The Nonprofit Newsletter – Still All That?

Nonprofit NewsWhen I first started working in nonprofit communications, the job was really all about the newsletter. The nonprofit newsletter, first in print and then in email, was the mainstay of communications between the nonprofit and its supporters. More than any other piece of communications, the newsletter consumed a lot of staff time and energy, not to mention the money spent on printing and mailing the print version.

Is the nonprofit newsletter still all that? 

I’m not sure. Maybe. Maybe not. 

It’s a question I want to try to answer this month, with your help.

Certainly some organizations still rely heavily on their newsletters to produce real results. I’m thinking of groups that do lots of events, like performing arts orgs for example, who need a frequent and consistent way to communicate about their events calendars. Same goes for organizations who position themselves as curators of the news in their field: they use the newsletter to bring the “best of” to their list of subscribers. You also have nonprofits who use the newsletter primarily as a donor-centered fundraising tool.  (Tom Ahern is writing a new book on this and doing an e-clinic for us on raising money with print newsletters in September.)

But what about all of those other newsletters — perhaps the vast majority of nonprofit newsletters – that are really just FYI updates, organizational news, and soft asks for support?

Here are some of my suspicions  . . .

Nonprofits are relying on social media now more than a newsletter to get quick updates out to supporters.

Nonprofits are sending emails “as needed” rather than waiting for a regularly scheduled newsletter.

Nonprofits are dropping print newsletters simply because they cost too much to produce (again, these are the orgs who don’t use them as a core revenue generator or service to members).

Or I could be completely wrong.

Let’s figure this out together. There are a few ways you can participate:

Take the survey. I’ve put together a quick survey asking how your newsletter has changed. I’ll share the results of the survey in a blog post later this month. As an incentive for filling it out, I’m giving away a free newsletter review to randomly selected participants.

Confirm or deny my suspicions. Leave a comment on this blog post letting me know your take.

Write a blog post about nonprofit newsletters. I’m hosting the Nonprofit Blog Carnival on nonprofit newsletters this month. Write a blog post about the role of the newsletter, or changes you see, and send me the link so I can include it in the Carnival. Deadline is August 28.  Don’t have a blog of your own where you can publish your story? You can send it to me as a guest post for this blog.

I hope you’ll share your thoughts in one or more of these ways!

News Keyboard by Big Stock

  • Kirt Manecke

    Kivi, Sadly I suspect you may be right. In my experience and opinion, a well designed (this means the most important work and dramatic results-thanking the donor-are on the front page above the fold with a strong headline “1,000 dogs saved…thanks to YOU!”) quarterly print newsletter is a money maker and also an important reminder for lapsed donors. It’s great for member retention and renewals too. I think many nonprofits look at the print newsletter as an expense rather than an investment, and if they design it incorrectly (I’ve seen some of these) it is indeed an expense and a waste. Designed correctly, it can be a critical aspect of a nonprofit’s fundraising and outreach strategy. Lastly, I suspect many nonprofits are making the assumption to drop their print newsletter without first having it designed correctly, testing it, and mailing it often enough with the news that matters to donors (resluts, not board meeting recaps). I think many donors like to have something in their hands to read and reread away from their computer. Thank you,


  • Katherine

    Our print newsletters still play a critical role in communicating with donors. I love Tom Ahern’s “Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible,” and I hearily recommend it to anyone looking at tweaking and revamping their print pieces. He makes a great case for using both print and ecommunications. Yes, some of our donors prefer a printed newsletter because they’re not online, but that’s not our main reason for maintaining a print piece. With all the email these days, it’s so easy for someone to delete your eNews from their box. We love being in their actual mailbox every other month with a cover story on how their donations have helped transform a life. I look forward to Tom’s new publication. Thanks, Kivi!

  • Katherine

    I *heartily* recommend Tom’s book on newsletters.

  • Kirt Manecke

    One more thing: I also own and have read Tom Ahern’s amazing book, “Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible”, and consider it the ultimate guide to profitable and successful print newsletters. Thank you! Kirt

  • Twelvedancer

    My non-profit, all-volunteer 501(c)(3) performing arts/dance organization stopped producing print newsletters about two years ago. We used to mail an 8-page (4 pages double-sided, then folded) black and white newsletter. We had a bulk mail permit for years, but had major problems with delayed delivery, such that we decided to mail first-class. The total cost to print/mail 300 newsletters to our members was about $1,000. Now we email an 8-page or more color pdf to our 800+ email list, for $0. It arrives instantly. We link to it via our website and Facebook pages, too. For us, Print is dead.

  • Anna

    We don’t send e-news “as needed” simply because it would fall off the plate altogether if we did! Having a monthly one means I never forget about it. We also have new events every month that are important to promote.

    Our organization hasn’t sent print newsletters for years due to our small staff and tiny marketing budget. 

    But with e-news we are able to stay top of mind; we have a way to “hook” people who *might* be interested in our services (signing up for e-news is a much smaller commitment than signing up for a class); we are able to segment our targets (separate e-news for clients vs. funders); and we can share news that’s bigger than a Facebook post or Tweet (especially since we don’t have a blog yet – I know, I know – don’t get me started…)

    But your other instincts are right. We have shifted a lot of our smaller and timely content (as well as partner/client news) to social media.

    Our e-news probably falls on the “softer” side of your spectrum – but that’s partially on purpose. Our organization for a long time was seen as a soft and fuzzy community hand-holder. As we shift our focus to a more professional-based org, we still need to hold onto some of that fuzzy stuff so we don’t lose our beloved standing in the community. Our e-news helps us do that with minimal effort and cost.

  • Kivi Leroux Miller

    Tom is giving away the first chapter of the new book to people who sign up for the e-clinic. :)  I can’t wait for this one myself!

