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What is news?
Tom Ahern

March, 2009

You have a donor newsletter. You want it to help you retain donors and bring in additional gifts. So, what kinds of stories should you run?
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One key reason donors will pay more than a few seconds' attention to something in your newsletter has nothing to do with you ... and everything to do with the programming of the typical human brain.

Here's the natural law: neuroscience has determined that humans respond autonomically to anything new in our environment. And it doesn't matter whether that new thing is important or not. A speck of pepper in a bowl of oatmeal attracts the mind's eye just as firmly as an elephant walking on the lawn.

But it gets better.

Not only does our brain swerve involuntarily toward anything new, it takes real pleasure in doing so. Using MRIs, scientists now can watch our minds at work. Last year, they reported an amazing discovery: an encounter with new information stimulates a pleasure center in the human brain.

Now you know why marketers consider the word "new" one of the crown jewels of persuasion: it has mystical powers. And so do new-ish words like future, secret, hidden, hints, tips, update, private, confidential, mystery, discover, unveil, expose, reveal, divulge. Items like "Did you know?", "Myths and Facts," or "Frequently Asked Questions" also have intrinsic news value because they promise to tell the reader something she didn't know.

Sadly, most donor newsletters I see take little or no advantage of the mind's love affair with the new.

Instead, they run pretty much the same photo over and over (child development agencies, I'm talking to you). Instead, they devote much of their ink to things that have already happened (like a long-past golf tournament). Instead, they devote their front page -- the sacred parking space reserved for the most important news -- to a wearisome "letter from the executive director" issue after issue, a "worst practice" that somehow over the years has become a nonprofit industry standard.

If you want someone to read your donor newsletter, it must have news. New news, not boring old news. So, what is news, after all?

Anything new is news. Honestly, it's just that simple: the new is, by definition, news. It will hook the brain. Let's look at what that means in the context of a donor newsletter.

A new trend that could have a baleful influence on your mission is news. A new anecdote or report from the field demonstrating how your donor-supported mission has changed a life is news. A new season of artistic offerings -- any upcoming event -- is news. A new gift that has moved your organization significantly closer to achieving your vision is news. A new member of your legacy society is news. A new challenge grant a donor can use to multiply her impact is news. A new piece of intriguing information your donors can find on your website is news. A new award for your outstanding work is news. Even a familiar scene photographed from a new perspective is news.

Takeaway: David Ogilvy founded one of the world's great ad agencies on his belief that "you will never bore anyone into buying your product or service." Similarly, you will never bore anyone into making a gift. And yet many nonprofit communications seem to operate from exactly the opposite principle: "If I bore you enough, you'll give me money." Embrace the neuroscience. Give your donors pleasure. Talk about the new.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit and donor communications. His "Love Thy Reader" workshops win rave reviews at fundraising conferences across the U.S. and Canada.Tom's workshops have trained thousands of nonprofit staff and board in the revenue-building secrets of psychology, marketing, writing, and graphic design.

In 2005 he joined other world-class experts as a faculty member for the IFC's weeklong conference in the Netherlands, attended by fundraisers from 80 countries.He is the author of The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, released in October 2005 by Emerson & Church.

A second book titled How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money. John Wiley & Sons, the premier publisher of books for the nonprofit industry, in January 2006 contracted with Tom (and his wife, consultant Simone Joyaux) to produce a new book with the working title, Nonprofit Fundraising Communications: A Practical and Profitable Approach. Tom is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health, women's rights and other social justice issues. Visit www.aherncomm.com.



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