Headlines save the day for hardworking fundraisers [Newsletter Tuesday]

Newsletter Tuesdays: A series about doing more with your donor newsletter.

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Boring headlines might be keeping donors from reading your newsletter.

Here’s the painful truth about everything we write: Nobody cares. Nobody has time to read it.

Until we give them a reason to care and to read.

That’s where the art of headline writing comes in.

The headlines in a donor newsletter have to be irresistible!

If they aren’t, they won’t draw readers into the great stories you’re telling.

Suppose you’re writing a newsletter for a nonprofit hospital, and it includes a story about a fellow who suffered a serious heart attack riding his bike. He was treated by your hospital and doing well now. Your job is to help your donors feel connected to that positive outcome.

Some donor newsletters would headline that story like this:

Brian survived a heart attack, thanks to you

That’s perfectly factual.

And perfectly boring.

It promises nothing beyond the top-line premise of the article. That’s not a reason for a donor to give a few minutes of her limited time reading.

So most donors won’t read it.

Here are some ways to make your headlines powerful.

  • Drama/story. This is the important part. One thing that can entice a reader away is the promise of an amazing story. A story is an account that a beginning, middle, and end. Something interesting happens that causes transformation of some kind. The headline about Brian only has an end.
  • People and relationships. That’s the other thing about stories: They’re about people. And how people are connected with each other. “Brian” is just some dude. But he’s also a dad, or a professor, or popular local juggler… He’s immediately more interesting when the headline characterizes him in some way.
  • Conflict. Conflict between people, or people struggling against something (like a heart attack). There needs to be some doubt about the outcome, even when readers know it’s going to end well.
  • Action verbs. Verbs are what make headlines sing. And the more action the verb contains, the better. Brian’s verb above — “survived” — fails to capture the power of what happened to him. How about crushed, froze, fizzled? And avoid –ing verbs. They let all the air out of even an excellent verb.
  • The word “You.” The only thing more attention getting than the promise of a story, is the promise of a story about you. Use that word. Even you’re printing digitally, literally use the donor’s name!
  • Don’t try to be clever and use wordplay or puns. It almost always falls flat, and just confuses readers.

One more thing: Don’t restrict your headline to just one line. Give it room to tell the story. Add subheads above and/or below the main headline.

Like this example from a supermarket tabloid:

3partheadline

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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.

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