  • Kivi Leroux Miller

    Do you have any information on how many people read the the PDF? Does it seem to produce results?

  • Sandy

    Fundraising is all about relationships.  Communication builds relationship.  Newsletters can be a great communication tool.  Unfortunately, way too many nonprofits pack their newsletters full of stuff that donors aren’t interested in.  I believe that done well, a newsletter keeps donors and prospects up-to-date and interested in the organization’s work.  Done poorly it’s a waste of time, energy, and resources.

    Sandy Rees
    Fundraising Coach

  • Jean Van Ryzin

    We have very few print communications at all anymore — just a series of fact sheets that people can mix and match when meeting with different audiences about our work and an annual impact report, which is a feel-good piece about the difference we’re making.

    However, we do have 6 email newsletters. One goes out weekly to everyone on our list, while the other 5 mail less frequently to targeted subsets of constituents who have indicated an interest in a particular topic. The smaller, more targeted newsletters regularly receive higher open/click rates.

    Another deliberate change we’ve made over the past few years is to use our enewsletters primarily to drive people to our website, rather than sharing news about others in the field. We used to curate a lot of other news, but now we see the enewsletters as a main driver of website traffic.

    Lastly, we’ve worked at slimming down our email newsletters to teasers and links and limiting the total number of items in each issue. To improve the look, we’ve updated the templates and started incorporating images, as well.

    While we are using social media, our following there is still much smaller than our email list, so we have yet to switch to using it as our main form of communication.

  • JDKappel

    I have always collected newsletters, direct mail, etc., from other organizations.  In the last five years, I have signed on to a number of online NPO newsletters.  Here is my reaction to online newsletters only–how many people do you know that save online newsletters to read later?  As a professional NPO exec, you may keep an email folder with newsltters in it, but ask your friends, spouse, etc., if they do.  I peruse quickly and delete, only saving some that are particularly effective and I print those off and save to my swap file.  Printed newsletters, on the other hand, tend to lay on my desk for a while and I get back to them on occasion.  Every printed newsletter should contain a donation envelope (coded, of course), and when I have been chief development officer, I have often received donation envelopes from 2-3 years back.  I cannot tell if an emailed newsletter
    from 6-12 months before
     results in an online gift, but somehow I doubt it.  

    So, I will always recommend a printed newsletter on a quarterly basis, with email alerts on at least a monthly or as needed basis.  No one would market a product using only one “channel”, we should not limit our dialog with stakeholders to only one channel.  

  • Jenny

    I think newsletters, well-designed and well-written, are still very important, in combination with other modes of communication such as email and social media.

    I also think that most people make the mistake of using too much text and uninteresting photos.  Newsletters should be very donor-centric, providing information donors want, such as the impact of their gift, how it’s being used, etc.  These days, the layout should also be very visual, with lots of large photos of people interacting in ways that “show” or demonstrate your cause or activities.  The visuals should tell a story.  Less is more.

    In recent years, we changed up what we were doing, downsizing but also economizing and improving our printed communications.  We now publish just one newsletter, down from three, a year.  We publish a much smaller mid-year “impact report,” using lots more photos, short descriptions and bulleted text.  We also send out companion email blasts.  Since we don’t have emails for everybody on our mailing list, these go to a much smaller group.  In combination with email and social media, these printed publications are really the only ways we can reach everyone.   

  • Mary Cahalane

    I LOVE what our print newsletter has done. From surveys of my donors, I’ve learned that at least half don’t really spend much time online. From the responses to the print newsletter, I’ve learned that a majority responding say they read it all the time. And the envelopes coming in after every newsletter tells me we’re on the right track, too.

    Our email communications are controlled outside of development. So I wouldn’t even have access to that if I wanted to use it right now.

    I’ve also read Tom Ahern – gobbling up every word. So my goal with every newsletter is donor love, and lots of it. When I put it together, I start with pictures, and stories come from there. I work on headlines and captions next. The actual articles are the last thing I do.

    As long as our donors are reading it and approving, I’ll keep doing print newsletters!

  • Claire

    Our NGO is based overseas (Vietnam), but our donor base is solidly in Australia, Europe and North America. For us, a print newsletter is just plain unrealistic, so online it is! Our situation may be different from others since we hardly get a chance to show off the work that we do on the ground, not to mention all the great pictures we have. The quarterly newsletter is one of the best ways we have to make our supporters feel part of the family, and we do our best to keep it warm and engaging.

    That being said, it’s always disappointing to see the stats after a newsletter launch, with the opening and click-thru rate never reaching the 99% you dream of… for the next newsletter, I’m toying with the idea of at least one more “academic” sounding article about the issues we’re addressing. People are interested, clearly, so why not make them think a little harder? Why not have the newsletter become a place to start a real dialogue with donors rather than just a big, colorful update?

  • Andrea Romo

    Hey Kivi –

    Our organization relies on social media to get quick updates out; however, we also realize that our social media audience is only a small portion of our much larger audience. We also rely on regularly scheduled monthly (sometimes bi-monthly if we have a lot going on) emails and our printed magazine to get that information out. I have recently refocused our enewsletter to focus on one action step at a time, which I think has limited our unsubscribes.

    Our magazine does cost a lot but it’s so nicely designed and the articles so well written, that it really is a fantastic highlight of our organization. Our research institute was established in 1992, which is very infantile, so our magazine serves as an educational tool for our audience, and has evolved to become a fundraising tool that includes direct fundraising asks at the end of our feature stories. This direct ask has dollar amounts and specific needs listed.

    I plan on measuring whether or not more remittance envelopes were mailed back with donations than previous issues, and whether those donations directed to the specific asks or not.