Right on the Money: How to Write an Inspiring e-Newsletter and Stand Above the Nonprofit Crowd

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Photograph of an e-newsletter displayed on a tablet computer.

At NCFY, we get dozens of e-newsletters from youth-serving organizations, think tanks, youth advocacy groups, and our partners in the federal government. One newsletter that stands out is Spectrum News, the monthly missive from Spectrum Youth and Family Services, in Burlington, VT. We like the newsy, friendly letter from Executive Director Mark Redmond, the calls to action (Buy tickets to the annual Empty Bowl fundraiser! Get a teen to write for a new website!), the thank-yous to donors, and the monthly wish list of items the organization needs for youth, like socks, winter shoes, bedding and skateboarding helmets.

Most of all, we like the newsletter’s brevity.

Communicating well with donors, volunteers, community members and policymakers is a must for any youth-serving organization that wants to stand above the crowded nonprofit field, Redmond says. He and his director of development and communication, Sarah Woodard, shared these three tips for putting together a great newsletter:

1. Keep it short and simple. Each Spectrum News includes no more than five or six items, and Woodard operates under the assumption that people don’t read the newsletter in its entirety. Instead, they skim, paying most attention to headlines, links and photos.

“So what do I want people to do?” Woodard says, describing her thought process in planning an issue. “If I want people to buy tickets, then I call that out.”

Woodard also recommends keeping the language simple. Write at a second- or third-grade level, with short sentences and easy words, she says. “You don’t have to dumb it down, but if you use a lot of long sentences and jargon, then it’s hard for people to understand.”

To keep things from getting too text-heavy, Woodard tries to tell stories with photos, like a picture of a chalkboard with the lunch menu at Spectrum’s drop-in center, or snapshots of donated items. (Spectrum doesn’t feature images of clients, to maintain their confidentiality.)

2. Make it personal. In his letter, Redmond often writes about youth he knows in the program, or recent experiences in his day-to-day work. A recent letter quoted a note of thanks he received from the sibling of a former Spectrum client.

If your executive director doesn’t feel comfortable writing or doesn’t want to spare the time, Woodard says, “Interview them and get at their passion, and write the letter for them.”

Another way to make the newsletter personal is to profile staff, board members and donors. Woodard recommends in-person or phone interviews, because email interviews usually wind up sounding flat.

3. Keep your eyes on the prize. Redmond and Woodard emphasize that the most important thing to get across is not the details of what you do, but rather the impact you’re having on young people.

“We’re changing teens’ lives with donors’ money,” Redmond says. “We’re allowing them to have an impact. That’s what donors really want to know—that they’re having an impact.”

More Information

Want to figure out how to send your newsletter? Idealware, an online guide to software for nonprofits, has a list of broadcast email tools recommended by nonprofit technology professionals, with a discussion of each tool’s pros and cons.

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