The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

Bring Your Nonprofit Newsletter from Snoring to Soaring

Email newsletters are great tools for nonprofits because they are so much cheaper to produce and distribute than print newsletters. The only problem is that they can be deleted in an instant or trapped forever in spam filters. And even when they are opened, they are often too *yawn* boring to grab the readers’ attention and move them to action.

Use these ten tips to increase the likelihood that your supporters will read your nonprofit email newsletter and act on what they see in it.

1. Know your audience, ask what they want, and deliver it.

Even though your newsletter readers may be incredibly generous individuals, it’s helpful to think of them as very self-centered, selfish people when they are reading your email newsletter. Here’s why: if the content isn’t immediately relevant and valuable to them as individual human beings, they’ll delete it in an instant. We know what’s in it for you, but what’s in it for them?

As you write your newsletter articles, keep asking yourself these questions: How will this article make our readers feel? How will it make their lives easier or better? Does this article show our readers how important they are to us?

2. Send frequently – if you have good content.

How often should you send your email newsletter? In general, I recommend no more than once a week and no less than every six weeks. You want people to remember you and look forward to receiving your newsletter, but you don’t want to drive them crazy either. Your email schedule should be determined by how often you have great content to send.

If you are providing on-target, valuable information each and every time (or darn close), your readers won’t feel bugged by frequent mailings. If you don’t have enough content for a newsletter every two months, you either don’t know your readers or aren’t thinking creatively about ways to talk about your work. 

Here’s a sweeping generalization: most nonprofits send e-newsletters too infrequently. If you aren’t sure whether to step up your publishing schedule or not, I’d say go for it. If your unsubscribe rate goes up, ask why people are leaving your list and if frequency is the problem, back off.

3. Make it personal.

People give to and support nonprofits for highly subjective reasons. Your supporters get something deeply personal out of their affiliation with your organization as a donor, volunteer, or advocate. So why would your response back to these passionate people be institutional, monolithic, and completely objective?

Break out of the “The 501(c)(3) speaks to the masses” mode and make it more personal. I’m not suggesting that you turn your newsletter into a vehicle for personal rambling or try to elevate your executive director to cult status. But you should consider ways to make your newsletter sound as though it is written by one staff person speaking directly to one supporter. Do articles talk about the staff, donors, or volunteers involved in the work? Do the articles have bylines? Are the articles written in a conversational style, even if they aren’t bylined? Have you included some headshots or other people photos? If someone hits “reply” to the newsletter, will a real person see it and respond, or will the reader get an auto-reply about that email address not being checked?

4. Make the next step as easy as possible.

Once your supporters read your newsletter, what’s next? Do you have a call to action? Do you want them donate, volunteer, register, tell a friend, learn more, write a email, make a call or what? Include specific calls to action and links that make following through as simple as possible. Make it, as Katya Andresen says, a “filmable moment.” Could you film your supporters following through on your call to action? If it is clear and simple enough, your supporters should be able to easily visualize themselves and others doing it.

5. Put an unmistakable name in the “From” field.

For most nonprofits, this will be your organization’s name or a well-known campaign or initiative. Don’t use a staff person’s name unless at least 80% of the people on your mailing list will recognize it. If you decide to use a person’s name (it is more personal after all – see #3 above), I recommend including your acronym or other identifier after the name. This should not change from issue to issue; you want to build up reader recognition.

6. Use a specific, benefit-laden “Subject” line.

The busier your supporters are, the more likely they are to look at your email subject line and nothing else before deciding whether to read it or delete it. Pack your subject lines with details about what’s inside, emphasizing the benefits to the reader of taking a few extra seconds to see what’s in the body of the message. That’s a tall order for 50-60 characters, which is the rule of thumb for subject line length. Do your best and track which newsletters have the best open rates to see which subject lines seem to appeal most to your readers.

Your subject line should change with every edition. Don’t waste space with dates, edition numbers, sender info, etc. The only exception would be if you have a very short, memorable, and meaningful newsletter title. You can put the title first, often in brackets like this: [E-News Title] Subject Line Specific to This Email’s Content. 

7. Design a simple, clean newsletter that’s mostly text.

People expect to read email, which means they are looking for words. They don’t expect the same visual stimulation that they do when they visit a web page. It’s much more important to say something timely, interesting, or valuable than it is to produce a newsletter that’s visually stunning. At the same time, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use a stylish design and photos. Just make sure that the text gets top billing and wraps cleanly around any graphic elements, especially since those items will appear as big red Xs to a big chunk of your readers. And don’t worry about
needing serious design or HTML skills to produce an email newsletter. All of the major email newsletter service providers offer many templates to pick from.

8. Write and design for the preview pane.

Most people don’t actually open each email message. Instead, they use the preview pane to view them. That means you’ve got a fairly small space in which to impress your reader enough to make them either scroll through your email or open it fully.

Images near the top of your newsletter can hog that important space or waste it entirely if images are turned off in the email program. For example, if you want to use an image as your newsletter header, keep it “short” – say under 100 pixels high – so that it doesn’t fill up the whole preview pane. Be sure that you have plenty of compelling text near the top of the newsletter so that even if images are turned off, the reader still sees some interesting text. Also be sure to include ALT tags with all images. 

Never send an all-image email newsletter. You’ve seen those emails where the entire preview pane is filled with a big red-X box. They are trying to send you a pretty email by including all the text in a graphic. The problem is that many email programs don’t show images by default. Therefore, you see nothing but the box. I automatically delete emails like this.

9. Appeal to skimmers: Use lots of headlines, subheadings, and short chunks of text.

People scan and skim email before they read it. Short paragraphs and sentences are easier to skim. Descriptive headlines and subheads with active verbs and vivid nouns will grab your supporters’ attention and nudge them into actually reading the text. 

10. Use an email newsletter service.

If you have more than 20 people on your mailing list and you want that list to grow, you need to use an email newsletter service provider or ESP. Many online client database/fundraising service providers include email marketing in their packages. You can also use companies that specialize in email marketing, like Constant Contact. These providers can automate many functions that you shouldn’t be wasting time on, including managing subscribes, unsubscribes, and bounces. They also help you comply with the CAN-SPAM law; strongly encourage you to use best-practice, double opt-in procedures; give you the code for an email newsletter sign-up box for your website; and offer great tracking tools that are nearly impossible for you to implement on your own. The cost of using an email newsletter service is minimal and the benefits are huge.

While these tips are solid advice that will work in most cases, what’s most important is what works for you and your supporters. Test what you do and make adjustments accordingly.

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About This Blog

Liz Ragland
Senior Associate, Marketing and Content

We’re here to help you win hearts and minds—and donations.

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