How to Write an Awful Newsletter
Not again, I thought. I felt like banging my head against the wall.
As Assistant Director of Ministry Partner Development, my job includes skimming staff prayer letters to hunt for good stories. Some staff write exceptionally powerful newsletters. But at that moment, I had stumbled onto the “What Not to Do Newsletter.”
The author, “Joe Staff,” wrote with good intentions but had effectively written a newsletter most partners wouldn’t want to read.
Here’s where Joe went wrong:
“This is the newsletter that never ends…” sounds like the childhood ditty, “This is the song that never ends.” Some staff write a newsletter like it’s a report to their supervisor with multiple stories and too many details, including longer reports about their families and numerous prayer requests. The key to writing a good newsletter is to be donor-centric instead of self-focused. What does the donor want to hear? What format works for them? Most donors want to read a letter in 2-3 minutes, and it needs to be succinct and powerful. We created national prayer letter templates that guide staff in writing one and only one good story that captures the heart of the mission and shows transformation. Less is more.
Joe started all his stories with the same type of introduction and used generic headlines that didn’t communicate much. I had to dig through too many details to get to the point of his stories. We teach staff to use interesting headlines to grab their readers. The first sentence of any story should “hook” the reader to want to read more. How can you present the story from a surprising angle? How can you highlight the point of the story quickly and then expand that example of God’s work to show how it’s happening in other places? If you are writing a newsletter to a particular audience, such as alumni of the ministry, how can you tailor it to their interests?
All About Me
At the center of Joe’s newsletter was the Story of Joe Missionary, his activities, his students, his family. In doing so, Joe forgot that the real center of the story is God and what God is doing in His Mission. It’s also the story of a supporting actor: the donor. The point of any good newsletter is to showcase what God is doing and how the donor makes that possible. One helpful phrase is “Praise God for how He is bringing students to Himself. Thank you for your prayers and gifts that enable students like Jane to come to know Jesus.”
No Clear Goal
Joe tried to cram too many objectives into one letter, as he reported on the ministry, asked for prayer, thanked donors and asked for financial support. Professional development practices suggest separating the Annual Report and Thank You from The Ask. We made a calendar with each month of the year to show staff how to orient prayer letters. For example, in January and at the end of a campus year, we want to focus the letter on reporting on the mission. In key outreach and discipleship months, the focus of the prayer letter is to solicit prayer. At the end of our fiscal year and calendar year, the point of the newsletter is to ask for financial support.
Always in Crisis
Joe asks for financial support every time he sends out a letter, citing his growing deficit. While Joe’s donors might have responded to his need the first few times, that approach starts to feel like The Boy Who Cried Wolf. We encourage staff to ask via newsletter about 3-4 times a year, keeping the other months focused on prayer, thanksgiving and reporting. Also, donors generally want to give to the mission, not to a crisis. A helpful way to invite giving is to show an example of your mission in action through a story and then invite donors to give to expand that mission.
Joe ignored our organization’s templates to create his own version which he liked better. In doing so, he failed to align with our national organization in terms of branding (color, logo, font) so he appeared like the unprofessional lone wolf instead of part of a greater national whole. He also forgot to find photos until the last moment, so his newsletter was mostly text with a couple quick unfocused group shots. Graphics matter. We encourage staff to use high quality photos (one or two good photos is enough) in nationally-branded Mailchimp templates which are already designed for them. The most powerful photos are ones in which you can see the color of the person’s eyes rather than the overused group shots.
Only on Leap Years
Joe hadn’t sent out a newsletter in, well, at least a year or two. He’d just been too busy with the ministry, and to be honest, it took him at least eight hours to write the darned thing. Some of Joe’s supporters had wondered if he was even still on campus. We encourage staff to send out shorter monthly updates which are more doable and more readable. Our donors deserve to hear regularly about their investment in the mission in order to be true partners in prayer and heart.
Joe had a header for his newsletter which failed to include his own name, his contact information or his organization’s name. He didn’t include links to his organization’s website. Maybe that seems obvious, but many staff fail to include this. We always need to have this kind of relevant information (who the staff is and who they work for) in the header and contact information in the footer.
Prayer letters are a crucial way to communicate both the hope of the Gospel and the needs on the front line. Through clear and compelling written communication, we inspire more partners to participate enthusiastically in growing God’s Kingdom.