How Overhauling Our Print Newsletter Helped Us Become More Donor Centric

Rebekah Gienapp

This Thursday I am hosting the Nonprofit Blog Carnival and this month’s theme is producing nonprofit newsletters in 2012 and beyond.  Rebekah Gienapp, executive director, Workers Interfaith Network, agreed to share her story here about how she overhauled her print newsletter.  ~ Kivi

Guest Post by Rebekah Gienapp, Executive Director, Workers Interfaith Network

Workers Interfaith Network (WIN) is a very small local social justice organization in Memphis, TN. In 2009, WIN had a typical nonprofit newsletter. It was long, and it was sent out when we got around to it. The content was very much about our organization, rather than about our donors. We had some calls to action, but they were often buried deep within articles. The newsletter didn’t raise much money, and was probably not being read or even skimmed by many people.

After attending a workshop with Tom Ahern and reading his book, How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, the Secrets (Amazon), I decided to overhaul the newsletter using his suggestions and format. This was at a time when many of our partner organizations were abandoning their print newsletters and going to only email. While we had an email newsletter, there were several reasons I wanted to make our print newsletter work.

  • An important segment of our members do not use email, either because they are older or because they are low-income. Others had not shared their email addresses with us. I didn’t want the only mail these members received to be solicitations.
  • I’m a big believer in communicating with members in multiple ways to help messages sink in.
  • As a local organization, we give a lot of talks at different organizations. I can pass out a print copy of our newsletter for people to take with them, but I can’t do that with an email newsletter.

Our old format

In 2009, our newsletter was 8 pages and it was printed on the copier in our office.  As you can imagine, the pictures were not too inspiring. It was mailed out 2, or sometimes 3 times per year as a self-sealed mailer. A return donation enveloped was folded inside.

The tone of the newsletter was often a neutral one, as if a newspaper reporter was writing about our work. The newsletter emphasized what WIN was doing, but didn’t often show how our members were making this work possible. The articles were long, and it was often difficult to know what they were about unless the member read the entire article.

Our new format

We reduced the newsletter to 4 pages, and had it printed in two colors at a professional printer. It’s now mailed in an envelope, which includes an envelope teaser that says “Your Workers Interfaith Network newsletter is enclosed.” The return donation envelope is inserted in the mailing envelope, behind the newsletter. It’s mailed out 4 times per year, in addition to an annual report.

Now, the newsletter is written for skimming, not reading. Our members can tell what the main point of the article is just by reading the headline, the first sentence, and photo captions. We embrace and sometimes even play up the controversial nature of our work, knowing that this engages our members.

The newsletter is now written in the style of direct mail, especially through the copious use of the word “you.” Any accomplishment that in the past we would have credited to WIN, we now figure out a way to make it “your” accomplishment. Before we decide which content to include, we ask, “why would a donor care about this?”

The results

Donations that come in from the return envelopes have tripled. The costs of the newsletter have gone up as well, but the newsletter more than pays for itself. Perhaps more exciting than this is that members will sometimes mention the newsletter when a staff member calls them about something. I ran into a member at the grocery store, and she told me about how good she feels when she reads the newsletter because “it says ‘you did this’ and ‘you did that’ and I really feel like I did!” Although I don’t have the data to back it up, I suspect that the newsletter is also helping us retain our donors, because we’re reporting back to them about what we’re doing with their donations.

Our experience suggests that maybe before nonprofits give up their print newsletter, they should try out a remodel first. You just might be surprised by the results.

Rebekah Gienapp is the founder and executive director of Workers Interfaith Network, which unites people of faith and low-wage workers to seek justice in the workplace.

P.S. from Kivi: Want to get advice directly from Tom Ahern, who inspired Rebecca’s newsletter revamp? He’s doing our September e-clinic on donor newsletters.

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