Making Money with Donor NewslettersThis article is excerpted from Tom Ahern's Making Money with Donor Newsletters. To order a copy, click here.

Sprinkle offers across your newsletter. Offers give your donors new things to do.

Like discover: "What's it really like to be desperately poor? Sign up for our Poverty Simulation. See for yourself why it's so hard to break the cycle." (Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte, N.C., makes this offer.)

Like grow: "You can be the mentor that changes a child's life."

Like contribute in a new way: "Join us in this special campaign to. …"

The dictionary defines an offer this way: "to present something for someone to accept or reject." Here are some common charity offers:

  • Subscribe to an e-mailed newsletter. "Stay fully up to date, with our FREE …"
  • "You're invited" to a celebration
  • "You're invited" to an exclusive presentation: "A handful of people will receive my personal invitation to this revealing look at …"
  • "You're invited" to a behind-the-scenes tour
  • Discounts "if you act now." (Everyone loves a bargain. It's the "greed" emotional trigger at work.)
  • Membership ("Your family membership entitles you to unlimited visits …")
  • Special member-only previews
  • In an e-mail: "View this wonderful, new video …"
  • Promoting planned giving: "Receive your free, informative brochure about charitable bequests … and see how endowed funds can perpetuate your values forever."
  • Challenge or matching gift campaigns
  • "Become a monthly donor and …"
  • Naming opportunities in capital campaigns
  • Exclusive updates from the CEO: "There is a special group of people I make sure I contact at least four times a year … and you're in that group." (Remember the chapter on flattery?)
  • An invitation to join an exclusive society, such as the President's Circle (ditto, the flattery thing)

Offers in Newsletters: Stirring the Donor Pot

Successful donor newsletters include offers in every issue for three reasons:

  • Offers help strengthen your bond with that fraction of donors (10-30 percent, maybe more?) who are "truly true believers" and might want to become more involved (like, say, volunteer or take a tour).
  • Offers create a feedback channel so donors can tell you how much they like you. (Most charities? Stay humble. I've read the research: donors are far more skeptical of your effectiveness than you assume. They think you're inefficient. They think you waste money. You're guilty until proven innocent in most donors' mind.)
  • Offers can seriously boost philanthropic revenue. Not every donor supports you just once annually. Some will make multiple gifts a year, but you have to ask, in your newsletter.

Buried Offers = Low-to-No Response

If you were omniscient and a skilled communicator … and you could see tens of thousands of nonprofit newsletters at one time … you'd soon detect a self-defeating habit.

Omniscient, you'd quickly notice that more than 95 percent of the offers in nonprofit newsletters are made at the end of an article; an article, research shows, that very few will read in depth.

I call it the "buried offer" habit. The typical formulation: "For more information, call or e-mail …"

But is anyone listening by that point, at the end of an article? Maybe 10 percent at best? (And research says I'm being unrealistically generous.)

Assume that no one reads your articles. Treat every offer like a little ad. Make sure your offers are easy to spot and jump off the page, visually.

Road to Rewards: Change Your Response Device from Passive to Interactive

Interactivity has its rewards, as every top-tier marketer knows. Interactive in this discussion means you give your target audience a way to tell you what they think of you.

What follows: a true-life demonstration of the gains made when a charity changed its response experience from passive to interactive.

In 2009, WPBT2, the public broadcaster in South Florida, sent out its annual appeal to current donors.

The reply device included the common "giving string"—a series of amounts the donor could choose from. The common giving string concludes with a fill-in-the-blank option labeled something like "other."

Not this time. This time, on the WPBT2 reply device, instead of "other," it said, "Surprise us!" And a big, blue circle surrounded that option, drawing the eye.

That one change in the giving string—from "other" to "surprise us"—had an extraordinary effect.

Given the opportunity to express their love of WPBT2—customarily one of the 10-most watched public television stations in the United States—donors responded lustily: the average annual gift increased by almost 20 percent.

What had happened?

  • By adding "surprise us," WPBT2 made its otherwise generic (hence banal) reply device into something exciting and interactive.
  • By adding "surprise us," WPBT2 invited its current donors to demonstrate exactly how much they loved the programming, through the size of their gifts. And the target audience savored the opportunity.

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 United States, Canada, and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful. His consulting practice, Ahern Donor Communications, Ink, specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters. His efforts have won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, given each year to the best communications work worldwide.