Your Newsletter: What To Leave Out

It is newsletter season!

I’m hearing from lots of organizations who are working on their next newsletter. Either all these folks are upstanding and know their donors deserve to be Reported to, or they are smart because they know they’ll raise money and retain more of their donors if they Report. Hopefully both!

In a slight departure from the norm, this is a list of what not to do. Because sometimes knowing what not to do is more helpful than knowing what to do. So here’s a list of things to leave out of your newsletter.

Will any one of these things kill your response and drive donors away? No. But if you want to make a newsletter that more donors will read, and help you get future donations, you’ll eliminate as many of these as you can …

What to leave out of your newsletter

  • Photos of people giving or receiving big checks.
  • Photos of more than 3 people.
  • Any articles about: how great your organization is, awards won, certifications garnered, or statistical comparisons. There is one exception: if you can frame the story around a donor benefit, then it can be helpful for donors. For instance, the headline of a story about “Our Programs Among Most Effective In Nation” could be reframed to say “Proof That Your Gift Is Effective.” It’s that way of thinking that can take your newsletter from self-congratulatory advertising to a donor-retaining and money-raising publication.
  • Any articles about the organizations that you partner with.
  • Stories where there’s more information about your program or staff than about the beneficiary.
  • Any article or story that doesn’t mention the donor.
  • Type that’s too small to be easily read by a 70-year-old.
  • Anything written above a 10th grade level. (This isn’t about donor intelligence, folks. It’s about ease of readability. Because ease of readability is directly related to fundraising results. Easier to read and understand quickly? Raise more. More complex writing with a light sprinkling of jargon? Raise less.)
  • The word “we” and; “us” and; “our.” (You can actually have a couple of these, but try to have one of them for every three times you say “you” and; “your.” Remember, the most effective newsletters are about what your donor did, not what your organization did.)
  • The words “partner” and “partnering.”
  • Headlines that don’t tell your donor anything useful. (Most people will only read your headlines and picture captions. Make sure those two things communicate the message you’re trying to send!)

The pushback, and the answers

When we work with our clients, or speak at conferences, there are two pieces of pushback we get all the time from this list. Here they are, along with our responses.

“But wait, how will our volunteers/clients/partners know about the volunteer opportunity/where to go to sign up/how to work with us?”

The answer: If you want your newsletter to be worth the time and money to create, it needs to be only for donors. Most likely, you need a different publication for your non-donor audiences. Over time, we’ve seen that newsletters that are aimed at donors AND other audiences do not effectively Report to donors (and tend to harm overall fundraising). So you have to make a hard choice and make your newsletter about your donors. And only send your newsletter to your donors.

“But wait, if we don’t tell them in our newsletter, how will our donors know how great and effective we are?”

The answer: an effective newsletter absolutely tells your donors how great and effective you are, it just does it differently than most organizations are used to. Here’s why. Most donors are not asking themselves if your organization is great and effective. (Are some foundations and some major donors asking that? Of course). Most donors are asking a much simpler question. They are wondering, “Did my gift make a difference?” We’ve done hundreds of newsletters and the results are really clear. Showing your donor how her gift made a difference is FAR more effective for fundraising results (both short- and long-term) than showing her how great and effective your organization is. Because for a donor, showing her that her gift made a big difference is how you show her how great and effective your organization is.

Short, sweet summary

Your newsletter should be an exercise in giving credit away. Focus on what your donor did, not on your role. It works in friendship, and it works in fundraising!

Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Newsletter Article

The first sentence of every newsletter story is really important.

Don’t do what most nonprofits do. They assume that all donors read to the end of all articles. I routinely review newsletters where the most powerful parts of the stories are in the last paragraphs – where very few people will see it. Because all the eye-tracking studies show that most donors don’t “read” your newsletter. They scan it.

So, you want to work hard on the first sentence of your newsletter articles and stories. If the donor likes your first sentence, she’s more likely to read your second sentence, and so on.

And you don’t have to be a “writer” to make the first sentences of your newsletter sing. But you do have to think about them differently. I have 25 years experience that testifies that the following ‘ways of thinking differently’ about how your start your newsletter articles will help you raise more money.

Keep it simple

Make it short and easy to read. No long sentences. No complex sentences with multiple clauses. Your reader should be halfway into the second sentence before she realizes it.

Now you have momentum. Now you have a greater chance your donor is going to get the message you’re sending her.

Good Example: “Ebola took everything Elisabeth had.”

It’s not about your organization

The first sentence of any newsletter article should never be about your organization or staff.

