Fundraise Smarter

The Silly Thing You’re Doing With Your Nonprofit Newsletter That Keeps Me From Reading It

Posted by Andrew Littlefield on May 2, 2016 10:00:00 AM

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There’s a brand new train station in Lower Manhattan. But it’s more than just any transit station.

It’s the “Oculus.”

With wing-like arms that shoot hundreds of feet in the air, it’s bright white structure causes your eyes to squint on a sunny day.

The Oculus is an impressive structure, no one can doubt that. But the project always manages to elicit grumbles from New Yorkers whenever it gets brought up.

That’s because the train station cost $4 billion. That’s nearly $2 billion MORE than it was supposed to originally cost. It also took 12 years to build.

You see, in all the excitement of building something new, beautiful, and impressive, the most important aspect of a train station was forgotten.

 It has to efficiently connect people to trains. You needs to be a train station.

Now before you scratch your head and wonder what the hell has happened to the WeDidIt Fundraising Blog, bear with me a second.

The Oculus station fiasco is not unlike a lot of nonprofit newsletters.

They’re fancy.

They’re beautiful.

They’re big.

But did anyone stop and ask “Hey...are these affecting the behavior of recipients in anyway?”

Too often, the answer to that is no. Or more accurately, it’s “ know, I have no clue. I just loved this design.”


The Case Against the Big, Fancy-Pants Newsletter

I subscribe to a lot of nonprofit newsletters. I like seeing what organizations are doing, whether that be fundraising appeals, events, or just updating their audience about the cause. I like seeing what they send, and when they send it.

Unfortunately, I see things like this far too often.


Lots of fancy pictures, intricate layouts, and pictures. Oh, such beautiful pictures!

Now, it’s not that I have anything inherently against fancy design. On the contrary, I think an understanding of good design is something everyone should learn. The problem is when good design gets conflated with beautiful or impressive design.

Good design serves the user. It’s beautiful, but functional. It only adds intricacies when they’re needed to improve the user’s experience.

Too often, functionality gets overlooked in the pursuit of bigger, fancier, and more picturey-er...yep...I’m making up words to describe it. That’s how passionate I feel about this topic.

This ends up distracting from the meat of the email.

And in a world of very short online attention spans, where people decide in a split-second whether they’re going to continue reading something, this is a problem.

Standing Out from the Noise

The online world, and really the communications world at large, operates much like a pendulum. When something starts to work, the masses all start swinging in that direction, leaving behind whatever old trend they used to care about.

But once everyone globs onto that new trend, it suddenly becomes less effective.



Because everyone is doing it now! It’s hard to stand out above the noise.

What happens next? That old trend that everyone left behind begins to work and be effective again.

It’s like postal mail vs. email. When email first came out, everyone was stoked to get any kind of message. Meanwhile, you ignored all that junk mail that used to get stuffed into your physical mailbox.

Then everyone got on email and that became really crowded. Therefore, a handwritten letter was enough to grab your attention again!

The History of the Big, Fancy-Pants Newsletter (How We Got Here)

Back when email was first introduced, it was a novel way to grab someone’s attention.

Then every person, brand, and nonprofit started sending email, and you couldn’t grab attention anymore.

So the brightest minds on the web put their heads together and came up with an idea:

“Hey, maybe we can use all our talent and resources to make a really fancy looking email! With lots of pictures and HTML prettiness.”

“Brilliant! Just like the fancy brochures we used to send to people in the mail! Other people don’t have the resources to make something like this, so we’ll stand out.”

And that’s exactly what they did. And it worked! For a while.

But before long, tools like Constant Contact and MailChimp came along and made it easy and cheap for anyone to make fancy-pants newsletters. Because of that, they became less effective.

The pendulum swings.

Nonprofit Email Tips

Only this time, we’ve all seemed to just be...stuck over there. We keep putting out newsletters, spending lots of time to make them look just right, and loading them up with lots and lots of content. Announcements, appeals, news, and more.

But it seems like a very important the most important factor is forgotten in all this.

Are people reading and responding to these?

The Case for Simplification

If the answer to that question is “no,” it’s time to think about making a change.

And in my opinion, that change should be taking a chainsaw to your newsletter template and seriously trimming it down.


While there are mixed opinions as to whether our brains process visual information faster than text, visuals can also distract. Especially when those visuals do not support the text around them.

Now, the last thing I want this blog to become is a place to simply rant. I always want to lean towards a “teach, don’t preach” mindset.


Replacement Template: The Simple Email

Rather than a design rich, image heavy newsletter, why not try returning to the basics with a “The Simple Email?”

Here’s my last webinar announcement as an example:


There’s a few things I’d like to point out that I think make these types of messages effective:

The Style (or lack thereof)

By stripping down all the HTML styling on this message and writing it like something I would write to a friend, it comes across as much more personal and friendly to all recipients. Even though most of them know this is a mass email, the reaction is changed and their attention is piqued, simply because it’s not the standard image-heavy message they’re used to getting.

The Point (singular)

This message has one intention and one intention only: to encourage you to join our next webinar. I didn’t put it at the end of a long message updating our audience on things that are happening at our office, pictures of our team, or other messages. It serves just one purpose.

Attention on the internet is at a premium, and the percentage of people who will read a long newsletter style message and act on every single piece of information on there is very small.

Keep your message on point! If you give people too many options to follow, they won’t follow any of them.

The Subject Line

Something that makes me cringe more than seeing auto-generated subject lines for newsletters or generic subject lines that just label the message as a newsletter without any context of what is inside or piquing the recipient's interest.

Things like:

  • “XYZ Org Spring 2016 Newsletter”
  • “Check out what’s happening!!!”
  • “XYZ News”

Your subject lines needs to pique the interest of the reader. To do this, it needs to inform them of what is inside the message, but not give away so much that the reader simply deletes it without giving it a second thought.

I think the nonprofit Lambda Legal does an excellent job of this.


Those subject lines grab my interest, but they also give me a taste of what the message is about.

The Sender

Notice that my message doesn’t come from “WeDidIt”, it comes from “Andrew Littlefield”! One of the easiest things you can do to make your messages more personal is to have them come from an actual person.

You’ll notice Lambda Legal also does an excellent job with this. Better yet, they mix up “who” the message is from, so you get lots of variety of voices, managing to keep your attention.


A Time and Place for Newsletters

I want to stress that my intention is not to make a blanket statement that newsletters are terrible all the time for everyone. I think they can serve an important role and likely will always have a place in your email marketing as a nonprofit.

If you have a robust newsletter that gets you loads of engagement, by all means, continue! It’s only when your current situation is not working as well as it could that I think newsletters become a problem.

Additionally, I think a good newsletter (even with fancy styling) can be an effective part of a greater email mix that includes more personal messages, messages from individuals members of your organization’s leadership, and other email appeals.

Going back to Lamba Legal, they still utilize images and styling in their messages, but they keep all their emails focused to one topic and keep it very personal. This is a great way to get the “best of both worlds.” They get a clean, professional look, while still keeping the messaging very focused.


However, if you find yourself maintaining a newsletter simply because it’s “What you’ve always done,” it might be time to make a change.

Nonprofit Email Tips

Topics: online fundraising, nonprofit marketing,, email fundraising

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