donors for years and you will find both the book and a link to the blog on my resource page. I believe in Tom because what he produces is of a consistently high quality.  The book, which has three sections, gives you (1) the theory behind the content of a good newsletter; (2) how newsletters fit into your efforts to give your readers a true sense of your organization; and (3) tips and techniques for writing a newsletter that raises money.


My goal here is not to write a comprehensive review of the book, but, rather, to cover the overarching theory behind writing a successful donor newsletter and to encourage you to get the book and reap some of the finer points for yourself. A good donor newsletter can have an enormous fundraising payoff and the ideas I will share here, along with the additional tips and techniques discussed in Tom’s short, inexpensive book, will help you get there.  So here are the overarching points (about periodic PRINTED newsletters) that I want to share:


  • TARGET AUDIENCE: A donor newsletter is a vastly different publication than a corporate public relations piece. The former is about “YOU,” the donor, and seeks to remind him or her of what an incredible difference he or she makes, i.e., how he or she is changing the world. The latter is about “WE,” the organization and staff, and seeks to build an organization’s image and reputation.  As Tom points out: “This is a granite given: your donors are far more interested in themselves than they are in your organization …. When you stop doing corporate communications and instead embrace true donor communications, the labor of creating your newsletter is likely to shrink and become more manageable.  A good donor newsletter will be blessedly brief, its articles blessedly short, its tone more conversational than academic. It will not be pure reporting. It will read like a chatty phone call to your best friend. How hard is that?” (T. Ahern, Making Money with Donor Newsletters, p. 49). A donor-centered newsletter is a key to donor retention. The biggest gift a donor ever makes is usually around the sixth to eighth gift.  You’ve got to keep them engaged at least long enough to get that gift.  “To be effective at retention, your organization’s newsletter must anticipate and fulfill the psychological cravings of its target audience, the donors.” (Ahern, p. 26). And you should send it only to current donors.
  • FREQUENCY:   Tom suggests that quarterly is probably the bare minimum for a printed newsletter.
  • CONTENT:  “Accomplishment reporting is what your donors need to hear – in fact, what they crave hearing. Skip this, and your newsletter will fail: a one-step checklist.” (Ahern, p. 35). But accomplishments should not be a recounting of statistics, aka “rational content.” Rather they should be relayed as emotional content using stories that make donors feel important.
  • LENGTH:  “You don’t have to send your donors a big, thick production. Four pages of trenchant copy is fine. Sufficient. Enough. They’ll reward you for being blessedly brief.” (Ahern, p. 33).
  • AESTHETICS/ENCLOSURE:  Use full color and include a donor envelope as an enclosure.  I’ve heard many other experts denounce the use of donor envelopes, but I agree with Tom that they are a must and should be included in every snail mailing to donors.  Why? Many donors don’t make an immediate contribution but apparently keep the envelope on their desks and make contributions at a later time. I’ve seen this happen time and time again. The envelope is a MUST.  Here’s the place where I get ours printed:
  • MAILING:  Tom suggests that it is better to send your newsletter in an envelope rather than as a “self-mailer,” i.e. folded and tabbed as an 8.5 x 5.5″ document with address and postage on one of the outfacing sides.
  •  SOFTWARE: If you’re a Mac aficionado, Adobe InDesign is probably your product. If you’re a PC person like me, Microsoft Publisher is a good choice.  Both of these are available to nonprofits at a substantial discount once you become a member of TechSoup.  That’s how I got the copy of Microsoft Publisher that I now use. Of course, there are many other software choices out there and you can find a recent review of them here:


So what about email newsletters? Tom suggests that “emailed newsletters can play a minor, yet useful, supporting role in the retention of donors.” (Ahern, p. 70) They’re useful for promoting upcoming events and reaching people fast … but not as good as a print newsletter if your purpose is to raise money.  That said, Tom offers the following recommendations for email newsletters: (1) Put a soft ask at the bottom, in a footer; (2) Occasionally include opportunities to give such as honor and memorial gifts, especially for holidays; symbolic gifts such as adoptions and shares; and store items such as t-shirts, mugs; (3) Limit content to a few well-chosen items (much less than print), with jumps to larger stories; (4) With more people reading email on mobile devices, you need to use bigger fonts, big buttons instead of links, and a one-column layout; and (5) Make sure subject lines are compelling and contain 40 characters or less.


As for software for email newsletters, at the nonprofit I run, we started out using an email marketing service known as Vertical Response, which is free to nonprofits so long as you don’t send more than 10,000 emails per month. There are many similar services, e.g., MailChimp, and you can find a recent review of them here. While these are all great services, they do have a downside and that is that using them will require you to maintain two lists:  one in the software to be used for email marketing and another outside of the software where you track donations.  This is not ideal and can be quite a headache.  That’s why three years ago, we moved to Akubo, which we use for email marketing, tracking donations and managing event sign-ups.  You can read more about Akubo here.

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