The most successful newsletters are written with the purpose of showing your donor what her gift accomplished. Not to talk about all of the things you’ve been doing or have coming up. Because more people are reading your newsletter wondering “I wonder if my gift made a difference?” than are wondering “I wonder what the organization has been working on?”

So, your first sentence should be about the donor, or about a beneficiary.

(And remember: as your donor is deciding whether to read your story or not, she is in a hurry and has other things asking for her attention. So, if your first sentence is about your organization or staff, she’s just not as likely to keep reading.)

After all, would you be more likely to keep reading if the story was about something amazing you helped do, or something an organization you support is working on?

Bad Example: “After landing in the capital city of Kinshasa, The Democratic Republic of Congo, our team traveled inland to a village outside the town of Kivuvu.” Why would a busy donor keep reading?

Good Example: “Thanks to you, Sarah’s life turned completely around.” Bonus points for including the donor and a beneficiary in the very first sentence!

It’s the start of a summary

I need to do an entire post on writing newsletter stories. But here’s one of my tricks; the first paragraph is often a summary of the whole article.

Why? Because most people are not going to read the whole article, but you still want them to get the message you’re trying to send. So if you summarize the message in a compelling way two great things happen:

  1. More people get the message you’re sending
  2. More people will read the whole thing

Good Example: “Your gift did something simple but life changing for a mother named Teri Maes, and you might have saved the lives of her two sons.” This one is a little long, but it summarizes the whole story AND includes the donor!

Don’t start with a statistic

In a nutshell, experts love statistics. But donor’s don’t.

Experts like you, your staff, and your incredible program people love statistics. Statistics are meaningful to experts because they provide context, show progress, and show expertise.

But that’s not what most donors are looking for. They are looking for a quick, easy way to know whether their gift to your organization made a difference. That’s usually a story of a beneficiary, with a little editorial content for how the donor’s gift helped the beneficiary.

Starting with a statistic immediately reduces the number of people who will keep reading because it asks the donor to understand something new and then understand why it’s important or helpful. That’s a lot to ask of a non-expert donor who is moving fast.

She’d rather read a story, my friend. So start with a story.

Bad Example: “Only one in nine children in our great state will ever go to a symphony.”

Drama! Action! Peril!

I’m going to quote my post on appeal letters on this one:

“Fill it with drama or make it interesting to your donor. Drama and tension are two of the best tools you have for engaging their interest. Or make it something that would be interesting to your donor – which is likely something different than would be interesting to you!”

My best one-liner about this is, “You want to write like the National Inquirer, not National Geographic.” That probably over-dramatizes it, but drama and emotion catch people’s interest. Most nonprofits assume they have their donor’s interest – and that’s a bad assumption.

Bad Example: “Drs. Martha and Robert Bryant strive to use their medical practice to make an impact.” Who are those people? Why should the donor keep reading?

Good Example: “The first night Jacqueline went to community theater, her life changed in the second act.”

So as you go to work on your next newsletter, here’s what I hope you’ll remember:

  1. Very few people will read an entire newsletter article. So get to the point very quickly, summarize it, then tell the full scope of the story.
  2. To increase the chances that your donor will read more, make your first sentence easy to read and interesting to her!

How To Thank A Major Donor So She’ll WANT To Give Again

thank a major donor

I have a theory you’ll probably agree with:

How well you thank a major donor has a big impact on whether they give you additional gifts in the future, and how large those gifts will be.

If you agree, keep reading. Because we’re about to share what we’ve learned over the years about Thanking major donors. We’ll talk about the tactics to use, and about the message you want to convey.

Jim Shapiro, my partner in crime here at Better Fundraising, taught me most of this. And even though it’s really simple, I’m going to break it down into easy steps.

Thank a major donor five times

Why five? Because you want your major donor to feel that their gift really mattered. Not “know” their gift matters. That’s a simple fact that they probably already know (especially if you’re a local charity). That can be communicated with a receipt and a thank you note.

You want to do more. Because your goal isn’t your donor knowing. Your goal is for them to feel your gratitude and appreciation. And you need multiple touches for that.

By the way, you don’t have to do any of these things. You can not even acknowledge gifts and some donors will keep giving to you. But why leave it up to chance? Most of the steps below don’t take much time and can make a big difference over time . . .

The easy three ways to thank a major donor

These are simple to do. Every single organization should be doing these. Think of them as ‘a cost of doing business’ if you want to keep your major donors giving to your organization.

