Greatest Hit: Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Newsletter Article

The following post is one of the most popular posts in the history of this blog.

I’m reposting it because you might be new to the blog, or you might be like me and need to hear a piece of advice more than once before it really sinks in.

This post proved helpful to thousands of people, I hope it’s helpful for you!


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!

This post was originally published on February 2, 2018.

How Email Increases How Much Your Direct Mail Raises

E-fundraising.

Savvy nonprofits use email to win the hearts of their donors in between the organization’s printed appeals and newsletters.

They use email to tell great stories. To report back to donors on the impact their previous gift had. To ask for a donor’s preferences. Email is how they keep their name on a donor’s lips.

Their donors become more familiar with the nonprofit. Their donors like the nonprofit more.

So when an appeal arrives, the donors are more likely to open the envelope, and are more likely to give a gift.

If your organization can become a familiar voice in your donors’ inboxes – a voice who tells wonderful stories of the impact the donor has had and is having – you’ll move onto their “automatic recall” list.

And not only will you raise more with your printed appeals and newsletters, you’ll also get more gifts out of the blue.

Because when a donor gets an inheritance from her Aunt and she wants to make a gift, or she receives a bonus at work and wants to give back, it’s your organization’s name she’ll remember first.

I know it’s hard for nonprofits with fewer resources to write and send out more emails. If that’s you, I’d remind you no donor out there is hoping for another professional-sounding email in a pastel-colored email template with links to everything.

But donors are absolutely interested in a personal, relevant email about things they care about. And because they’ve given a gift to your organization, you know they care about whatever your organization works on.

A simple, text-only email once a month from your founder or ED will go a long way to building relationship.

If you’re up for it: a simple, text-only email once a month with a short story about how the world is a better place because of your organization and the donor – this will go even further to build the relationship.

Keep it simple. Each email is not precious. Get into the habit of regular email communications with your donors and ALL of your fundraising will do better!

Bragging is not Reporting (example)

Brag

In our experience, most organizations don’t Report enough (especially to major donors). And when they do, they focus on what the organization did, on the organization’s role in the story.

We call that bragging. As in, “Our programs provided holistic care to 345 people…”

That leads to “Ask, Thank, Brag, Repeat” instead of the far more successful “Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat.” Remember … focus on your donor’s role in the story, not your organization’s!

Example Time

Here’s part of a newsletter story – a Report – that a client of ours sent to donors a couple months prior to working with us. Notice the bragging.

  • Our Dentists on the Road Program provides free, urgent dental care to low-income children and adults who lack insurance or a realistic way to pay for treatment. The service is provided in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. Our fleet of dental vans provides up to 30 clinics per week.

    Last year with the help of dedicated volunteers, we provided approximately $5 worth of care to patients for every $1 invested in the program.

    In 2017, our 12 Nebraska Dentists on the Road vans treated more than 17,000 people. These people are no longer battling the intense pain and preventing future systemic complications associated with advanced dental diseases as well as socio-economic challenges associated with severe dental problems.

    Children from lower-income families are almost twice as likely to have decay as those from higher-income families, yet they face disproportionately high barriers to receiving care. While in theory all Nebraska children are covered by Healthy Kids insurance, there are many reasons why they may be having trouble accessing it, such as difficulty finding providers that will accept it.

Notice how:

  • The donor is never mentioned?
  • There’s a lot of numbers, medical jargon and education?
  • Notice that when you run into all that detail you start to skip ahead? So do your donors.

Now look at the next time we talked about this program. We told the story of one person who had been helped, we prominently mentioned the donor’s role, and we gave the donor the credit:

  • Emergency Root Canal Saved Schoolgirl’s Tooth!

    Your kind gift helped save the smile of 14-year-old Cecelia who needed urgent dental work.

    When Cecelia bumped her tooth, it seemed like a harmless accident.

    Her mother thought the soreness and swelling would go away, but the pain went from bad to worse and Cecelia begged to stay home from school.

    But thanks to your gift, Cecelia was able to be helped by the Dentists on the Road program.

    It turned out that Cecelia had nerve damage and an infection in one of…

There are a handful of things to notice here, all of which work together to make this an effective Report. This story:

  • Focuses on a person, not a program.
  • Quickly summarizes the need, then showed the donor how they helped meet that need.
    • We do this because eye-tracking studies show that most donors don’t read the whole story.
  • Directly credits the donor for causing the transformation.
  • The language and paragraphs are simpler and easier to read quickly.

