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Sunday, January 21, 2018

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The Domain Formula for donor newsletters: Certified Proven (unlike the others)
Tom Ahern

December, 2011

In the 1990s, a Seattle fundraising shop called the Domain Group took the garden-variety donor newsletter, stripped it down to its components, and began testing ...
to see if they could come up with something better. Sort of like rebuilding a hot rod. 


Domain eventually developed a formula that made a donor newsletter HIGHLY worth doing: some Domain clients began raking in more gifts through their newsletters than through their direct mail appeals.


Domain had its hot rod. Think about that a moment.


How could a newsletter make more money than an appeal? A newsletter isn't an ask. Appeals make the ask. 


Answer: A newsletter might well be more welcome than an appeal. It can bring joy. It can bring fun. It can take the reader on a journey (an Adrian Sargeant idea). It can flatter the reader shamelessly, in all sorts of ways (deeply recommended).


Whereas a direct mail appeal almost always seems like "duty calling" ... not to mention an intrusion, with the intention of relieving my wallet of its burdens.


What Domain achieved ... and then freely told the world about ... was a remarkable feat. More money through newsletters ... hmmmmm, I say, what a novel idea!?! 


The Domain Formula demonstrated that newsletters could produce significant revenue as well as good will. Key features of the formula include:

  • Page count: no more than 4 pages (in tests, adding more pages did not produce more revenue)
  • Article length: short
  • Write for skimmers (i.e., requires professional quality headlines)
  • Send in a #10 envelope, not as a self-mailer
  • Include a separate reply device
  • Don't get distracted: be fully donor-committed. Send only to your donors. You have to talk to a single target audience. 
  • Make the voice personal (the word "you" dominates) rather than institutional; get intimate 
  • Focus on "accomplishment reporting" (tell donors how much they have changed the world through their gifts)

Domain ... or the highway?


Is the Domain Formula the only way to go? Probably not. But it is, to my knowledge, the only tested way to go.


Let's return to the last ... and most important item ... on the Domain Formula list: accomplishment reporting. [That was Domain's name for it. You call it what you want. The "You Are Wonderful, Dear Donor Report" is the real name.] 


Donors want above all just one kind of information from their charities, research shows. Your donors humbly beg to know, "How much good did I do? I sent you a gift. Did my charity make a difference? Am I helping to do something important?"


Most charities never get around to talking about that in their newsletters. The charities instead want to talk about themselves. 


You don't need 16 pages to answer the donors' only real question. In fact, 16 pages tend to muffle the answer. There's just too much stuff to look at and consider.


Do the SMIT


There's a very smart and accomplished Aussie fundraising consultant named Jonathon Grapsas. He introduced the idea of "the SMIT." SMIT is an acronym that stands for, "What's the Single Most Important Thing I have to tell you today?"


I have found "SMIT-thinking" highly useful.


I write my SMIT's on post-it notes. 


Donor communications have to survive in a brutal world. People are not paying much attention.


Giving your donor just one thing to consider in your newsletter rather than, say, 10 things (you see that a lot) might be a welcome relief.




Donor-centricity in 2 acts 


Two statements comprise all of donor-centricity:

  • "With your help, we can [fill in the blank]."
  • "Without your help, we can't."

Those two prompts, repeated as often as possible, in any words you can think of, together produce the desired result: more gifts, more retention.




A couple of issues back, I excoriated the know-nothing "internal team" that second-guessed my direct mail package. (Lord, I'm touchy.)


Seems I struck a nerve with that topic. Naive second-guessing, judging by the feedback, is a very widespread disease in our industry.


There was one complaint (from the excoriated client). But loads of other people wrote to say, "How refreshingly frank!" Here's one comment, verbatim: 


This made me laugh out loud on a day where I thought nothing would. There seems to be a never ending barricade of idiots that stand in the way of compelling work that tastes like champagne coming to life. The idea of it almost upsets me more than the reality. 


Early in my career I thought the difficulty would be persuading the customer. As I have progressed, the real complexity has been getting great work past the internal team without it turning into Frankenstein. 


I have tried everything from being Machiavellian, being diabetically nice, reframing to accommodate Myers Briggs communication preferences, Sun Tzu, interpretive dance... without fail, there is no way I know of to circumnavigate plain old stupid. 


Moving creative from point a to b always seems to take on some sort of Joseph Campbell-like Hero's Journey where a Dragon (covered in thousands of scales which all read 'Thou Shall Not') must be slain. 


I actually sent this newsletter to someone within our team (to make a point) and his response was "that is just one guy's opinion"    


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