Publish or Perish or Both
Somewhere out there just beyond the horizon, there is a non-profit organization in which each individual in the office has a specific job to do and there is no overlap. Grant proposal writers write grants. Researchers conduct research. Communications specialists prepare newsletters and brochures. On this side of the horizon, however, it is far more common to find one person responsible for all of these activities.
Some organizations create newsletters for the purpose of becoming better known in the community. Obviously, your target audience for this kind of newsletter is the community, and your content is information about your non-profit.
There also are newsletters that are intended to address the people being served by the non-profit. If your clients are your focus, your newsletter most likely will include stories about programs, activities, people (both staff and clients) and upcoming events.
Let's say you are that person, and you have just been told that your non-profit is going to start publishing a newsletter. Now, what do you do?
Before you do anything, I suggest you ask and answer two simple questions:
- What is the purpose of your newsletter?
- Who are your potential readers?
These two questions are very much like the old chicken-and-the-egg joke. Which comes first? That's hard to say because the two are so closely related. Your purpose can tell you your audience and your target audience can help define your purpose, and the combination of the two dictates the content of the newsletter.
Let's say your newsletter's primary goal is donor recognition. If your goal is to acknowledge donors, then it follows logically that the majority of stories are going to be about major gifts and that the majority of your readers are going to be either people who have given a major gift or people who have the potential to give a major gift.
Now that we have identified three clearly distinct types of newsletters, it is probably a good idea to mention that these boundaries are pretty indistinct in many newsletters. It is not at all unusual for a non-profit newsletter to include stories about major gifts, profiles of clients and general information. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. Major donors, for example, may be as interested in reading about your programs as your clients. They want to know what their money is accomplishing. If your publication is meant to go to your clients, however, you need to be more careful. An endless parade of gift stories is likely to bore your clients, but on the other hand, clients may have a genuine interest in a particular gift because it makes a particular program or activity possible.
Now that you know what you want to do, how are you going to do it?
Many non-profits hire outside firms to write and produce newsletters. Other organizations prefer to do the job in-house. Many more use a combination. A staff person (this is you!) writes the stories and takes the photos and then an outside firm designs the newsletter, which is then printed by an outside printer. You can, of course, do an entire newsletter yourself on a computer and get your copies made at a local copy shop. Doing it all yourself most likely will be the most inexpensive way, but it may also defeat your purpose. The fact is that handmade newsletters generally look cheap and unprofessional. You may think this is not a bad thing -- "We spend our money on services, not on frills like newsletters" -- but in my opinion, a bad publication is worse than no publication. Most of the handmade newsletters I have seen are unattractive, unappealing and close to impossible to read due to our tendency to try and stuff way too much copy on a page.
A good designer can show you how to get the most for your money. For example, there is a big cost difference between using two-color or four-color in a newsletter. A good designer can show you how you can use two-color almost as effectively as four-color. A good designer also can show you how to use typography as part of your design. Perhaps most important of all, if you are willing to listen, a good designer can curb your tendency (a tendency we all share) to cover every inch of paper with writing and to put in endless small photos of rows of people. Probably the two most telling features in The World of Bad Newsletters are: (1) lack of white space; and (2) pinhead pictures.
How do you find a good designer? Ask around. If you have seen newsletters that you like that are published by other non-profits, give these organizations a call and ask about their designer. If you have a relationship with a printer, he or she may be a good resource. Just as designers frequently recommend particular printers, the printers, in turn, know many designers. If you can't afford to hire a professional designer, you might try getting in touch with any local colleges that offer design courses or majors. You may be able to connect with a student who will work for you at a reduced rate or pro bono.
There are a few other matters you will need to consider:
- How often should your newsletter come out? Keep in mind that although your Executive Director may want this publication, it is not going to be your organization's top priority. You will need to conduct interviews with clients and program staff, write articles, take photos, hire and work with a designer and get your newsletter approved and signed off by the Executive Director. All of this takes time, and while you are doing all of these things, you also will be taking care of the rest of your job. So, bear in mind that you are not initiating a publishing empire here. Most newsletters are published three to four times per year, and that should be sufficient for most organizations.
- How important is it to stay on schedule? It is just as bad to publish too little as too often. A newsletter that appears every four years is pretty meaningless. It is also a bad idea to bounce in and out of your schedule. You don't want to publish in January and then in April and then two years later and then three months later.
- What size should my newsletter be? Newsletters generally are printed in multiples of four pages. (It is possible to have a six-page newsletter, but you run the risk of having the middle page separated from the others because it cannot be stapled or you have to attach all the pages in a three-part fold out. Check with your printer.--Ed.) A four-page newsletter is the smallest. Some newsletters use letter-size paper; others are tabloid size. Some newsletters fold in half and are self-mailers (the mailing label is affixed to the newsletter); others fold down to letter-size and are mailed in envelopes. There is no one correct size or mailing style.
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