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.

Who to Mail Your Newsletter To

mail you letter

Your donors.  Mail your newsletter to your donors.

More specifically, here’s who to send your newsletter to:

  • If you send three or fewer newsletters per year, send your newsletters to all donors who have given a gift in the last 24 months
  • If you send 4 or more newsletters per year, send your newsletters to all donors who have given a gift in the last 18 months

Who Not to Mail Your Newsletter To

Here’s who not to send your newsletter to:

  • Non-donors
  • Volunteers
  • Local organizations and businesses who are not donors

Why?  Because every time we’ve analyzed the results of sending newsletters to that group we find the same thing: you lose money because it costs more to send the newsletter to that group than the revenue you’ll receive from mailing those groups.

Send Your Newsletter to Your Major Donors

Here’s a tactic we often use to increase the number of major donors who read (and donate to) your newsletter:

  • Instead of sending them a folded newsletter in a #10 envelope, send the newsletter unfolded in a 9”x12” envelope
  • Hand-write their address on the envelope
  • Add a cover letter that thanks the donor for their donation, and tells them that they’ll see how their donation made a difference when they read the newsletter.
  • Hand-sign the cover letter.  You can even write a personal note on it if you’d like.
  • Include a customized reply card and reply envelope

If you’d like to take this a step further, email the major donor on the day you send the newsletter to let them know to look for it.  If that email is sent by your Executive Director, your ED will receive replies from some majors thanking her for letting them know!  It’s a great opportunity to deepen the relationship with those donors.

What Postage to Use

For your Mass donors, send your newsletter using nonprofit postage. 

The only regular exception to that rule is if there’s a deadline to respond to your newsletter and you’re sending it out later than you planned.  For instance, say your newsletter has an offer (on the back page, of course) to write a note of encouragement to hospital patients who are stuck in the hospital for the holidays.  But you’re mailing just 3 weeks before the holidays begin.  Then, by all means, use first class postage.

For your Major donors, use first class postage.  Use a live stamp if you can.  And set the stamp at a slight angle so it’s obvious that a human put the stamp on the envelope, not a machine. (Thanks for that tip, John Lepp!)

This is a Great Beginning…

The recommendations above are a solid foundation for who to send your newsletter to, and how to send it out.

Over time, your system will get more complicated.  You’ll discover things like, “it’s worth it for us to send our newsletter to donors who gave between 24 and 36 months ago, who have given $1,000 or more, because we reactivate enough lapsed major donors to make up for the expense.”

Or you’ll discover things like, “When we have a newsletter with Offer X, it’s worth it to mail all donors who have given to Offer X in the last 36 months.” 

Great.  Love it.  And if you’re not there yet, start here! 

Read the series:

This post was originally published on July 30, 2020.

Newsletter Design: Readable and Scannable Above All Else

Newsletter design.

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.

What your next newsletter should be like

newsletter.

It’s time to get tactical.

We gave you a couple of big ideas for how to think about your newsletter. (If you want to delight your donors and raise more money, that is.)

Now as we move into the details, here’s a summary for the elements of your newsletter:

  • Send it in a #10 or larger envelope (not a self-mailer)
    • Teaser should be “Your newsletter enclosed”
  • 4 pages long (1 tabloid-sized sheet, folded in half to make 4 pages)
    • The first three pages should be Stories of Success – between 2 and 4 stories, each about an individual beneficiary, each sharing the “before” and the “after” for that beneficiary, and each giving credit to the donor for making the transformation happen
    • The back page should be a Story of Need with an offer – this is a story that describes a current need being faced by beneficiaries and a description of how the donor’s gift of a certain size will perfectly meet the need for one person
  • A separate reply card, with bonus points for pre-printing the donor’s info and customizing the gift ask amounts based on the donor’s previous gift
  • A separate reply envelope that the donor can use to send back their gift

Of course, there are other newsletter formats that work.

But if you’re looking to improve your newsletter, this particular way has been battle-tested by thousands of nonprofits.

It’s worked so many times for so many types of organizations that it’s our “default setting.” In other words, if a nonprofit asks Better Fundraising to create a newsletter – and we’re going to be retained or fired based on the results – this is the model we follow. It’s the model we recommend to all our clients, the model we speak about at conferences, etc.

Why So Specific?

My goal is to show you exactly what to do to raise money and delight your donors, and to take the mystery out of successful nonprofit newsletters.

We want to make it as easy as possible for you. I heard from a client earlier today who said, “The reduction in anxiety from having a proven model to follow is priceless.” That’s what we’re offering here. And next, we’ll tackle how to write your stories, how to design your newsletter, who to send it to, even the best way to write headlines and picture captions. Stay tuned!

