This article is excerpted from Tom Ahern’s book, Making Money with Donor Newsletters.
I gave a workshop on newsletters.
People from Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Minnesota attended. Their donor newsletter, mailed quarterly to 20,000 people at that point, racked up an annual net loss of $40,000. Was there a better way, they wondered?
Something amazing happened post-workshop: giving to Gillette's newsletter increased 1,000 percent (not a misprint), after a few changes.
The old way, the foundation received about $5,000 in gifts per issue.
The new way, the foundation received about $50,000 in gifts per issue.
Exactly which details did Gillette choose to change in its newsletter? Here's the short list:
• They made the donor the obvious hero. Gillette pushed donor-centricity to an extreme I've never encountered before or since. They thanked the donor copiously and obviously, in the big type (i.e., the headlines). They gave the donor credit without stint.
• They switched from rational content to emotional content, from coverage of technology and skills (the stuff that naturally fascinated the staff and defined the hospital's brand) to stories about kids getting better (the primary thing donors care about). Please note: Gillette still gets to talk plenty about its amazing medicine, but the medicine plays a supporting role in a dramatic story about a child's recovery.
• They made it personal. The most powerful word in marketing, the word "you," never took top billing in the old version (if it appeared at all). In the new version, the word "you" is used with gusto, especially in high visibility locations like headlines. It has become the pronoun of choice.
• They made it shorter. The old newsletter was 8 pages long and text heavy. Now it's 4 pages long. Gillette also trimmed its articles. Lead articles used to average 1,200 words. Now they average 500 words.
• It had been a self-mailer. Now it's sent in a special envelope that says, in effect, "Your donor newsletter is enclosed. Thank you for your support!"
• They went to full-color throughout. The new design is much looser and fun. It crackles with visual energy and joy. It replaces an older design treatment that was mostly two-color and a bit dowdy.
By the way, despite enhancements like mailing the newsletter in an envelope bearing a live stamp along with a personalized cover letter and reply device, the new version, at half the length, cost no more than the old version.
In September 2009, Gillette's Angela Lindell and Andrew Olsen, CFRE, both key players in the makeover, published a frank, detailed article (you can Google it) about their newsletter's transformation. It appeared in the Direct Marketing Association Journal. The title: "Cutting Your Print Newsletter? Think Again! How We Transformed Ours Into a Moneymaker."
A thorough review of [the old newsletter] quickly revealed a fundamental problem. We were telling the stories that made our organization look important — not the stories that made our donors feel important. We helped children walk. We opened new clinics. We conducted successful fundraising programs. We did amazing things! But all of our incredible accomplishments left the reader with a nagging question: “If you’re doing so great, why do you need me?”
Angela and Andrew's article distilled their magic down to just three "simple — but incredibly important — things" that donors must hear from a newsletter:
• "You matter." Show your donors they’re essential to your mission. Reframe your accomplishments as their accomplishments. ("Because of You, Douglas Can Visit an Imaging Center Without Crying!")
• "You have invested wisely." Prove that your organization is worthy of an investment.
• "We still need you!" Share new needs, opportunities and goals. Even when telling an amazing success story, leave your donors craving another interaction with you. ("Help Us Change More Lives.")
To order Making Money with Donor Newsletters, click here.
About the Author
Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit communications. He began presenting his top-rated Love Thy Reader workshops at fundraising conferences in 1999. Since then he has introduced thousands of fundraisers in the U.S., Canada and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful. He founded his consulting practice in 1990 (www.aherncomm.com). His firm specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters.