When I was asked to write a piece on whether or not newsletters were still relevant, I agreed without thinking.

But when I started thinking, I realized that the question was wrong. To me, the question isn’t whether or not newsletters are relevant. The question is where and with whom newsletters work. Let’s start by looking at two charities (invented by me!) with two scenarios – and see if we can’t bring a clearer and sharper perspective to the newsletter issue.

Case Study #1 – Save the Kittycats

Save the Kittycats (STK) is a well-established charity that has a great reputation for saving abandoned and endangered kittycats. It wants to gently persuade its most longstanding donors to more actively consider – and make – bequests. STK has been around for more than 60 years – and has many donors who have been giving through the mail for 20 or 30 years.

STK knows what it wants to communicate to its loyal donors. They want to demonstrate a consistent record of achievement in saving kittycats, and a determination to keep doing it for years to come. They want to use donor profiles and testimonials to “show and tell” donors who are making bequests. They want to demonstrate viscerally that STK leadership – both board and staff – are deeply committed to the kittycat cause.

STK also has a well-researched profile of their loyal donors. STK knows that its loyal donors are almost all seniors – and that most are women. They know that almost all of these donors continue to give through the mail. Last year’s donor survey revealed that only half of STK donors visit websites and use email – and that fewer than 20% use social media of any kind.

The director of dDevelopment at STK once read a book called Iceberg Philanthropy – and is convinced that mail is the best vehicle to approach older donors on the topic of making bequests. After all this strategizing, STK decides to do a quarterly four-page newsletter to its direct mail donors who have given five or more lifetime gifts. The structure of the newsletter will be consistent and specific. Donor stories will dominate the front page (as opposed to a message from the CEO). The centre two pages will focus primarily on legacy gifts – and will include an articulation of the CEO’s vision for the future, a few quotes on life’s meaning and purpose, and still more donor stories and profiles.

The final page of the newsletter will focus more on news and will stress donor service and an invitation for donors to get in touch with their questions and concerns.

Does this use of a newsletter make sense? Abso-freakin’-lutely!

STK knows why it wants to communicate (encourage bequests), who it wants to communicate with (older direct mail donors) and what it wants to communicate (powerful human legacy stories). With the why, who and what figured out, STK was ready to answer the question “HOW do we do it?”

In this case, a paper newsletter makes perfect sense.

Case Study #2 – Puppy Save Canada

Puppy Save Canada (PSC), on the other hand, is on a very different mission.

Following a strategic retreat, the Board mandated PSC’s communications and fundraising staff to begin a new STOP THE PUPPYMILL campaign directed at the next generation of support.

PSC identified that it wanted to reach out and connect with high-school age Canadians in an impactful way and to rally them to the puppy-saving cause.

A record company CEO on the board enlisted Justin Bieber to do a video spot that appeared on YouTube. PSC launched a major social media-based petition campaign that encouraged Canadian teens to lobby their governments to outlaw puppy mills.

There have been daily tweets on campaign progress – and plenty of opportunities for young campaigners to collaborate on innovative tactics to mobilize support from their friends.

PSC has thought out its communications strategy well, too. The “why” of its campaign is to expand its support to a new generation. The “what” is a call to arms to stop puppy mills and to give every puppy the chance of a decent life.

Now it needs to keep new campaign recruits engaged in the campaign and motivate them to sneeze the campaign to their social networks.

Is a paper newsletter the right way (the how) to maintain campaign momentum?

Absolutely NOT!

The newsletter tactic simply doesn’t fit the mobilize-teen strategy at all. If PSC tried to use paper newsletters to mobilize teens, it would be flushing time and money down the toilet.

So, where does that leave us?

If newsletters are a great idea for kittycats but not for puppies, where does that leave you? Let’s break things down to first principles and see if you can find your answer by grasping some realities and asking yourself some pertinent questions.

Reality #1 – There is no public

Most of us still use terms like public awareness and public relations – when in fact there is no such thing as “the public” anymore. We don’t all watch the news on TV. We don’t all follow sports or music. We don’t all drive cars or ride on subways. We don’t all have internet or listen to digital radio. Half of us don’t vote. Some of us are passionate about one thing and indifferent to the other – while our neighbours are the reverse.

All this to say – your donors are no longer a singular population. They are not uniform in their habits, lifestyles or behaviours.

