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How to Raise $1 Million

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Common Obstacles to Your Newsletter's Success

By Tom Ahern

Let’s tear down some barriers.

• We did a newsletter before. It didn’t work for us. This conclusion implies that some organizations just aren’t “good newsletter material,” when in fact most newsletters fail for a few obvious reasons which you’ll learn about in this book.

• I’m a fundraiser, not a journalist. You don’t have to be a great writer to create a great charity newsletter. Honest: this book is NOT about turning you into a journalist. You have better ways to spend your time.

How to Raise $1 Million


This article is an excerpt from Tom Ahern's new book, Making Money with Donor Newsletters.


Paradoxically enough, your newsletter isn’t about getting people to read your articles. Your newsletter is actually about delivering joy to your donors repeatedly . . . and as fast as possible. You can swiftly accomplish that profitable feat in a handful of headlines. Why? Because research shows that most “readers” never venture far past the headlines, even in Pulitzer-winning newspapers. Mothball your “writer’s block” anxieties. You don’t need to write exquisite articles. You will need to learn how to write a competent headline. But that’s about it. And it’s an easily acquired skill.

• I have other priorities. I hear you: my to-do list always outpaces my workday. So the question becomes (especially in a small or one-person fundraising shop): Is a newsletter worth making time for? Should it be a top priority or an also-ran? Well, that depends. If your organization believes (as I do, because I’ve seen the proof repeatedly) that donor-centricity is the surest route to increased income and retention, then you need a tool to help you nurture relationships with all your donors—not just those lucky few you can reach one on one. The proper tool for mass cultivation is the donor newsletter. It affords you an efficient way to speak to your entire donor base on a regular basis.

• I don’t have any stories. “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them,” the narrator intoned at the close of each episode. Naked City was one of the first TV crime dramas, set in New York City. They knew they’d never run out of stories. You have that kind of abundance at your fingertips, too. You just have to look for it—or, even better, train your colleagues to search it out for you.

At Health Care for the Homeless (Baltimore), the director of development makes a practice of regularly trolling the front-line staff for true-life stories. The fundraiser also educated the social workers there about the financial good it does the agency to have great stories to tell. As a result, social workers have become eager “story gatherers.” You’re not asking them to write up polished 500-word summaries, either. You’re asking them to pop 50 rough words into an email.

• I’m not a designer. You don’t have to be. Even the most graphically challenged can send out a simple (yet soul-satisfying) “newsyletter” to donors. It’s nothing more than a Word document. Trust me: if you can write any kind of letter (to your son at camp?), then you can write a successful newsy-letter.

• I can’t justify it to my boss. Look: the financial hurdle for newsletters is really low. If you break even—if you bring in enough gifts to cover your postage and printing—then you’re already beating the odds. Donor newsletters aren’t about current income, after all (though they can produce miracles in that department). Donor newsletters are about retaining donors for the long haul.

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 (www.aherncomm.com). 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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