For many years I was rather critical of charity newsletters and magazines, mainly because of the very low income to cost ratio they always seemed to offer.

If an appeal to 50,000 donors could bring in £500,000, a newsletter to the same bunch would struggle to generate £50,000.

My response was to shelve newsletters and provide feedback in a format that was far more personal – letters from people whose lives had been changed by donors. These were accompanied by photographs, drawings, local newspaper cuttings and even copies of school certificates. For charities involved in medical research, we prepared reports from the scientists showing what had been achieved.

We had four goals…

  • To show the donor that they were important in creating change.
  • To personally recognise and thank them for what they had done.
  • To show them that their decision to give was a good and sensible one.
  • To demonstrate ongoing need.

Where we gave people the opportunity to give again, the results were great. Where people were not asked for additional gifts, feedback was brilliant.

It’s an approach that we continue to recommend at Bluefrog.

But few charities are willing to completely turn their back on newsletters and magazines. And they shouldn’t have to. Newsletters can raise huge sums of money – if they have the right focus.

The trouble is, they are often produced by a “communications department” whose goal is to communicate on behalf of a charity – not fundraise. As a result, the magazine or newsletter becomes an information vehicle.

If you are happy with that, carry on as you are. If you want to raise more money, the magazine or newsletter should be given a significant financial target and a serious “once over” by the fundraising department.

By doing this, the focus will change. You’ll move from a communication that pushes out information according to an organisational strategy, to one that pulls the donor closer according to their needs.

A very good example of this approach is is provided by The Camphill Family, who only send out theirnewsletters to donors who have said they want them. They generate very high levels of income. Just one issue of their newsletter raised over £1,000,000 from approximately 80,000 supporters.

With a response rate of 33%, that’s not a bad benchmark with which to measure your own newsletter / magazine mailings. If a small organisation with a very low profile can do this, what could one of the charity mega-brands achieve?

So how do you go about turning your newsletter or magazine into a major income generator?

To start you off, I’d recommend that you could do a great deal worse than have a look at Tom Ahern’s tips (PDF) to audit your current publication. He uses 9 criteria…

1. Is the content donor-centric?

2. Is it entertaining?

3. Is urgency part of the message?

4. Does the message somehow talk about, or suggest, the chance of loss?

5. Does it pass the YOU test?

6. Is the publication built for browsing?

7. Is it convenient and easy to respond to your calls to action?

8. Does it report back on what the donor has helped you to accomplish?

9. Does it contain credibility builders that help it donors establish trust in you?

Using these pointers, you’ll start to identify the areas you need to address in turning your newsletter or magazine into something that will bring in a serious amount of money. You’ll see in the PDF (or on hiswebsite), that Tom gives loads of direction on what you need to do. The following ideas are simply examples from my own experience.

I suggest that you ignore the design for the time being and concentrate on the content. This means that you’ll have one less hurdle to overcome when trying to introduce your changes. That’s particularly important if the publication is not directly under your control.

  • Start with the subject-matter. Feature projects and work that your donors know and care about. Ideally those that they have already funded in previous appeals. If something is in the news, consider that too (but please avoid the impulse to feature the general piece that ran to 150 words on page 19 of The Guardian, ten weeks ago).
  • Change the language. This is not the supporters’ newsletter. It’s the newsletter for Mrs. Claire Johnson, of 14 Sycamore Drive, who has been supporting you for the last 5 years with a direct debit and recently gave you her largest ever gift of £100. Show her you know this and use the word YOU (instead of WE) whenever you can.
  • Entertain. If your publication is nothing but a self-congratulatory tool for your charity, chances are it takes little account of what donors want. You need to surprise and inspire. Take a look at some of the most important magazine covers of the last 40 years and see what ideas you could borrow (tip: have a good look at the issue of Fast Company in position 37).
  • Make headlines work. Big gets attention. Rather than having simple descriptive headlines and sub-heads, make your headlines emotive and involving.
  • Make it easy to give. Include a donation form, have project specific advertisements asking for gifts, use inserts, feature web addresses and telephone numbers as a means to show the donor you need their help.

And remember, when your magazine or newsletter is finally published, it is no longer yours. It becomes the property of your supporters and whether they wear Pradas or a nice pair of M&S slippers, each one will be – through their donations –  the harshest editor you’ll ever meet.

Update: you can listen to Tom talk about creating great newsletters on this podcast from Fundraising is Beatutiful.