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How to write a headline for a donor newsletter
Tom Ahern

July, 2009

A real-time MRI scan of what the headline-minded mind is thinking

Patti Saunders, director of development at The Arc of Anchorage, a nonprofit human service organization with hundreds of employees, wrote the following article for her donor newsletter.

It's a little harder these days for Jane to use the stairs. Like other aging Baby Boomers, life would be easier if she lived in a ranch-style home. Jane is one of many Baby Boomers in Anchorage who experiences an intellectual disability.

The Arc of Anchorage has gotten the message, loud and clear. "As the people we serve age, their needs change, just like they do for any senior citizen," said Gwen Lee, Executive Director. "We need to adjust the services we offer to meet those changing needs. And the prime change is the need for accessible housing."

As a result, The Arc has begun investing in one-story housing. A three-bedroom home on Old Harbor Road in Muldoon was the first purchase. The Arc used proceeds from the sale of two-story and split level properties to fund the purchase.

"The board of directors looked at the demographics. Accessible housing is already in great demand - both for aging baby boomers and for people with complex medical conditions," said Rod Shipley, chair of the board. "The demand is only going to get larger, which is why accessible housing for the people we serve is one of our highest long-range priorities."

Plans to move three women and a staff person into the house on Old Harbor Road are well underway. The Arc plans to add a wing to the house to accommodate up to four more people.

Nice article, Patti. Brief yet comprehensive. With a dash of anecdote. And it mentions an important trend; trends are always and intrinsically newsworthy. Don't change a thing.

This was Patti's draft headline:

Ranch House Purchase Marks New Direction for Residential Services.
As the people we serve get older, the need for accessible homes is greater.

Job #1 for a headline is this: convey to a rapidly skimming reader the gist of the story. Patti's headline accomplished that, in an economical 23 words.

I'd like a stronger hook, is all. And zero jargon, if possible. A "no jargon" policy means deleting insider shorthand like "residential services" and "accessible."

Patti invited me to try my hand. So I wrote myself a question on my omnipresent yellow pad: What is the pivot of this story?

Answer: Selling multi-level housing in favor of single-level housing, to better accommodate an aging population. And why was The Arc of Anchorage doing that? To eliminate stairs. Now I had a hook.

With that, I could write a plain English statement of what I considered the gist of the story:  Stairs prove to be obstacle for The Arc's aging baby boomers, forcing the agency to trade in multi-level housing for one-story housing. Demand for such housing is increasing.

Then I tried to make it hookier (eliminate words, add some flair) -- and introduce some kind of donor angle:

A Farewell to Stairs
As aging baby boomers begin to complain, "Oh, my aching knees," The Arc buys its first ranch house. More will be needed.

What's the donor angle? "More will be needed."

Are we asking for money yet for additional single-story homes? No. But a donor newsletter is the place where you talk about things that are happening in your world, so that if you do directly seek gifts some day, through an appeal, your donor base is more familiar with the issue.

Takeaway: Headlines matter far more than articles to getting your messages across. Four out of five readers never penetrate past the headline, recent research by the Poynter Institute showed. Yet the vast majority of what purport to be headlines in nonprofit publications are not really headlines at all; they're just bigger type.

Remember: the purpose of a headline in journalism is to summarize the gist of the story. You should be able to hide your article beneath a sheet of blank paper and still know pretty much exactly what the story's about just by reading the headline.

And to wrap up this discussion of headlines, here's a favorite example of a well-written one, from today's AOL News: Woman sees image of Virgin Mary in her brain scan.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit communications. He began presenting his top-rated Love Thy Reader workshops at fundraising conferences in 1999.

Since then he has introduced thousands of fundraisers in the U.S., Canada and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful.

He founded his consulting practice in 1990 ( His firm specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters. His efforts have won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, given each year to the best communications work worldwide.

Ahern is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health and social justice issues. He has his MA and BA in English from Brown University, and a Certificate in Advertising Art from the RI School of Design. His offices are in Rhode Island and France.


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