Read the series:

This post was originally published on February 27, 2020.

Why are you writing about the organization?

Thinking writing.

This is the second post in our series on donor-centered-newsletters – the kind of newsletters that delight donors and raise more money for your nonprofit.

The first post was about the purpose of your newsletter. This post is the second and final Big Idea you need to succeed.

And after this – I promise – the posts will get tactical.

But if you don’t know this one idea, all the tactics in the world won’t help very much.

A Powerful, Unexpected Question

It’s 1994. I’m less than a year out of college working at a fundraising agency that specializes in helping large nonprofits raise money. And I’m writing my first newsletter.

I handed my draft to my boss – an accomplished and brilliant fundraiser.

He read the first story, scanned the rest of the stories, and handed the stack of paper back to me.

Then he asked me a powerful but unexpected question:

“Why Are You Writing about the Organization?”

I didn’t know it at the moment, but that was one of the most powerful lessons I ever learned about effective fundraising.

At the time, all I could do was say, “What do you mean? It’s the organization’s newsletter.”

 “Sure.” My boss said, “but most donors aren’t reading a newsletter to find out anything about the organization. They’re reading it to find out if their gift made a difference.

“The most effective newsletters are written to show donors what their gift accomplished. And the best way to do that is through stories about beneficiaries.

“So stop talking about the organization and its programs. Start talking about the donor and telling her stories about lives that have been changed because of her kindness. Then she’ll think it was a great idea to give to the organization and be more likely to give again.”

So I went back to my office to do a complete rewrite.

But I was a far more effective fundraiser from that moment forward.

Your Newsletter

As you create your newsletter, you’ll be tempted to “write about your organization.”

People in your organization will even push you to write about your organization.

They’ll say things like, “But we have to tell people about everything we do and tell them that we’re good at it!”

No. You don’t. In fact, when you do, fewer donors will read your newsletter. Because hearing about your organization is not why they’re reading. They’re reading because they’re hoping to hear about themselves. They’re hoping to hear whether and how their gift made a difference and whether they’re a valuable part of your organization.

Keep this idea in mind as you read this series. Then all the tactics – the writing style, the headlines, the picture captions – will make sense.

You’ll start keeping your donors for longer. And your newsletter will become a major revenue source!

Read the series:

This post was originally published on February 25, 2020.

What the purpose of your newsletter SHOULD be

Newsletter.

This is the first in a series of posts that will show you how to create donor-delighting, money-raising newsletters.

We’re talking about newsletters that your donors love to open, the kind that increase the chance they’ll keep giving to your organization year after year, and the kind that raise way more money than they cost to send out.

What Is Your Newsletter’s Purpose?

Here’s our approach, and it’s been successful for every type of organization in every sector we’ve tried:

Your newsletter exists to show your donor how her gift made a difference, and to show her what her gift today will do.

There’s a lot in that one sentence, which we’ll unpack during this series.

But it’s just as helpful to understand what your newsletter should not be:

  • It should not a newspaper, full of all kinds of stories
  • It should not be about your organization, your programs, your staff, your volunteers, your sponsors, or your partners
  • It should not be about how much money you’ve raised
  • It should not be a “playbill” about the upcoming events and ways a donor can get involved
  • It should not “hide the good news” by only mentioning the donor at the very end of stories

And yet, those are the things that most nonprofits use their newsletters for.

That’s why most newsletters don’t get read.

That’s why they don’t measurably help organizations keep their donors.

And it’s why most newsletters don’t raise much (if any) money.

Here’s the Big Idea:

Your donor is more interested in reading about herself – about what she and her gift did – than she is reading about any of those other things.

So if you want her to read your newsletter, write to her and write about her.

You Need a To-do list and a Not-To-Do List

Newsletters don’t raise a lot of money by accident.

The content is curated and the offer decided. Then it’s written and designed with the intent to raise money.

Everything included in it is done with a purpose. That means that a bunch of things are also excluded on purpose.

For smaller organizations, this is hard, because it means telling some staff that their program will never be featured in the newsletter. It means getting more stories and photos of beneficiaries. It means the “save the date” for your next event needs to be an additional mailing, not in your newsletter.

It’s hard, but it’s worth it. This approach works measurably better than any other approach I’ve ever seen in my 27 years of fundraising.

If you’d like to know more, stay tuned (and subscribe to our blog if you haven’t already)!

Read the series:

This post was originally published on February 20, 2020.

“You” is the magic word for newsletters

newsletters.