  1. Call and say Thank You. Have the highest-ranking person available in your organization call within 24 hours of receiving any gift from a major donor or that qualifies for major donor status. It doesn’t have to be a long call, in fact they are usually less than 5 minutes. But call them.
  2. Send a receipt. Send a printed receipt within 24 to 48 hours. Pro Tip: if the gift is a major gift or from a major donor, have your ED write a note on the receipt before it goes out.
  3. Send a Thank You note. Use a Thank You card from Hallmark, or a special branded card from your organization that you use only for this. You want this to feel special, and have it not look like what you normally send.

The tougher two

OK. You’ve done the Easy Three ways to thank a major donor. But you want to do a couple more things over the next few weeks to communicate now that you’re looking at this as a relationship, not a transaction.

There is no ‘one perfect thing’ for every organization. But here are two themes to follow. Try to do one of each theme each time a major donor makes a gift. And you’ll notice that the key here is that they are personal; either personal from the person doing the Thanking, or personal for the donor . . .

  1. A personal Thank You from someone at the organization. What you’re trying to do here is have someone important (either high-ranking or a beneficiary) communicate their Thanks to the donor. :
    1. Make and deliver a handmade gift. We have an ED who makes cookies for her donors. We have a CEO who makes pies for his donors. We used to work with an organization where the MGO hand-made wooden pens for his donors.
    2. Have a beneficiary write a thank you note, and send that note to your donor. We’ve seen kids at camp, hospital patients, students, and beneficiaries of all kinds write thank you notes to donors.
  2. A personal value-add to the donor’s life. If you know your donor has a specific interest (a sports team, model trains, the Arts, etc.) you can send them something about their interest. At the end of the note, say something like, “…and thank you again for your incredible gift!”

Main messages missing?

There are two powerful messages you should communicate when you thank a major donor. Most organizations completely miss these — but donors LOVE hearing them.

Tell her that her gift was needed. Most organizations are not good at being vulnerable with donors, and a byproduct of that is that most organizations rarely communicate to donors that their gifts are needed. But donors love to know that their gift was needed because it makes them feel great about giving the gift!

How great do you feel when you help a friend who says, “Oh! That was exactly what I needed!”?

Tell her that her gift is going to make a difference. Most organizations, in their receipt letters and thank you notes, don’t actually say that the donor’s gift is going to make a difference. They say things like “Thanks for joining our mission…” and “Thank you for your partnership! Our programs are the best of their kind in the region…”

Remember that she gave a gift to make a difference, so tell her that she’s going to make a difference! (And then later, Report back to her to show her the difference she helped make and “close the loop.”)

So I would include a sentence that says something like, “Mary, your gift couldn’t have come at a better time! It was needed. It’s going to make a difference, and I can’t wait to get in touch with you in a couple of months to show your impact to you!”

Listen to her

Of course, if your donor says not to contact her, honor her. If she doesn’t want to be in relationship with you outside of her giving, pay attention. If she wants to be anonymous, let her stay that way.

But don’t assume any of those things. Assume she’d love to be well-thanked. 1 in 25 times that will put you in an awkward situation. 24 out of 25 times that will make you more likely to get another (and larger) gift from the person.

Relationship, not transaction

Relational Thanking is showering your major donors with personal touches so that they feel your gratitude.

Transactional Thanking is a receipt, a mention in the annual report, and a request for a larger gift 11 months from now.

Each of your major donors have LOTS of choices for where they can give their next gifts. Which type of organization would you rather give to? One that communicates through their actions that majors donors are small cogs in a big machine, or one where donors feel like their gift was needed, appreciated, and is going to make a difference?


Embrace Your Smallness

If you’re a small nonprofit, embrace it. Use it to your advantage. Especially when you are thanking your donors.

Here’s how to take advantage of your smallness and local-ness to Thank your donors in powerful ways.

Hand-write Thank You notes to Every Donor

Say you have 200 donors. You can send a handwritten thank you note to every single one of those donors. The vast majority of your donors will never have received a handwritten thank you note from a nonprofit before, let alone one signed by the Executive Director or a Board Member. You’ll make a big impression. And your chances of retaining that donor just skyrocketed.

Mention That You Are Local

I read recently that an increasing percentage of donations are moving from large, national charities to smaller, local orgs. That’s great news for you, and means that you should be mentioning your local-ness in your fundraising.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

  • Say you’re helping local middle-school kids improve their math skills. You should mention local middle schools by name and neighborhood. Say things like, “Your gift is going to help kids at Kennedy, and at McLure in North Ballard. These are local kids you’re helping. You see them playing on the soccer fields you drive by. And the next time you drive by, they are going to be better at math — thanks to you!”
  • This works even if you’re helping people on the other side of the world. You can say things like, “Thank you! You are supporting a small, local organization with an international impact. We’re located just South of downtown, over by the old brewery. We all live around here, and we love helping you make the world a better place.”