Now your donor knows – at a glance – that her gift made a difference. And she is more likely to give to your organization again.

Prior to working with us, this organization didn’t keep performance results for each newsletter. So, we don’t know exactly how much the new version outperformed the old.

But…

…after applying these guidelines for 6 months their net fundraising revenue was up 53%!


This post is excerpted from the Better Fundraising e-book “Storytelling for Action.” Download it for free, here

A Short Note for Writers

Here’s a tip our writers use as they work on donor communications:

Use verb tense to help take your donors on a journey.

And here’s what that looks like:

  • When Asking for support (appeals, e-appeals, events) use the future simple tense to describe what the donor’s gift will do: “Your gift will help…”
  • When Thanking for a gift (receipt letters, thank you notes) use the present continuous tense: “Your gift is helping…”
  • When Reporting back to donors (newsletters, e-news) use the past simple tense: “Your gift helped…”

It’s a subtle – but powerful – way of communicating to a donor that their gift matters and that it made a difference.


This post is excerpted from the Better Fundraising e-book “Storytelling for Action.” Download it for free, here. 

Your Printed Newsletter: The final Big Idea that brings it all together

newsletter

Your printed newsletter should be raising a lot of money – as much as your appeals and, in some cases, even more.

The goal of this series has been to give you a tested, proven approach to creating a donor-delighting, money-raising printed newsletter:

  • Direct mail experts ran a series of head-to-head tests of different types of printed newsletters. The approach detailed here beat all the other approaches.
  • We’ve used this approach since 2004 to reliably (and sometimes incredibly) increase the money nonprofits raise from their newsletters.
  • We’ve taught this model at conferences, seminars and webinars.  We’ve received hundreds of pieces of feedback about how the approach increased newsletter revenue.  You do not need to be an expert to follow this model and raise more money

So take it this approach and apply it to your organization.  Test it against your current approach, or any other approach.

Be Intentional with Your Newsletter

Figure out what your organization’s approach is.  Discover and name your organization’s underlying assumptions. 

  • Maybe your organization believes that printed newsletters are obsolete.  (They aren’t.)
  • Maybe your organization believes that printed newsletters shouldn’t or can’t raise money.  (Neither is true.) 
  • Maybe your organization believes the way you’ve always done your newsletter is the only way your organization can do a newsletter.  (Not true.)
  • Maybe your organization fears that if you change your newsletter in any way, your donors will leave.  (Also not true.)
  • Maybe your organization believes you could do a newsletter like the one taught here, but you could never do an Ask along with it, because it would offend donors.  (You guessed it, not true!)

I’ve run into all of these beliefs before.  And it doesn’t matter what you believe – what matters is that you identify what you believe that results in your current approach.  Then you compare it with the approach outlined in this series and decide which approach to take.

Great newsletters don’t raise money by accident.  Content is included for a purpose, and content is excluded for a purpose.

And remember: the primary reason donors read your newsletter is not to hear about your organization. They’re reading because they’re hoping to hear about themselves.  Specifically, donors are reading to find out if they and their gift made a difference.

So start with this proven approach that shows and tells donors how they made a difference.  And good luck!


Read the whole series:

This post was originally published on August 11, 2020.

The Back Page: How to Turn Those Good Feelings into Donations

pages

The back page of your newsletter is where your donor’s good feelings can turn into another gift… or not.

What’s Happened So Far

If you’ve followed the newsletter approach I laid out starting here, your donor has scanned three pages of your newsletter.  Those pages have been full of stories that show and tell the donor how she and her gift made a difference.

You’ve proven to her that her gift to your organization was a good decision. 

Unlike other organizations who have sent your donor chest-thumping puff pieces about how busy and heroic their organization is, you’ve made your newsletter about the donor who is reading it.

She’s thinking, “Finally, an organization that gets me and what I’m trying to do.”

And she feels great!

