The following article was used as the outline for Kivi Leroux Miller's presentation, "Ensuring Your E-Newsletters are Read - Not Dead - On Arrival This Year," for Network for Good on February 9, 2010.  For more free tips from Nonprofit Marketing Guide, sign up for our free Learning Center membership for e-book and webinar downloads. You can also sign up for our  free e-newsletter.

Nonprofits usually produce newsletters for one of two reasons:

(1) They use the newsletter to provide a service, including education. This is especially true for membership organizations or groups that serve professionals in a field.

(2) They use the newsletter to build support, financial and otherwise. The newsletter is seen primarily as a marketing or fundraising tool.

While your newsletter can certainly do both, it's best to know which reason is primary and which is secondary. In either case, the success of the newsletter depends on your ability to create value in the eyes of your readers. Your goal is to produce a newsletter so good that your readers anticipate its arrival and notice when it doesn't arrive. When it arrives in their email mail or snail mail box, you want them to go right to it, thinking to themselves, "This is going to be good!" While having a good subject line certainly helps, creating value is what really gets your newsletters read.

Creating that kind of loyalty isn't easy, but it's definitely possible. You cripple your chances, however, if you create each edition of your newsletter on the fly. Instead, you need to think strategically and over several issues at a time, about what you want to put before your readers. Using an editorial calendar helps immensely. Here's a sample.

Selecting the Right Kinds of Articles to Use

When trying to figure out what to include in your newsletter, I find it helpful to start with the ultimate goal -- the action that you want the reader to take. What is it that we want people to do after reading our newsletter, whether one particular issue or over the course of the year?

For an educational or service-oriented newsletter, what do you want people to do with the information you are sharing? Learn more about it? Share it with a colleague? Discuss it with others? Make a change in their own behavior? Help some else do something?

Once you know the action you want someone to take, you can start to work backward from there by creating more specific calls to action. For example, learn more by downloading a report, share it with a colleague using the "Share This" buttons at the bottom of the email, discuss it on our Facebook page, share your story about how you are making this change in your life.

Now that you have your call to action, what's going to motivate the reader to actually do these things? This is where you get to the actual content for your newsletter article. What kinds of articles and what types of content will answer questions such as "How is this going to make my life better or make my job easier?"  or "Why is this important to my company, my family, my career, my community?" or "What problem or challenge does this solve for me?"

For marketing or fundraising newsletters, your calls to action will likely be more like "Donate Now" or "Volunteer Now" or "Call Your Congressman Now." The questions your articles are trying to answer are more like "Why should I do this NOW?" and "What difference will I make?"

For fundraising newsletters, it's also essential that you mix in different types of articles along with the direct asks for support. Include in your editorial calendar articles that (1) show progress or success so donors know their previous gifts are working and (2) demonstrate your gratitude for your supporters.

Creating Standing Heads

"Standing Heads" are categories of articles that you can include in your editorial calendar.  You can mix and match these. For example, if you have three articles in your newsletter, maybe one of those articles is always a member profile and the other two slots are filled by two of five other article categories that you know work for you and your readers.

After thinking through your typical calls to action, come up with a few categories of articles that will answer the right questions and motivate the reader to do what you are asking.

Will these types of articles work for you?

  • How-to Articles
  • Advice Columns
  • First-Person Anecdotes
  • Trends
  • News Roundups
  • Reviews or Recommendations
  • Success Stories
  • Personal Profiles
  • Lists (e.g. Top Ten)
  • Legislative Updates
  • Action Alerts
  • Hot Finds
  • Wish Lists
  • Sponsors/Partners
  • Surveys/Research Results
  • Fact v. Fiction

Selecting standing heads provides numerous advantages:

  • Hand-wringing and office debates about content will be minimized.
  • You know what kind of content you need to produce, so you can watch for ideas that fit these molds.
  • As you write more and  more of a particular category of article, you'll get better at it and will produce better articles, faster.
  • Most importantly, your readers will start to look forward to your newsletter, because they will know what to expect.

More Ways to Build Out Your Editorial Calendar

While standing heads will go a long way to helping you create a valuable newsletter, you'll sometimes still struggle with the particular angle for an article in a particular edition of your newsletter. Here are a few ways to tackle writer's block and find inspiration.

Use the calendar.  Every month of the year provides great hooks for nonprofit newsletter stories.

Use the headlines. Tie your article into the national or local news. It gives your article a timely, current feel, which is critical for e-newsletters and makes it seem like you are really on top of things.

Think about story arcs. Can you use your newsletter to tell the nonprofit equivalent of a soap opera over several issues? A story arc is how a story develops over time, in pieces. For example, you could track the experiences of three volunteers or three clients over the course of the year working with your organization. Based on your knowledge and experience, you could project what kind of arc you might expect, e.g. what's typical for new volunteers, what's likely to happen after they've been with you for 6 months, etc. and then adjust based on what really happens.

More Helpful Articles from Nonprofit Marketing Guide on E-Newsletters