Do you get the idea? Do you see how rooting your organization in a place that the donor knows makes you more familiar and trustworthy? That’s a big deal (and getting bigger).

Show Her How Important She Is

If you only have a few hundred donors, every donor you have is more important to you than she is to the big national organizations she also gives to. Have you told her that?

Tell her by thanking her! Say things like, “[NAME], it’s you and about 250 other generous, compassionate people that make this organization go. You make it possible. So when I tell you that you’re an important part of what we’re doing, I mean it. You are a big deal to me, and your support has a big impact.”

If your donors are a big deal, by all means tell them they are a big deal! Too many small, local nonprofits get stuck trying to communicate is if they are a big organization. And they miss the beauty and power of their smallness.

Elbow Grease and Shoe Leather

We have a client where the executive director (a man, by the way) bakes pies and delivers them to top donors. We’ve worked with organizations that hand-deliver thank you cards from beneficiaries, crafts from Africa, hand-made pens, even a jug of home-brewed beer. Those kind of touches that can make a big impact.

The ‘National Big Disease That Your Uncle Has Foundation’ isn’t doing that for their donors, my friend! And when you do it for your donors, they will notice.

Good old-fashioned elbow grease and shoe leather will take you a long way.

If You Have A Few Too Many Donors For This . . .

Maybe you have 2,000 donors and can’t treat everyone this way. You can sure treat your major donors this way. Jim says this all the time: figure out how many people your human resources will allow you to give the special treatment to, start with your most valuable donor, and work down from there.

In Closing

If you’re a small, local nonprofit, your goal should be to act like the local hardware store that’s friendly and knows everybody by name. Don’t try to be Nordstrom’s. For one, you don’t have the resources or budget to pull it off. You can’t, and donors can smell it. Second, there already IS a Nordstroms! Be yourself. Embrace your strengths.

If you do this stuff, you’ll run circles around the really big nonprofits.

Because listen, most donors out there want to know two things: that their gift makes a difference, and that their gift matters. Embracing your smallness, especially when you’re Thanking, is one of the very best ways you can really show your donors that they and their gifts matter.

A Benediction For Fundraisers

I’d like to propose a benediction for Fundraisers. The close of one year and the open of another seems like a perfect time, no? I shared this with our email list members a few weeks ago thought you would enjoy it.

This is unabashedly based off a poem by Teresa of Avila (1515–1582).

Donors Have No Programs

Donors have no programs but yours.
They have strong hearts, but no body that helps people.

Yours is the mouth that tells donors of the ills of the world,
Yours are the feet that take her to where she can see the need,
Yours are the eyes that help her see what needs to be done,
Yours are the hands that do what needs to be done.

Yours is the Body, that makes it all possible.
Hers is the Generosity, that makes it all possible.

Fundraiser! Yours is the responsibility to Ask for her help,
And the responsibility to Report on her successes.

How much more good can she do with you, than without?
How much more joy can she have with you, than without?
For she has no programs on earth but yours.

My friend, may you have an incredible 2018. Fundraising is the best job in the whole world.

Podcast: The Right Way — And Wrong Way — To Thank Your Donors

Today I’m excited to share Episode #103 of the Fundraising Is Beautiful podcast that I host with Jeff Brooks. In this episode, we discuss why nonprofits should avoid using the word “partner” as a verb, the importance of a thank you letter, and the necessity of focusing on what the donor did rather than their relationship to your organization. Enjoy!

Play Episode #103: The right way — and wrong way — to thank your donors (right click or “save as” to save the file for later).

Subscribe to Fundraising Is Beautiful on iTunes.

​Send a Pure Thank You Email


Either this week or next week, my advice is to send an thank you email to your donors. That’s right, a pure thank you.

Fill it with gratitude. Thank your donor with raw emotion. Thank her for what she did (gave a gift to help), not for what your organization did. Tell her how valuable she is to your organization.

Thank Her As If You Actually Need Her

Most organizations thank their donors as if the donor is a very small part of a very big process.

You know intuitively that’s not a good idea. That’s like treating everyone you meet as ‘just one of the several thousand people you’ll meet in your life.’

Your goal is to make her FEEL your gratitude and thankfulness. Thank her as if your organization actually needed her gift last year!

Fine. What’s the Benefit?