Here’s an easy-to-follow tip to increase the amount of people who read your next newsletter:

Use the word “you” as the first word of the main headline on your cover.

That tells your donor right away that the newsletter is to her, and for her. And don’t you think she’ll be more likely to read if you signal to her that the newsletter is about her in some way? Versus what most organizations do, which is talk about themselves?

Want another tip? Use the word “you” again – in either the subhead or the first sentence of the main story.

Now you’re signaling to the donor that this really is about her. That the “you” in the headline was not just “donor-centered window dressing,” but was a signal that your organization really does care about her.

And now your donor is thinking, “Hey, this organization might be different from the other organizations I give to. They might appreciate me.”

And one final tip: use the word “you” in every single picture caption.

My rule is that picture captions should not be about what’s happening in the photo. Picture captions should be about the donor’s role in what’s happening in the photo. So instead of “Lisa and Laure enjoyed a week of summer camp at our facility” it should be, “Thanks to you, Lisa and Laura enjoyed an incredible week of summer camp!”

Now you’ve really done it. Your donor knows that you sent her a newsletter that’s about her and about what her gift accomplished.

That’s a Big Deal! Because very few (if any) of the other nonprofits she’s giving to have taken the time and money to show her what her gift did.

Some of them have sent her chest-thumping newsletters about what the organization did. But none of them have gotten in touch with her to tell her what she did.

Big difference.

And when you use the word “you,” she’s more likely to read more. And to know more about your organization. And to give more the next time you send her an appeal.

All from using the word “you” more often.

Think about it this way. As a donor, which type of newsletter would you like to receive: a newsletter that’s to everybody and all about the organization, or a newsletter that’s to you and all about what your gift did?

You know which one your donors would prefer. So follow these tips and make them one!

This post was originally published on September 10, 2019.

Who to Mail Your Newsletter To

mail you letter

Your donors.  Mail your newsletter to your donors.

More specifically, here’s who to send your newsletter to:

  • If you send three or fewer newsletters per year, send your newsletters to all donors who have given a gift in the last 24 months
  • If you send 4 or more newsletters per year, send your newsletters to all donors who have given a gift in the last 18 months

Who Not to Mail Your Newsletter To

Here’s who not to send your newsletter to:

  • Non-donors
  • Volunteers
  • Local organizations and businesses who are not donors

Why?  Because every time we’ve analyzed the results of sending newsletters to that group we find the same thing: you lose money because it costs more to send the newsletter to that group than the revenue you’ll receive from mailing those groups.

Send Your Newsletter to Your Major Donors

Here’s a tactic we often use to increase the number of major donors who read (and donate to) your newsletter:

  • Instead of sending them a folded newsletter in a #10 envelope, send the newsletter unfolded in a 9”x12” envelope
  • Hand-write their address on the envelope
  • Add a cover letter that thanks the donor for their donation, and tells them that they’ll see how their donation made a difference when they read the newsletter.
  • Hand-sign the cover letter.  You can even write a personal note on it if you’d like.
  • Include a customized reply card and reply envelope

If you’d like to take this a step further, email the major donor on the day you send the newsletter to let them know to look for it.  If that email is sent by your Executive Director, your ED will receive replies from some majors thanking her for letting them know!  It’s a great opportunity to deepen the relationship with those donors.

What Postage to Use

For your Mass donors, send your newsletter using nonprofit postage. 

The only regular exception to that rule is if there’s a deadline to respond to your newsletter and you’re sending it out later than you planned.  For instance, say your newsletter has an offer (on the back page, of course) to write a note of encouragement to hospital patients who are stuck in the hospital for the holidays.  But you’re mailing just 3 weeks before the holidays begin.  Then, by all means, use first class postage.

For your Major donors, use first class postage.  Use a live stamp if you can.  And set the stamp at a slight angle so it’s obvious that a human put the stamp on the envelope, not a machine. (Thanks for that tip, John Lepp!)

This is a Great Beginning…

The recommendations above are a solid foundation for who to send your newsletter to, and how to send it out.

Over time, your system will get more complicated.  You’ll discover things like, “it’s worth it for us to send our newsletter to donors who gave between 24 and 36 months ago, who have given $1,000 or more, because we reactivate enough lapsed major donors to make up for the expense.”

Or you’ll discover things like, “When we have a newsletter with Offer X, it’s worth it to mail all donors who have given to Offer X in the last 36 months.” 

Great.  Love it.  And if you’re not there yet, start here! 

Read the series:

Newsletter Design: Readable and Scannable Above All Else

Newsletter design.

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: