The Domain Formula for Donor Newsletters

Tom Ahern

Tom Ahern

In two weeks Tom Ahern joins us for a brand-new e-clinic called Donor Newsletters That Raise More Money. Below is a sample of what he will be discussing with nonprofits during the 5+ hours of training and newsletter coaching during the e-clinic. ~Kivi

Guest Post by Tom Ahern

In the 1990s, a Seattle fundraising shop called the Domain Group took the garden-variety donor newsletter, stripped it down to its components, and began testing … to see if they could come up with something better. Sort of like rebuilding a hot rod.

Domain eventually developed a formula that made a donor newsletter HIGHLY worth doing: some Domain clients began raking in more gifts through their newsletters than through their direct mail appeals.

Domain had its hot rod. Think about that a moment.

How could a newsletter make more money than an appeal? A newsletter isn’t an ask. Appeals make the ask.

Answer: A newsletter might well be more welcome than an appeal. It can bring joy. It can bring fun. It can take the reader on a journey (an Adrian Sargeant idea). It can flatter the reader shamelessly, in all sorts of ways (deeply recommended).

Whereas a direct mail appeal almost always seems like “duty calling” … not to mention an intrusion, with the intention of relieving my wallet of its burdens.

What Domain achieved … and then freely told the world about … was a remarkable feat. More money through newsletters … hmmmmm, I say, what a novel idea!?!

The Domain Formula demonstrated that newsletters could produce significant revenue as well as good will. Key features of the formula include:

  • Page count: no more than 4 pages (in tests, adding more pages did not produce more revenue)
  • Article length: short
  • Write for skimmers (i.e., requires professional quality headlines)
  • Send in a #10 envelope, not as a self-mailer
  • Include a separate reply device
  • Don’t get distracted: be fully donor-committed. Send only to your donors. You have to talk to a single target audience
  • Make the voice personal (the word “you” dominates) rather than institutional; get intimate
  • Focus on “accomplishment reporting” (tell donors how much they have changed the world through their gifts)

Domain … or the highway? Is the Domain Formula the only way to go? Probably not. But it is, to my knowledge, the only tested way to go.

Let’s return to the last … and most important item … on the Domain Formula list: accomplishment reporting. [That was Domain’s name for it. You call it what you want. The “You Are Wonderful, Dear Donor Report” is the real name.]

Donors want above all just one kind of information from their charities, research shows. Your donors humbly beg to know, “How much good did I do? I sent you a gift. Did my charity make a difference? Am I helping to do something important?”

Most charities never get around to talking about that in their newsletters. The charities instead want to talk about themselves.

You don’t need 16 pages to answer the donors’ only real question. In fact, 16 pages tend to muffle the answer. There’s just too much stuff to look at and consider.

Do the SMIT

There’s a very smart and accomplished Aussie fundraising consultant named Jonathon Grapsas. He introduced the idea of “the SMIT.” SMIT is an acronym that stands for, “What’s the Single Most Important Thing I have to tell you today?”

I have found “SMIT-thinking” highly useful.

I write my SMIT’s on post-it notes.

Donor communications have to survive in a brutal world. People are not paying much attention.

Giving your donor just one thing to consider in your newsletter rather than, say, 10 things (you see that a lot) might be a welcome relief.

This post originally appeared on Tom Ahern’s site.

Tom Ahern is often described as “one of the world’s leading authorities” on how to speak properly — and profitably — to donors. He’s authored four well-received how-to books on donor communications, and delivers dozens of workshops internationally on the techniques of successful fundraising communications. A constant practitioner, Tom writes fundraising materials for some of America’s leading nonprofits, constantly honing his specialties of donor newsletters, direct mail, and case statements. Get Tom’s training and advice on your donor newsletter during the Donor Newsletters That Raise More Money at Nonprofit Marketing Guide this month.

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