Yes, audits can be brutal "How badly DID we screw up?"
Tom Ahern

September, 2017

BUT! A "what's not to love" equine therapy nonprofit serving US military vets, people in recovery and "women in transition" produces a first-ever printed donor newsletter that's almost perfect from the giddy-up....

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Here is my verbatim emailed audit, for The Equus Effect newsletter:

Please pass along to Jane my best and the following comments:

1. This is magnificent.

2. Why? Every story took me deeper into the daily reality of both the soldiers you serve and the promise of equine therapy. I fell instantly in love with each and every one of them (human and horse). The shocking frankness of the details is exactly what great journalism hopes to capture. I started reading with my stereotypes firmly in place and finished reading, stereotypes smashed, feeling I had touched a person's profound, individual, lonely and brave struggle.

3. It's visually attractive ... and yours is a VERY visual story, thanks to the involvement of these magnificent animals.

4. Your writing is great, far, far, far above the norm for humble charity newsletters. Touches like "He didn't say much, didn't smile and was extremely fond of one word answers" = New Yorker-quality prose entertainment.

5. Speaking of the total Equus Effect "family" as the "herd" is incomparably right. Who doesn't want to run with a herd of beautiful, health, powerful horses?

Some suggestions for the next issue:

1. Add a tagline to the masthead, under the word "newsletter." Something that instantly orients the reader, something like "An honest report to you and our other wonderful supporters." This is your framing.

2. Now that the board chair has kicked off the newsletter, move that "chair's column," if you intend to do it again, either inside or to the back. From a journalistic standpoint, it's the least important "news" in the issue. Don't get me wrong: it's a fabulous piece of writing. It was sober, erudite, mind-opening. Connecting to Odysseus' plight returning from his overseas war, only to confront a domestic struggle as well? That was perfect. Ancient. Archetypal. Brilliant. And it makes sense as a framing device for the stories that follow. BUT ... most people skip these columns from the boss(es), on the assumption they are predictable PR pablum. Your front page is your most valuable real estate. Use it for real-life stories. Stories are the hook. Forever.

3. You've done something intriguing with your "big type." It's safest to assume (given the research) that everybody skims first, before digging deeper ... if they ever do; most people do NOT read the articles. Therefore for most "readers," all the "information transfer" happens in the big type: the headlines, the decks (subheads), the pull quotes, the captions. By starting each story with a name, dates of service, rank, and theater of combat, you've made each person real and grounded immediately. And in the case of Andy Anderson, the quote from him run in reverse type over a photo, is a chilling/warming story of before/after: empty field to safe zone.

That approach doesn't work as well with the Matt and Megan stories, though, because there are no pull quotes to reveal what's inside the story. In those two cases, real headlines would have helped.

Headlines are a reader convenience. They summarize the story, so I get some form of reward even on a quick skim. A good headline in a donor newsletter does 3 things: (1) it provides the gist of what the story's about; (2) it has a hook of some kind ("the quirk that works" is newsroom shorthand); and (3) it flatters the donor somehow.

So, for instance, with the Matt Dionne story, a headline and "deck" (the slightly smaller subhead beneath the actual headline) might have read:

"I was driving my kids and fiancé crazy."
Now married, Matt and family return to The Equus Effect to thank the horses that (thanks to YOUR support!) "gave us back the man we love."

Don't be afraid to be corny. Corny is a positive value in fundraising.

4. The need for continued support could be elevated. It's stated in the small type, but many people will miss that: "It is with extreme gratitude that we acknowledge of donor family for keeping this mission going, and growing, strong." Making some form of that same statement in bigger type is important. You could do something like this:

Co-Directors Corner: Jane and David....
Our donor family keeps this mission growing.
Thank you for helping us bring our warriors home ... all the way home.

The corollary is this: don't bury the good stuff. The beginning and end of an article are very different places, in terms of visitor-ship. Almost everyone reads the big type. Relatively few are still with you all the way to the end of an article. Take advantage of that reality.

Also know that a phenomenon called "anchoring" plays a role. Whatever is said FIRST serves as the "anchor." Our brain keeps returning to it and treating it as the most important thought. Your current anchor is the "eyebrow" (journalistic term for these little labels) Co-Director Corner. Which makes you two inadvertently the anchor, the most important. In the typeset example above, I made the eyebrow as small as possible, so a much bigger headline would make the key point and serve instead as the anchor.

5. Donor newsletters report JOY and NEED. You have ample joy, in your three before/after stories. You're demonstrating that the mission works superbly. But the GROWTH message -- that is, the need for even more support -- is somewhat submerged. Bring that to the surface.

My final comment: this is an inspiring newsletter that will, I believe, create very warm feelings among your supporters. It is one of the very best I've seen. It sent real tingles up my spine.

Keep it up.

With sincere admiration for all that you, the horses and your supporters do,

tom