Earlier this week I taught “Strategies for Successful Nonprofit Newsletters” for the Duke University Certificate Program in Nonprofit Management. During the course, several students expressed their frustrations about working with their executive directors on various newsletter issues. Here are three questions they asked and how I answered.

Q: We always have to print the “letter from the director” on the cover and it’s always boring and awful. What do we do?

A: I recommend dropping the letter entirely. More often than not, they are stream of consciousness ramblings that add little value to the newsletter. Many executive directors dread writing them, and it shows. Every article in the newsletter should be written for the readers, not for the director’s ego.

If you must keep the letter or you believe it does provide value to the readers, then treat it like you would any other article in the newsletter. Pick a topic and stick to it. Write an interesting headline (not just “Letter from the Director,” which is fine as a kicker — a subhead that appears above the main headline). Write an engaging lead paragraph.

Q: My boss is a terrible writer, but she insists on writing articles.

A: It’s time to add “ghostwriter” to your job description. Nonprofit executive directors are all very busy people. They will usually welcome help from staff on time-consuming tasks like writing newsletter articles.

Tell your boss you would like to help her save some time by putting together a first draft of the article and then she can spend her time fine-tuning and polishing it. In most cases, the executive director will read it over quickly, make a few minor changes, and move on to the next emergency on her desk.

Q: Our director never meets his deadlines, because he always waits until the last minute to figure out what his column will be about.

A: Develop an editorial calendar for several issues at a time. You should have a good sense for how many articles you need for each issue and what categories those articles fall into (e.g. a letter from the director, a how-to article, a client success story, a volunteer profile, etc.). Create a grid with the publication dates across the top and the article categories along the left side. Fill in the grid with specifics. Once the director sees what else will be covered in each issue, it should be easier for him to come up with his topics and to plan for them in advance. Be sure to provide reminders about two weeks before the articles are due, and again a few days before the deadline.

These same three questions come up every time I teach a newsletter class. If you are an executive director, please don’t make your newsletter staff suffer in silence. Talk about the best ways for you to work together to create a newsletter your readers will enjoy.

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