Let’s Turn Those Feelings into Action

Here’s how to get a regular percentage of those donors to make a gift right then and there:

  • Feature one story on the top of the back page.
  • That story should be a “story of need” (this is different than the “stories of success” mentioned in this post in this series)
  • The need should be a need that your beneficiaries or organization are currently facing, or are going to face very soon.
  • Describe how the donor’s gift today will perfectly meet the need.  This is your Offer, and you can download this free eBook if you’d like to know more about how Offers work and how to create a great one.
  • The bottom of the back page should be what we call a ‘faux reply card.’ 
    • The faux reply card is not meant to be cut off and sent back.  The separate reply card you include with your newsletter is what will be sent back.  The faux reply card is added because in head-to-head testing it increased the number of people who sent in a gift by 15%.

A successful back page tends to look like this…

Or this…

Want to Get Even More Donors to Take Action?

Pro-level newsletters select their stories to set up the offer that’s used on the back page.

In other words, if the back page is going to tell a story of need about feeding children, the stories in the rest of the newsletter will all be about children who the donor helped feed.  Or if the back page is going to share a need to do advocacy work on an issue, the stories in the rest of the newsletter will all be about how the donor has helped fund successful advocacy work.

Put slightly differently: each newsletter has a theme, and the theme is directly related to the offer.  The greater the percentage of content that is not on-theme, the lower the amount of money the newsletter will raise.

Your newsletters do not need to be perfectly themed to succeed.  But in our experience it increases the chances you’ll raise more money.

Feelings

It may feel weird to have a story of need and a reply card on the back of your newsletter.

Your newsletter is a Report, after all.

But it works great.  This approach raises more money than any other approach that was tested. 

And there are no negative consequences to doing your newsletter this way.  People do not complain about it.  You do not lose donors because of it.

You simply start raising more money with your newsletters.  And retaining more of your donors. Because remember, your donors love to give.  All you’ve done with this method is proven to your donor that her previous gift made a difference, then given her a reason to give another gift today.


Read the series:

This post was originally published on August 6, 2020.

Newsletter Design: Readable and Scannable Above All Else

For the smaller nonprofits out there, who don’t have super-pro Designers creating their newsletters, do not worry.

Your newsletter does not need to have fancy or complicated design to be successful.

In fact, fancy and complicated design usually lowers readability – which lowers the effectiveness of your newsletter.

What you’re going for is “clean and easy to read.”

Here are a bunch of examples – kept purposefully small.  You will be able to tell at a glance which ones are readable… and which aren’t. 

This, Not That

This cover…

Not this cover…

That second cover has too much going on.  I think there are six elements in the header alone.  Too much copy.  Seven different type treatments.

This interior page…

Not this interior page…

That second interior page has far too much copy.  The one photo is too small. 

This back page…

Not this back page…

The second back page has waaay too much “reverse text” (white text on a dark background) which is very hard to read for older donors.  Plus it’s a self-mailer, which raises less money than newsletters that follow the format taught in these blog posts.

The lesson here; look at your newsletter from a few feet away.  Does it look friendly?  Easy to read?  Or does it look thick with information and visually cluttered?

That’s Fine, But What Do I Do?

Here are the general newsletter rules we live by:

  • Not too much text
  • 13 point typeface or larger
  • Headlines, subheads and picture captions should always be in a high-contrast color (preferably black)
  • Use reverse text only when it’s a couple/few words in larger type
  • Black text on a white background is always the most readable
  • Don’t put your text in colors that are low contrast (they are harder to read for older donors). 
  • 2 or 3 text columns max

Know What’s Most Important

The trick is to know what’s most important.

If you’re judging your newsletter by asking, “Does it look nice and use our brand colors?” you’re asking the wrong question.

The first, most important question is, “Is it easy to read and convey our main message in a couple seconds?”

Nail that.  Then add graphic elements and flourishes but keep the text readable. 

Because remember, it’s all about readability.  If fewer people read your fundraising, fewer people give to your fundraising.  So make your fundraising newsletter easy to read!

Read the series:

This post was originally published on July 23, 2020.

Newsletter Picture Captions that Help, not Hurt

Newsletter captions.

People read picture captions.

So make sure your picture captions do a great job delivering your newsletter’s main message.

Thankfully there’s an easy way to do this.

One Simple Rule

Here’s how we think about every newsletter picture caption.

The caption should not be about what’s happening in the photo.

The caption should be about the donor’s role in what’s happening in the photo.

That means that every single picture caption should mention the donor.

Example Time

Here are a bunch of examples from real, money-raising, donor-retaining newsletters:

Thanks to you, Linh and her baby are both getting the food, necessities, and long-term support they need!

