Sep 13, 2012

Newsletter Inspiration for Nonprofit Organizations

Recently I had the pleasure of helping out with Look What You Can Do and enjoyed gawking at handsome newsletters from Code for America, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Cooper-Hewitt, and hundreds of peer organizations. These folks really know how to put together an email.

Invitation from Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

I’ve also recently had the pleasure of attending a few conferences—MuseumNext, TCG, the Georgia Nonprofit Summit—and enjoyed talking to a bunch of fellow participants, sometimes even about email newsletters. It became clear, however, that not everyone knows how to put together an email.

Some people weren’t sure about what to write in their newsletters. A few didn’t think their stakeholders would necessarily want to hear from them. And a handful of experts were pretty certain that email is dead.

All of these concerns are valid. But I think our CEO Ben’s comment about email content is exactly right: "If you have something interesting to say, send an email. Otherwise don’t send anything." Chances are your organization probably has something interesting to say and that your stakeholders will want to read it.

General Newsletters

Newsletters, especially nonprofit newsletters, are ripe for inspiration, emulation, or friendly idea theft. Look What You Can Do can help, not just in the style of your email, but also with ideas for your content. Sign up for a few newsletters to see what works, and then maybe not-so-shamefully adapt those tactics for your organization.

Daily newsletter from Tablet Magazine

Is one great newsletter relaying in-depth details about exciting programming? You can probably do that too. Is another taking time to tell behind-the-scenes stories about office hijinks? That won’t work for everyone, but surely there are stories you can tell that show your organization’s human side a little bit more.

While you’re thinking about what to say, consider how you say it. Does your voice align with your mission? Does your tone reflect the reader’s expectations? If these elements don’t match what your organization is trying to convey, your content may likely be overlooked or ignored.

Updates for Your Board of Directors and Funders

Newsletters don’t have to be quarterly or monthly or daily. They can simply inform specific segments of people who would appreciate hearing from you.

For example, email newsletters are a great way to increase and measure board engagement. Informative emails (perhaps with fancy charts and the latest numbers) to your board of directors will keep them feeling important and helpful, even if all they’re doing is opening an email and reading it. If they’re not even doing that much, you’ll know who’s paying attention and who’s doing a great job at pretending they know what’s going on.

Newsletter from La Boite Theatre Company

Funders, especially private foundations, are often delighted to hear back from grantees, if only because so few organizations keep in touch after receiving a grant. Elegant, well-crafted email newsletters are a great way to increase brand loyalty and show that your organization is capable of receiving large contributions with grace. Brag about the wonderful things you’ve accomplished with their gift, and maybe even let them get to know you and your stakeholders as people and not just grantees.

Volunteer Management

Email newsletters are an effective way to wrangle volunteers, too. If you need feedback on your latest program, an email integrated with SurveyMonkey might do the trick. If you’re hurting for bodies to work behind the bar at your fundraiser next week, an Eventbrite email could save the day.

But even just regular updates to keep your volunteers interested and informed can work wonders. You can weave organizational gossip into your newsletters to keep folks on their toes. Meanwhile, you can let your volunteers know exactly how they can rope in their friends to helping with next Saturday’s clean up.

Volunteer newsletter that really ties together my hypothetical situations

If you have a dedicated IT staff or a capable volunteer who can work with APIs, you can use Mandrill for transactional email. It can complement your newsletters and streamline much of the busy-work of volunteer management. Automatically send sign-up forms, receipts, and agreements that are triggered by actions in your newsletter.

Plain-Text Newsletters

Finally, just because you can make an HTML email doesn’t mean you should. The word “newsletter” historically implies “glossy” or “produced” or “quarterly." But sometimes the most powerful emails are a few meaningful sentences printed stark on the page. If your content is serious or personal or brief, a plain-text email can signal that what you’re saying isn’t just about your organization, but it’s about your relationship with the reader.

Sure, you could choose the "plain-text campaign" option to send your email. But maybe you could instead choose an image-free mobile-friendly template. That way your email is responsive to the reader’s device, plus you receive all of the tracking features of a regular ol’ email campaign.