A few weeks ago I asked around for examples of nonprofit newsletters that bring joy. Are there newsletters you love, rely on, even look forward to opening?
I received a few enthusiastic, even joyous (well, that might be pushing it) responses.
And some not so enthusiastic responses. We’ve all seen (and not bothered opening) our share of boring nonprofit newsletters. ?
Regardless, the results offer some insights into effective newsletters and member communications.
 Have a point of view. Be relevant.
Seems obvious but doesn’t often happen.
Just because your staff worked on something doesn’t make it relevant.
From our examples, it helps to have a close connection to readers – one that uses content and news to build a relationship and trust. Small groups should have an advantage here.
One colleague shared the newsletter of a local SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice) chapter with this note:
we are small and can deliver just the “news” our membership wants. We use the same format and categories every time and always have several relevant items in each – which I believe creates confidence in our audience that it’s worth opening.
In a small group, a few hundred to a few thousand people with a clear purpose, it’s easier to identify relevance. There are well-defined recruitment moments and processes. The mission is clear while member activities are connected to outcomes and (importantly) fundraising. Purpose and theory of change are on display, talked about, and reported on.
Larger organizations have more programs, more staff and a greater need to build and constantly replenish an email list. Recruitment is constant, everywhere and optimized for conversions. The long-term value of a supporter may be calculated but takes a back seat to short-term cost.
Newsletters become a place to promote programs, not meet the interests and needs of supporters.
Here are a few ways to rebalance newsletters – and communications – towards relevance:
Be clear at the start about who you are…
…and what you’re doing and how people fit into change. Put a three bullet list of mission, priorities, outcomes (some combination of these) in your messaging – recruitment, actions, onboarding, fundraising, website, etc.
Cultivate people’s ideas and interests in the onboarding process.
Run short surveys. Give people three action/activity ideas to respond to in a welcome message. Track responses, interests, feedback and which actions are chosen.
The Accidentally Wes Anderson newsletter offers an example of a newsletter (and social media user) survey. Several weeks after subscribing, receiving a welcome series and newsletters you’re invited to take a survey. Here’s a look at the flow.
Survey invite in an email:
Survey front page:
The survey is around 25 questions. It’s long. But the questions aren’t complicated and the offer of a prize at the end is valuable and in keeping with the “quest for adventure” tone of other email and web content.
Post-survey thank you:
Acknowledge the limits (and promise) of onboarding and engagement opportunities.
Many (most?) people aren’t going to respond to an onboarding survey or feedback campaign. This indirect cultivation won’t excite staff (and consultants) in organizations with metrics focused on fundraising. And that’s okay.
The responses you receive will identify your most enthusiastic new supporters and their interests. This valuable info can feed into your email (newsletter) strategy. This is also an opportunity to test how to increase response. Engage people early and you’re more likely to keep them around.
Show people getting things done.
Supporters like creating results whether you’re doing advocacy, training, direct service or even policy. A colleague shared the Trail News newsletter put out by Washington Trails Association. They said it works because it’s a consistent newsletter that has:
a monthly magazine format, a digest that has “candy” for the reader (like local hikes or events) and blends in accomplishments.
 Don’t send to everyone.
This ties into relevance. If you’re a larger organization with 20k, 100k or a million addresses on your list, how do you know everyone wants your newsletter? But that’s what many (most) groups do. Subscribers get newsletters.
Despite our best intentions, many subscribers and supporters aren’t at a newsletter-ready spot in their engagement with our issue or organization. And a pretty general, broad and/or dense newsletter isn’t inviting.
Groups end up with lousy newsletter open and click rates. They conclude newsletters don’t work and either shut it down or (more likely) let it limp along without intervention which damages the whole email program.
Invite supporters to subscribe to your newsletter. Let them see samples that show what they’re getting before subscribing. Create newsletters that are clear, specific and have a purpose.
 Be at least a little amazing.
Another colleague shared newsletters from Mobilisation Lab and The Forge saying they worked because they are “scannable/readable, exciting, inspiring.” That’s high praise for communications coming from a movement or nonprofit organization. It’s high praise for any newsletter, really.
Readable, exciting and inspiring are good descriptors of all the favorite newsletters shared with me.
Relevance matters here (see above).
Having something to say is critical. Don’t just make people happy. Push people to think. Tell supporters something new (and/or newsworthy). Have a voice. Be opinionated. As Bonnie Raitt has been known to say: “give them something to talk about…a little mystery to figure out.”
Too often, newsletters equate “interesting” with visuals and graphic design. Splashy or attractive header images get more attention than readable fonts, colors, white space and informative/useful graphics.
Consider the full range of content design, not just logos and images. It’s no coincidence that a colleague used scannable and readable alongside exciting and inspiring to describe their favorite newsletters.
Images and graphics can (ideally should) inform and help tell a story given the brief time you have with your reader. A header serves the story, not just the logo or brand. Here’s a header from the Arkansas Times daily newsletter:
Sidebar: the dark header image of clapping middle age white guys amps up the grim headline. Indeed, who needs info about government corruption?
 Be brilliant for those who care. Others will show up.
To sum it up…don’t try to create a newsletter for every reader (or every staff or board member). Be brilliant and passionate for those who care most. Be useful. Give them something to talk about and they will. Others will follow.