Newsletters – was I wrong?


A couple of weeks ago I blogged about how poor I think charity newsletters are and how I’d like to see the end of them. A lot of people have told me they agree with me (whilst still producing their next newsletters!) which is always nice. But I am most grateful to one person who was keen to disagree, which is great.

I received a tweet from Denisa Casement, Head of Fundraising at Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI). In this tweet she shared her results which are, frankly, brilliant. One newsletter had raised €92,000 from just 8,500 donors. That’s nearly €11 for every person mailed!

Intrigued, I asked to see a copy of this newsletter which arrived very promptly in my post.

At first glance, the newsletter is nothing special. It’s not glossy, is only 4 or 6 pages long and doesn’t have masses of striking images.

What it does have, in bucket-loads is authenticity. The design is simple, and in keeping with the idea that this is a local charity who just get on with the life-changing work every day. And it has stories – of project workers, of clients and of volunteers. I was particularly touched by Davey Page, a Project Worker, sharing his experiences in one newsletter and then saddened to learn that he had passed away in the next.

But what strikes me more than anything is the way it says thank you. Over and over again. Every article talks about something real and tangible that MQI has done from building a new building to opening a new kitchen or opening a new Centre. And they thank me for my donations, because this is what they have been spent on.

I could talk here about how having clear objectives and obviously writing for a very specific audience pays off, but I don’t think that is the reason they work.

What comes across is the passion that Denisa obvious feels towards the work of the charity and, especially, towards her donors. It is this passion that drives the newsletters and, I suspect, drives all communications. She also told me that they have increased their donor file by 50% in the last three years, so it’s not just the newsletters that work!

So do I think I was wrong about the newsletter? To be honest, I’m not fully convinced. MQI has proved that they can be done well, but I still believe that more often than not they aren’t. In most of the donor research I’ve conducted, donors aren’t very excited by them and neither, in my experience, are many fundraisers.

I like what MQI have done and I’m impressed by what they achieve. I hope it lasts and that they continue to build the stories, the passion and the thanks into the newsletters and that no-one gets bored of them.

But I also have this nagging question at the back of my mind that wonders if creating a one-off piece of magic once in a while might pay back more. Am I wrong?

Is it time to ditch the newsletter?


Think about it. When was the last time you received a charity newsletter that really excited you? One that you couldn’t wait to open; one that you read from cover to cover; or one that you showed to someone else?

No, I can’t remember that far back either.

Now I want you to be really honest. Does your charity’s newsletter make you want to open it and to read it? Will it really inspire a donor and make them feel great? Does it send shivers down the back of your neck? Or does it simply bring you out in a cold sweat?

You’re not alone!

Let’s face it, newsletters are boring. But they shouldn’t be. We have the most powerful stories, incredible images, we can tell people about lives we’re saving, cruelty we’re stopping and the support we’re giving.

Newsletters that I've never got round to opening

Why do we get it so wrong? Here are the main reasons that I see.

No clear objectives: The point of a newsletter is to inspire your donors. It might have a fundraising target against it, or it may be intended to increase future income – either way, it’s about money. Too often charities want to ‘educate’ the donor or to introduce them to all the other bits of work that the charity thinks is really important, but that the donor won’t.

No targeting: Too many newsletters are corporate mouthpieces, designed for everyone from the Chairman’s wife, to a minister in Westminster, to an employee at one of your corporate partners, to a service user. If you’re lucky your donors might make the list, but they’ll be somewhere towards the bottom.

Produced by your Publications Team: Probably the biggest culprit of all, your newsletter is produced by the Publications Team. You know, the same people who don’t like your appeals because “they’re full of emotional clap-trap and oversimplify what is actually a rather complex problem – wouldn’t it be great if we could educate them”.

They aren’t edited: I know, they will all have an Editor, but a vital part of an Editor’s job is to say no to people who want their bit of the organisation to be included “because it’s really important”. This is the same problem many websites suffer from.

Not topical: the clue is in the name – newsletter. How can it be news if the lead time means it’s got to be produced three months before it goes out? I’m getting newsletters from international aid charities that don’t even mention Syria!

Badly researched: A survey included in a the middle of a newsletter that asks people if they read it isn’t research. If it’s included in a newsletter the people who read it are the only people who’ll respond! And don’t ask people if they read it, they’ll say yes – ask them what they remember.

You’re bored: Another biggy – I’ve seen it so many times. The charity redesigns its newsletter (based on the same research I mentioned above, of course). Everyone is excited about the first issue, there are lots of great stories to select from, it’s fresh and packs a punch. Issue two comes along, and the excitement has worn off. You get some decent stories, and manage to fill the rest. Phew! By issue three it’s a chore. “Oh no, I’ve got to get a newsletter out in September, where will I find a decent story, everyone’s too busy to help me.” If you’re bored and think it’s a chore, what do you think the effect on your donors will be?

You can solve some of this by addressing the above points:

  • Set a clear objective to inspire and excite donors.
  • Write for your donors
  • Let your fundraisers create it – you know, those people that know your donors best, know what interests them and know how to write for them.
  • Edit it. Ruthlessly! As much as you would an appeal letter
  • Cut down the lead times so that you can be topical. Talk about things that are going on today and give real feedback on recent appeals.

But I have a more radical suggestion. Ditch the newsletter.

Look again at the list about – it’s no accident that I started with setting a clear objective. If the objective is to ‘inspire and excite donors’ then think again.

A few years ago I worked with the NSPCC and their Stewardship team. Their budgets looked a little different to most. Oh yes, they had points in the year when they scheduled in to feed back to donors, but the budget line didn’t say ‘newsletter’ it said ‘magic’. At these points of the year, we and they sat down and came up with an idea to use that point in the calendar to send something unique to donors to really inspire them.

They had already created their ‘Little Book of Change’ (which you can see here on SOFII). After that they created a photo album with stories of the children they’d helped. Another time they sent a simple letter from a ChildLine counsellor talking about a call they had taken and the difference they had made all because, she knew, of donations from ‘people like you’.

Some of these were quick and easy, others took a lot of time to put together. All of them were personal, emotive and geared towards exceeding the donors’ expectations. And they all touched the donors in a way that a newsletter never could.

St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK) did a similar thing by always theming their news around an anniversary. I remember creating a magazine that celebrated the 60th anniversary of D-Day that received more positive comments and more donations than any newsletter I’ve ever been involved with because it was interesting and relevant for their donors and talked about what the donors were interested in rather than what the charity wanted to say.

So please, ditch the dry, corporate mouthpiece that you’re bored of already, and use the time and money to create magic for your donors. Don’t they deserve it?

PS If you have any examples of a great newsletter, I’d love to hear what makes it different.

PPS I’m not holding my breath.