You mean other than being honorable and polite?

Because she likely just heard from you (and a lot of other organizations) asking her to help. This is your first chance in 2018 to close the loop and show her that she matters.

Right? She’s about to receive all sorts of annual reports and other messages that say, “Look what WE did last year, look how many people WE helped last year, WE are awesome!”

I submit to you that you’ll build deeper relationships with your donors more by saying, “Thank YOU for what YOU did last year!”

How To Write It

Always remember: your headline and first sentence are really important because most people won’t read the whole thing.

But if you get your message of gratitude in your subject line, your headline, and your first sentence, your donor is almost guaranteed to get it.

Your goal is to be emotional and personal. Don’t sound corporate. Sound like one person writing to express sincere thanks to one other person.

You don’t have to overthink this. I bet the following would be very effective:

Dear [NAME],

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!

Last year when your gift was needed, and you reached out in faith and generously helped. You and your gift matter, and you made a difference.

I am so incredibly grateful for you. Thank you for being a donor!


Try to have your email look as personal as possible – like it came straight from Outlook. If you have a fancy email template, try to use as little of it as possible. If you normally have a bunch of social or donation links at the bottom, delete them if you can. Don’t think of this as an email to your list. Think of it as an email from one grateful to one donor who is wondering if they matter.

Who To Send It To

Your donors.

Not to everybody on your email list. Just your donors. You do not want to give your non-donors one of the emotional benefits of giving (being Thanked) when they have not given a gift.

If you can’t segment out your non-donors, then send it to everybody.

When To Send It

As soon as you can!

Start your donors’ 2018 off with an incredible expression of gratitude to them! They’ll love it, your open rate will be higher than normal, you’ll feel great for doing it, and you’ll have taken a powerful first step towards fundraising success this year!

Thankuary is here!

Wanted to let you know about something special that’s happening this month . . .

Introducing Thankuary

We’re taking plain old January and turn it into Thankuary. It’s a whole month to help you and your nonprofit shower your donors with gratitude.

Two reasons:

  1. Your donors deserve it. They gave you gifts last year out of pure generosity! Do you know if they feel your gratitude? They sure deserve to. And personally, I think there’s a moral imperative to Thank and Thank well. (It might not be a moral imperative, but it sure was my Mama’s imperative!)
  2. It will help you raise more money in 2018. Thanking well is the very first step towards retaining a donor and making them more likely to give additional gifts. Just one data point for you: Leah Eustace from Blue Canoe Philanthropy showed that a 3-minute Thank You call raises donor retention by 10%. And, Thanking is part of the Virtuous Circle.

Here’s What We Propose

You take the month of January and intentionally Thank your donors with emotion and focus.

We know you have other stuff to do, too. We get it.

So to help, we’re going to spend January talking about the most effective ways to Thank your donors. You’ll get step-by-step instructions. Great ideas. Guest posts. Sample sentences and paragraphs you can steal.

If you think you do a fantastic job Thanking your donors, that’s great. I hope you’ll comment and share what’s worked for you.

How Thankuary Started

A couple of years ago we were working with an organization that swore up and down that they Thanked their donors well. So I looked through all of their receipts and thank you letters.

The first receipt letter I looked at began with this sentence:

“Recently our entire staff went on a retreat.”

That, my friends, is not the best way to start your receipt letter. What in the world were they thinking about Thanking where that sentence seemed like a good idea?

Fast-forward to last month we were meeting with another client. We were talking about spending January making sure their donors knew how important they were to this organization. (Is that something you should do for your organization?)

I said, off the top of my head, “Let’s call it Thankuary!”

And after much rejoicing, Thankuary was born.

So, Thankuary begins today. Stay tuned for our best advice on how you can Thank well, start your year off with some real donor love, and be on your way to a successful 2018!

​Top 5 Blog Posts of 2017 + more

In a hurry? Want the best of the best – fast?

Here are the top five Better Fundraising blog posts of 2017, as voted on by savvy internet viewers like you:

  1. Five Tips For The First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter
  2. How (and Why) to Tell Unfinished Stories
  3. Remind, Don’t Persuade
  4. The False Assumption That Does Massive Damage To Your Fundraising
  5. Simple Outline For Appeals That Raise Money

Plus the most-listened to podcast of the year, an interview with Scott Harrison of Charity Water. I was a better fundraiser, immediately, for having listened to Scott

There are also three other posts that we personally loved and think everyone should read:

That’s it. A little curated reading for you over the holidays. THANK YOU for being a fundraiser and making the world a better place – enjoy your holidays!