The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

Shhh! Secret Formula for Donor Newsletters That Delight

Danger ahead! A 43% donor retention rate means supporters are likely to cut your organization from the list next time round.

Even scarier, what you stand to lose with a low retention rate (or gain, when retention is strong) is huge. “A 10% improvement in retention can yield up to a 200% increase in projected lifetime value, as with higher retention significantly more donors upgrade their giving, give in multiple ways, recommend others, and, ultimately, perhaps, pledge a planned gift to the organization,” says fundraising expert Adrian Sargent. That’s mammoth potential, and your donor newsletter is a vital tool for getting there. Simply mix these four ways to do newsletter content right with the well-tested format formula below to create donor newsletters that delight—and boost retention rate.

This Proven Format Formula Makes Reading Easy and Satisfying

Your Print Newsletter

You’re lucky enough to have a well-tested format formula for your print newsletter, created by fundraisers at the Domain Group in the 1990s.

The Domain Group formula includes these factors:

  • Page count of four to six pages. Testing shows that adding more pages did not produce more revenue. In some cases, more pages decreased revenue.
  • Articles are short.
  • Writing is optimized for skimmers. Use brief and compelling headlines, bullets, and lots of white space.
  • Sent to donors only—but ensure it goes to all donors
  • The voice is personal (the word “you” dominates) rather than institutional. Get one-to-one.
  • Focuses on progress updates. Tell donors how much they’ve changed the world through their gifts.
  • Includes a response envelope—convenience means everything.
  • Mailed in a #10 envelope.

Source: Making Money with Donor Newsletters by Tom Ahern

Although this formula was created in the 1990s, it still works! “I spoke with Jeff Brooks, one of its originators, in November,” says Tom Ahern. “His firm, TrueSense, does donor newsletters all the time. They continue to test the envelope versus self-carrier aspect. And in one test, the first since the formula began being used in the 1990s, a self-mailer held its own. One test in 20 or so years,”

I’d go one step further to suggest that you:

  • Design a four-page (11-by-17-inch) newsletter that folds to 8.5×11.
  • Print it in four colors on matter paper. Four-color printing is actually cheaper than two-color printing in most cases and brings your photos to life.
  • Test the outside envelope with your list. Even though both Tom and superstar fundraiser Jeff Brooks swear by it, a few of my smaller nonprofit clients have found it doesn’t add to impact.

As for your fundraising content, make it more implicit than explicit. You do want to extend the invitation to give and make it easy for folks to do so. I recommend: 1) Include a response envelope like the one below, and 2) feature a shortened URL for an online-giving landing page >that’s specific to your campaign. But, please, no QR codes!

Article Image


Model your print newsletter format on these strong examples from the Nashville Rescue Mission. They’re so great—note the bold pull-quotes, ideal for skimmers—that I don’t even care that they break the sacred page count rule.

Your Email Newsletter

Did you know that 53% of all emails are opened on mobile devices? Eesh!

That means your single most important formatting to-do is ensuring your e-news is easy to read, and click on, via smartphones and tablets.

In addition, make your emails brief, punchy, and a pleasure to view and read. Follow usage patterns closely to see what issues, calls to action, layout, subject lines, and other elements drive interest and action and which don’t.

Two must-haves here, beyond the content:

  • A big, bold Donate Now button.
  • Links to follow your organization on social media channels and to share your e-news content there as well.

Take a look at these e-newsletters from the Tenement Museum in New York City (I’m a supporter and huge fan). There’s a lot to learn here.

P.S. The museum team could make one quick change to generate even greater impact: add social sharing links at the top of its e-newsletter.

Use Your Newsletters to Keep Donors Loyal, Focused, and Giving

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About This Blog

Carrie Saracini
Content Marketing Manager

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

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