Planned-giving newsletters that work

Viken Mikaelian
Viken Mikaelian

Viken Mikaelian

These days everyone is particular about where to give, whether to give, or how much to give. Even those with deep pockets have short arms.

In this market, fundraisers have to work smarter and make the most of their marketing tools.

I recently heard a vendor recommend improving planned-giving newsletters by using the “right” font, type size, paper, number of pictures, etc.

This print-oriented mentality misses the forest for the trees. And it is headed for extinction along with the traditional “place-my-logo-and-name-here” canned-content dinosaur newsletter from the 1960s.

Today there’s zero time for the blah.

First things first

The most critical element is your mailing list. It represents 50 percent of your potential impact. So have your list professionally analyzed to extract your loyal donors.

Alternatively, select donors who have given at least eight to 12 times in the last 15 years, regardless of the amount they’ve given.

This list will be much shorter, enabling you to target it consistently and economically. Loyal donors make great planned-giving prospects.

Next comes your message, which provides about 40 percent of your impact.

Forget about blathering about the features of planned gifts. Your prospect is not dying to read details on how to part with her wealth after her death.

Rather, focus on the benefits of planned gifts, and include news the reader can use.

And given that graphic design is only 10 percent of a newsletter’s impact, don’t bother trying to win a design award.

His response rate went up

Recently, a colleague killed his 40,000-newsletter quarterly mailing.

He pared his list down to 3,900 loyal donors, then developed a useful, fun-to-read newsletter.

It included columns such as what is necessary to prepare one’s will, how to protect important documents while traveling, and other information anyone could appreciate and benefit from.

Finally, he included donor-centric planned-giving articles such as “How to establish an endowed scholarship with a gift that costs nothing during your lifetime.

Smart content builds readership

These tactics are nothing new. It’s just that businesses do it better than nonprofits because most nonprofits do not think like a business.

For example, the next time you receive a newsletter from Aetna or Blue Cross, notice the advice for diabetics, articles on dealing with the flu and weight loss. Only then is there material promoting the company’s services.

If the entire publication was an “ad,” they would lose readership. But they balance their content.

Same goes for your newsletter.  Include interesting stuff from an interesting organization, not just planned-giving information and donor stories.

Roll up your sleeves

The old-style planned-giving newsletter was simple to produce. You sent your picture and a cover letter to a vendor, who dropped in your name and logo, added canned content, and mailed your “exciting” newsletter.

But these don’t get read today.

Doing a newsletter right takes time, and outsourcing it can become cost-prohibitive because the vendor has to learn more about your organization, your mission, your vision. This takes money.

So work with a good vendor you can trust if your budget allows. Or develop your newsletter with your own team, in-house.


When it comes to mailings of any kind, remember:

  • Frequency. As many touches per year as you can. Planning on just one? Don’t even bother.
  • Consistency and constancy. It should arrive as expected on a regular schedule. No interruptions, lapses or gaps.
  • Diversity. Use different media. Mix newsletters with postcards, solicitation letters, an “advertorial” in your journal.
  • Creativity. Be entertaining and interesting. Make it fun. But do not compromise your message.
  • Quality. Include informational, educational, interesting “stuff.” Make it fun.

Planned giving just isn’t sexy. It doesn’t have the “pulling” power to draw prospects by itself, so it’s your job to “push” the message through.

And given that 72 percent of Americans still prefer to receive information via U.S. Mail, donor-centric newsletters represent a powerful marketing strategy to get the job done.

Viken Mikaelian is co-founder of PlannedGiving.Com, LLC, and can be reached at

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