You can no longer assume that you’ll reach everyone using a single communications vehicle. Some donors will love your newsletter and read it cover to cover. Some will flip through it and scan the photos and headlines. Others will pitch it without so much as a glance.

Reality #2 – The bus has been hijacked!

Guess what? We (fundraisers and communications types) aren’t in control anymore. Our donors have taken our keys and they are now driving the bus. They are deciding how they’ll have relationships with the causes and charities they support.

So, what does this mean practically?

First of all, we need to offer our constituents choices – and lots of them. And one of those choices is how they’d like to receive information from us. Just assuming that everyone will read your four or eight-page newsletter is a recipe for disaster.

So, newsletters can probably be part of our tactical stewardship arsenal. But they’re no longer sufficient on their own for many charities and nonprofit causes.

Reality #3 – Age is now the great divide

When I was a young political campaigner 30 years ago, one of our primary assumptions was that we had to adjust our strategies and tactics by geographical region. To most campaigners, marketers and fundraisers, this is no longer the case.

Age has replaced geography as the natural divider of the broad population into segmented publics. Generally speaking, we can divide our audiences and potential audiences into four generational cohorts:

  • CIVIC Generation was born before 1946
  • BABY BOOM Generation was born between 1946 and 1966
  • GEN X cohort was born between 1967 and 1982
  • MILLENIAL Generation was born after 1982

How do newsletters work with these generational cohorts? The Civic cohort (which grew up before television) is the most newsletter-friendly. They’re happy to sit with longer format paper and read what the organization is doing. Boomers like me might read your newsletter if we see ourselves, or people very much like ourselves, in it. The newsletter for the most part is not a great match for Gen X and Millenials.

Reality #4 – The noisy crowd

Before you move too far along with your newsletter project (or any donor communications program for that matter) be very mindful of content!

We live in a crazy-noisy world. Each of us is bombarded with between 4,000 and 8,000 marketing-type messages a day. Buy this. Do that. Quit this habit. Vote for me. Rent ours. Get your kids to eat this. Do this for your health. It goes on and on…

The hard truth is that the vast majority of these messages just don’t penetrate our minds because we don’t have the capacity in our heads to hear them and file them away.

Think hard on what you’re going to say – because if it’s not immediately relevant, it will get tossed into the brain’s trash can.

How does this apply to newsletters? Let’s think of a couple of examples:

Example #1 – Do you donors REALLY want to see a photo of your board of directors sitting around a meeting table? I call this the white guys in suits shot. These photos say pretty much nothing to your donors. Why not use photos that show donor dollars at work instead? A Kenyan farmer working in his vegetable garden? A surgeon doing an operation? Volunteers serving meals in a soup kitchen?

Example #2 – Things like strategic plans, program priorities and budgets don’t really turn donors’ cranks. This is what I like to call inside baseball, meaning that it’s only relevant to those who are deep inside the organization. The donor cares about mission and impact. Talk about how you’re reducing wait times for cancer diagnoses, finding homes for street people or buying wilderness land to stop clear-cutting. That, after all, is why the donor is supporting you in the first place.

The who-why-what-how formula

If I were consulting with a client that wanted to figure out a newsletter strategy, here’s how I’d more or less go about it.

1. WHY are we communicating at all? I believe strongly that communications is a two-way street. So, our first question is, what do we want people to do by way of communicating back? Do we want another gift? An upgrade? A survey response? Sneezing our message to friends and family? If we don’t know what we want our audience to do back, we’re probably wasting a lot of effort.

2. WHO are we communicating with? KNOW THY AUDIENCE is the cardinal rule of communications – at least to me. Are they young or old? Are they new to your organization or veterans who’ve been supporting you for decades? How have they been receiving and sending communications to you in the past?

3. WHAT is your message? Is it simple and time-sensitive (like a campaign bulletin) or is it more substantive and thoughtful (like a legacy gift persuasion package)?

4. Now (and ONLY now) comes the question “HOW should we communicate our message.” This is where the “whither the newsletter” question comes in.

So my friends, the ultimate answer as to whether newsletters will work for you depends on the answers to these four questions. You can’t start at number four – you have to start at the beginning and think your way through – clearly and strategically.

This article first appeared over at Charity Village as part of our series on Deconstructing Philanthropy.