Because of your generosity, doctors were about to repair Jun Jun’s cleft lip. Jun Jun will join his adoptive family soon!

Your generosity helped Maria re-discover the courage and strength she had lost while she was homeless.

Devi was able to begin her freshman year, making her dreams come true with everything she needed for her dorm room at Georgia Tech – thanks to you.

Your gift helped women in Uganda receive the physical and emotional healing they desperately needed.

This year’s graduating class celebrates – thanks in part to your generous giving!

Your generosity has trained more than 500 police officers and first responders to stop and prevent child abuse.

Answer the Question Your Donor is Asking

One of the questions running through a donor’s mind as she looks at your newsletter is this: “Did my gift make a difference?”

Photo captions that follow this model show and tell her, again and again, how her gift made a difference.

They answer her main question.

And remember, when your donor knows that her gift made a difference, she trusts your organization more.

When she trusts your organization more, she’s more likely to respond to the next appeal you send her.

So because newsletter photo captions are one of the most widely read parts of your newsletter, they are wildly important for you to use correctly to let your donor know that she and her gift made a difference.

Follow the simple rule above, and you’ll be on your way to raising more money and retaining more of your donors!

Read the series:

This post was originally published on March 12, 2020.

Newsletter Headlines That Work

My recent post gave you a simple outline for how to easily write newsletter stories.

Today is about newsletter headlines: a massively important part of your newsletter’s success, but a part that most organizations spend very little time on.

Remember our belief that about 80% of the people who open your newsletter will read only your headlines and picture captions?

Doesn’t that make your headlines important? Maybe even more important than the story the headline is for?

We think so. So here’s how to write successful headlines…

Headlines Have One of Two Jobs

We try to do one of two things with newsletter headlines.

  • Be so dramatic and interesting that the reader wants to read the article. Think of it this this way: the headline is the ad for the story.
  • Share the outcome of the story and involve the donor. Think of it this way: your reader should know, just from reading the headline, that their gift did something powerful.

Example Time

Here are a handful of examples of ineffective headlines – taken from real newsletters in our files. They don’t accomplish either of the objectives above:

  • IFI Training Day Expands
  • Elizabeth’s experience encourages others to get their annual mammogram
  • Committed to change lives
  • Together We Rise
  • 5th Annual Zip 5k + Fun Run Breaks Record for Participation
  • Board of Directors Highlights/News
  • What is Extreme Poverty?
  • Upcoming Fundraisers
  • Camp and Retreat Centers as Holy Ground
  • Staff Updates
  • Pathways Supported Employment program fills in the missing pieces for people recovering from homelessness

And here are examples of effective headlines:

  • You’re helping find “Desperately needed” new treatments
  • “I wanted to Die”
  • The power of One Meal
  • “There is no more disease!”
  • Blind from a Chemical explosion, today he can see!
  • You did this!
  • You’re a hero!
  • Food delivered!
  • He used to eat garbage, you gave him dumplings!
  • “We never expected this to happen”
  • Cancer Patient Living on French Fries and Soda Pop
  • From Abuse to Prison to Redemption
  • “Your baby has cancer”
  • 100 Happy Children
  • You helped save Darryl’s life
  • The Joy of Clean Water – Thanks to You!

Take a look at those effective headlines again.

Don’t you want to read the stories for those, more than you want to read the stories after the boring headlines?

And don’t you know – just from scanning the good headlines – that your gift made a meaningful difference?

In other words, you didn’t even have to read the story and you knew your gift made a difference. Which made you trust the organization a little bit more. Which made you more likely to give them a gift the next time they asked you. Which made the organization raise more money and retain more of its donors.

All that from a good headline.

You are in a BATTLE for your donor’s attention

Always remember – nobody has to read your fundraising.

You’re competing with people’s phones, with the internet, with making dinner, and with all of the other mailings from nonprofits that your donor received that very same day.

Strong dramatic and/or donor-focused headlines are one of the most powerful tools you have to convey your main message and get donors to read your stories! They are an integral part of whether your newsletter is going to raise money… or not.

So go look at your headlines – for both your printed newsletter and your e-newsletter. If they aren’t doing either of the two jobs above, it’s time to fire them and get some headlines that will do their jobs. There’s too much at stake to have your headlines causing fewer people to read your newsletter!

Read the series:

This post was originally published on March 5, 2020.