Three Essential Ingredients for an Effective Newsletter | Sharpe Group
Posted January 1st, 2016

Three Essential Ingredients for an Effective Newsletter

by Ashley McHugh

For those of us who are creative by nature, following a set formula tends to go against our instinct. As a writer, I am always looking for a way to “say it better,” adding words here, an illustration there, to make my work more readable, more engaging, more effective. And when I get the chance to edit another writer’s work…well, let’s just say I am giddy to take out my red pen (or use redline on my computer, as the case may be).

Oftentimes, though, a basic, set formula is the smartest approach to take—and works out for the best, yielding the results you desire. I learned this lesson recently when I departed from a recipe while attempting to bake sourdough bread.

To make sourdough bread, you first make a starter. This process is not so much cooking as it is a chemistry experiment. The ingredients in the starter work together and it’s critical that you follow the recipe EXACTLY or you will have a big, giant, sticky, smelly mess on your hands (and your starter on the ceiling, floor and everywhere in between). There’s no room for tweaking, editing or improvisation with the starter; you can’t make the starter better by adding other ingredients. With sourdough bread, you can get creative only when you get to the baking stage. Then you can make rolls, loaves of bread, pizza crust, crepes, etc.

Following a set formula can be effective in other undertakings as well. Take, for instance, a newsletter devoted to gift planning topics—something I know a lot more about than bread making. Having created planned giving newsletters for almost 25 years, there is a basic formula I follow—along with my other colleagues at Sharpe—that has proven time and time again to be effective for our clients. Here are three essential ingredients that make up that formula:

Tell a story.

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” What Rudyard Kipling said is true. Who doesn’t love to read a good story? Using donor stories in your newsletter can accomplish a number of things: they honor the donor(s) who have made you a part of their legacy and they can inspire others to make gifts in this way. This is especially helpful when your organization is not one that would normally be top of mind when a donor considers the charitable component of their estate plans. Donor stories can also be a simple way to explain a more complex planned gift, or at least introduce a concept that can be further explained elsewhere in the newsletter.

Say “cheese.”

The staff photo. There is endless debate over the effectiveness and necessity of including a staff photo in the planned giving newsletter. I’m not really sure why this is a subject for debate. I can, however, cite numerous instances where Sharpe clients received positive feedback because they included their photo. Your donors want to know who they are talking to on the phone or emailing with. Having your picture in the newsletter creates an element of comfort and trust, especially if meeting face-to-face isn’t an option.

A professional-looking photo is most effective, although, depending on your mission, there is some room for creativity. I have one client (environmental/service) whose photo was taken in the wilderness. Another client (university) uses the full development staff, wearing business attire and taken in a paneled room. The picture (like one from a bank or other financial institution) says “we are serious and trustworthy” and it works for them. Both of these examples perfectly fit the mission of the organization.

Show your work.

Use photos and captions to show how planned gifts help carry out your mission. As the saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words. With a good caption you can augment the message of the picture by 10-20 words. Since every square inch of the planned giving newsletter is valuable real estate, using effective mission pictures and captions is a great way to highlight what’s going on at your organization and, most importantly, convey ways planned gifts have benefitted you in the past and can help in the future.

Something we’ve found that is particularly effective with the older reader is the nostalgic photo. Not every organization has historical photos available but, for those that do, consider including a few mixed in with current photos in your planned giving newsletter.

I hope you will consider including these three essential ingredients in your next planned giving newsletter. We’ve found that following this formula— and adding your own creativity at the right time and in the right way— will result in a final piece you and your organization will be proud of, your donors will want to read and, most importantly, they will find helpful as they are considering their estate and financial plans and possibly how to include your organization in them. ■

Ashley McHugh is a Senior Editor with Sharpe Group.


Client Corner: McKendree University and Diocese of Charlotte

Two Sharpe Newsletter clients have recently received unexpected gifts as direct results of their planned giving newsletters.

mckendree newsletterMcKendree University, located in Lebanon, Illinois, has been a Sharpe Newsletter client for two years. Each issue of “McKendree Matters” contains images of their planned giving staff, including director of planned and major giving Whitney Strang, along with contact information.

In 2014, “McKendree Matters” featured information about gift annuities and real estate in two separate issues. A few months after the fall issue was mailed to donors, Whitney received an interesting visit from a couple from Alaska. This was the first time the alum had been on campus in 40 years. She and her husband visited the alumni house in person, specifically to talk to Whitney and her colleagues in the Office of Development, Alumni and Parent Relations about a potential sizable gift of property and a possible gift annuity. In their hands they held the recent issues of the newsletter; while they talked they pointed out the photos of the donor who inspired their gift and then flipped over the newsletter to acknowledge the staff photo.

Whitney said the newsletter gave the planned giving staff credibility in the eyes of the donors. It not only highlighted giving options they hadn’t known were possible, but it made the donors aware that McKendree had staff that could offer helpful information. In addition to the content of the newsletter, they had Sharpe booklets on hand to share more information about various gift options with the donors.

“In the process we learned that the couple didn’t have a will,” said Whitney. “We weren’t just helping them with a gift to McKendree—we were helping them see the importance of addressing their full estate plan, even components that won’t impact the university.”

This unexpected visit is a reminder that donors are paying attention, though you may not always realize it. “So often, you never know how a newsletter like this will influence people,” she added.

“For every donor who is known to us, how many are out there who don’t reach out to us until they are ready to give?”

dioc of charlotte newsletterIn the spring of 2015, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte (North Carolina) featured a powerful donor story in its Sharpe Newsletter about a couple who had done much to support not only their parish but their community as well. After his wife unexpectedly passed away, the husband updated his will and he and his son discussed including a gift in memory of her as part of his plans. He established an endowment fund in his wife’s name to benefit the Community Life Commission at Holy Family Catholic Church. Then, after he passed away, his sons decided to honor both of their parents through an additional endowment fund and reached out to the Diocese of Charlotte Foundation, who helped set it up. The story included information promoting gifts to the foundation and the vital importance of endowments to ensure continuity in the future.

That newsletter had barely left the mail house when Judy Smith, director of planned giving with the Diocese, received a call from a donor who was well into his 90s. In this case, the donor was known to Judy and her team. “He already had a charitable gift annuity with us,” she said. “He told me, ‘I just read this great story and I want to do something like it.’”

According to Judy, the main takeaway is that if you’re not doing it now, make sure to feature a donor in your newsletter at least once a year. By sharing this story, the Diocese was able to connect to a prior donor in a way that yielded additional and unexpected gifts. ■

Click here to learn more about Sharpe Newsletters and booklets. In addition to providing copy and graphic design of your Sharpe Newsletter, our editors can conduct donor interviews and write feature articles for client newsletters. For more information, contact us at 901.680.5300 or

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