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Monday, January 22, 2018

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What role do e-newsletters play in fundraising?
Tom Ahern

June, 2012

They're lousy at bringing in donations, a veteran copywriter observes. 



I'm writing the second edition of my book on donor newsletters.


It has a rather embarrassing gap: I don't have much to say about e-newsletters.


The first edition had the same gap. But since it was published in 2005, nearer the dawn of online fundraising, the omission wasn't quite as damning.


So I wrote Jeff Brooks, a copywriter at the top of the food chain. He is one of my core gurus.


Jeff authors the popular, oft-quoted Future Fundraising Now blog. He was a front man in Seattle's legendary Domain Group, a fundraising firm that gave the world the first (and only, to my knowledge) tested formula for high-yield print newsletters. Today, Jeff's a creative director at TrueSense, a national direct response house with heavyweight clients like The Salvation Army and Ronald McDonald House Charities.


"Dear Jeff," I explained, "I don't have any terrific e-newsletters to show people as models. Are any of your clients producing something worth copying?"


Here's Jeff's surprising reply:


"I'm getting close to making a conclusion that e-newsletters don't work.


"We don't do e-newsletters for any of our clients, because response has been so low. A few of them continue to produce them in-house, usually by their useless marketing departments - you know the kind: they can get zero response and still manufacture a reason to call it success.

"But you have to measure what you're doing, or you're clueless. We decided to go by open rate rather than response for e-newsletters, and found that it was  extremely low and varied little. It was better when the subject line was topical, rather than something routine like 'May e-news,' but still low.

"Here's my working theory: the 'leaning back' psychology of print newsletters ('Let's see what's interesting here...') just doesn't activate for most people when they're online, which is overwhelmingly a 'leaning forward' situation.


"I think fanatics may lean forward for a newsletter, but very few donors are fanatics.

"A solution I'm working on is this: make every article or item you would put in your newsletter into its own email. One email, one topic.


"Too early to say if it's a real solution. The risk is increased unsubscribes because frequency is too high for some recipients.


"Another possible solution is to only send out emails that have a call to action. Doesn't have to be 'give,' but should be something - sign a petition, write an encouraging message, click to give, take a quiz, etc.

"Sorry I can't be more helpful. I think this shows how undeveloped e-fundraising still is. We haven't figured out how to do some of the most basic things in the medium."


Emailed newsletters have their uses:

  • They can, I believe, play a minor supporting role in retention; there's no science I'm aware of, but it makes sense. Showing the flag. Reinforcing "the brand."
  • They are good at promoting the new season, if you're an arts or athletics group.
  • They're good if you want to sell things to the predisposed, such as tickets to events and great programs.
  • They are good at reaching people fast, in an emergency. ("Our steeple just blew off!")
  • They are good at reminders. ("Clothing drive tomorrow. Are your donations at the curb?")
  • They are good at "save this date" bulletins.
  • They are good at linking people deeper into your material, to "read more" on a blog or website.           



Visit Tom at 


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