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How a Now-Defunct Fundraising Agency Discovered the Power of Donor Newsletters

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Back in the early 1990s, a fundraising agency based in Seattle called the Domain Group accidentally made an important discovery: You can raise funds with a nonprofit newsletter.

At the time, most people in the fundraising industry considered newsletters to be money-losing projects. Necessary, but not typically profitable. Newsletters were almost always created in-house by nonprofits because it was not considered a worthwhile use of an agency’s time. Domain did them only rarely, and always as a sort of “favor” for clients who didn’t have the capacity to produce newsletters themselves.

The other thing you should know about newsletters back then is that they were filled with facts, figures, and news about what the organization was accomplishing. They were meant to inform and educate donors and make them feel that they’d made a good choice for their charitable giving.

The Domain Group people couldn’t leave well enough alone. They started tweaking and testing the content and presentation of newsletters. Results started to improve. Before long, their newsletters became revenue-positive. And they kept improving until they rivalled and sometimes surpassed direct mail. (This all happened before email was a viable fundraising medium.)

Each test they ran on their newsletters revealed new (and sometimes surprising) best practices for newsletters.

But the big discovery was the true purpose of a newsletter: It was not to report on the successes and excellence of the organization. It was to show the donor that her giving made a difference.

Thus the new name for newsletters: Donor newsletters.

That’s what made newsletters into powerful fundraising vehicles. They also helped drive significant improvement in donor retention. Domain typically saw a client’s overall retention rate leap by 10 percentage points or more when donor newsletters were added to their communication line-up.

Along the way, they built an established “formula” for donor newsletters. Here’s what the Domain Formula included:

  • Mail the newsletter in an envelope. This is far more effective than mailing the newsletter as a self-mailer. It is worth the small extra cost.
  • There’s a reply device and return envelope. Omitting one or both of them will seriously depress response.
  • The envelope says some variation of Newsletter enclosed.
  • Most of the stories are about the great things the donor made possible through her giving.
  • Most of the stories directly address donor to make that completely clear.
  • Most of the stories are human stories, not statistics or descriptions of programs.
  • Headlines are dramatic and specific and built on strong verbs. Written the way the tabloids do it.
  • Every image tells a story. Photos should be expressive faces making eye contact, understandable action, or interesting context.
  • Designed for scanability. Lots of entry points into every story: Subheads, pull-quotes, short paragraphs, photo captions, plenty of white space.

The Domain Formula began to spread around the industry. When I learned about it and began applying it to my clients, I routinely saw their newsletter revenue triple, quadruple, or increase ten-fold or more.

I tell everyone who will listen about the Domain Formula. And the beautiful thing is that organizations all over the world are now using it — and continuing to refine and revise it. It’s getting better and better!

It can work for you too!

Do you want to learn more about putting the Domain Formula to work for your newsletter? Take my new Moceanic online course, Making Money with Your Donor Newsletter. It’s all-new, all-practical, and will help you raise more money and keep more donors.

When you join The Fundraisingology Lab, You’ll get all my best thinking on making your donor newsletter effective. And you’ll have direct access to me and other Moceanic gurus in the online community for our students!

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Nice to hear about my old employer’s contribution to our industry. The Domain Group was a special place to work for a golden period before the bust. Great people. Better clients. I was very fortunate to work there when I did.


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