The secret history of the “Domain Formula”

As an alumnus of long-gone and lamented Domain Group, I love it when I see posts like this one by Tom Ahern at Bloomerang: Follow The Domain Formula For Donor Newsletters.

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The thing about the Domain Formula is that we never set out to create a formula or a system. We just tried to do our best with what was then an odd and difficult assignment.

Back then, it was generally accepted that newsletters were a money-losing necessity. Most of our clients produced them in-house without our help. Then we got a couple of clients that lacked capacity to create newsletters, so we agreed to do it for them.

We started tweaking and testing the content and presentation of these newsletters. Results started to improve. Newsletters started to become revenue-positive. As we kept at it, newsletters became stronger and stronger fundraising vehicles, until they rivaled and sometimes surpassed direct mail. (This all happened before email became a viable fundraising medium.)

Here’s the Domain Formula for donor newsletters, as interpreted by Tom Ahern:


  • No more than 4 pages (in recent tests, I’ve found less than 4 pages to be effective too)
  • Article length: short
  • Write for skimmers (i.e., requires professional quality headlines)
  • Send in a #10 envelope, not as a self-mailer
  • Include a separate reply device
  • Don’t get distracted: be fully donor-committed. Send only to your donors. You have to talk to a single target audience
  • Make the voice personal (the word “you” dominates) rather than institutional; get intimate
  • Focus on “accomplishment reporting” (tell donors how much they have changed the world through their gifts)

We didn’t set out to create a formula that would dramatically improve direct-mail fundraising. We just tried to do good work based on real-world findings.

That’s how most big improvements happen.

The Domain Group was fertile ground for that kind of discovery for two main reasons:


  1. We believed that fundraising is about donors.
  2. We believed in the scientific method.

It can work for you too.

Domain is gone, but the people of Domain are still at work, scattered all over the fundraising industry. Here are a few blogs where you can read the work of Domainiacs (as we call ourselves):


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.