Fundraising Learning Series: Donor Newsletter Tips from Charter Public Schools Communications Specialists

Feb 14, 2023 | Fundraising Learning Series

See their bios here.

What are your school’s communications strategies to cultivate and steward donors?

Rowena (Impact Public Schools): E-news is one part of our donor cultivation strategy. We include donors in our e-newsletters where we highlight scholar accomplishments, events, and other aspects that make our schools unique. This information helps donors to understand exactly what they’re supporting at our schools. We are working on further audience segmentation so that our specific donor group will receive the messaging that is most relevant to their interests and needs. 

Shauna (Lumen High School): We have a multi-tiered donor cultivation strategy and e-news/social media is one of the strategies. We have a large list of 400 contacts and it’s a mix of current donors, past donors, design team members, community supporters, etc. We also do more traditional mailings with a thank you card campaign in the spring, save the dates by mail for our annual fundraiser, and a hard copy year-end newsletter. 

How do you plan out your donor newsletter topics? What are your tips for planning topics?

Gillia: I meet with the communications team either twice annually or quarterly to plan out topics in advance – this allows me to draft the majority of the email ahead of time and cuts down on last-minute emails (although, we still get behind sometimes!) We think together about key dates in the year that are important to our audience; the legislative session is a big one for WA Charters, but for schools this could be anniversary of your doors opening, graduation, Eid, Dia del Nino, or other dates that mean a lot to you and our scholars. We try to feature data and stories together as much as we can, feature student/teacher/parent voices, and weave our mission, vision, and values into our e-news. 

Rini: When thinking about the donor newsletter, we are intentional about making sure the content will be aligned with the overall communications calendar. WA Charters’ “inside look” (donor e-news) is complementary to the “community bulletin” (newsletter to full base), in that we stick to similar themes for the month but work towards to diving deeper into data, voices, and progress in the spaces we are addressing. The donor newsletter allows donors to get exclusive updates and be informed by content they might have missed on our multiple channels and streams of work. 

Rowena: We like to strike a careful balance between information and engagement asks in our e-newsletters. We craft messages that align to our greater communications strategy – to share the joy and achievements of our schools. From school events, to scholar accomplishments, to community news, sharing this type of information ensures that our donors stay involved. Even if they don’t immediately support, at least they are aware of what’s going on in our campuses and feel a sense of connection. That might contribute to their desire to support down the line. 

Shauna: The general newsletter we try to send quarterly and target the following times of the year: 

  • Fall: back to school 
  • Winter: year-end giving 
  • Spring: student learning and growth 
  • Summer: graduation/celebration of the year 

What type of content does your audience respond to most? What measures/data do you pay attention to? 

Gillia: WA Charters’ audience loves advocacy-focused information, data, and recaps. We have a mixture of institutional funders, school leaders, and community partners in our donor e-news readership. 

Some important data we try to incorporate are: 

  • # of students/families served and their backgrounds  
  • Heritage and cultures represented in our community 
  • Academic data – mid-year, growth data; end of year – assessment data  
  • Graduation data  
  • Equity audit data, inclusion data (sense of belonging)  
  • Diversity of teachers and staff  
  • Values in action
  • National charter data – sometimes great data coming out of various sources  

Rini: In order to evaluate and update how we present content to the donor audience, we are continuously making decisions informed by the newsletter metrics. It is important to consider what people are clicking on and how a few subtle but intentional changes over time can make a difference. For example: to cater to all types of email readers, we include multiple formats for visual engagement. Videos tend to work well on their own. However, pulling out a quote in the text can help draw interest to click on the video. Another example would be to create memorable (short and succinct) headings and group topics into visible segments for digestible reading.  

Rowena: We recently switched email marketing platforms and our end of year donor message performed very well. The message was sent to 6,424 constituents and saw an open rate of 45.5%. (The standard open rate across all industries is about 34.51%, according to Constant Contact.) We are working on strategies to increase our click-through rate, which includes thinking about design (button placement, amount of text, images) as well as more segmented messaging. 

Shauna: Our audience likes newsletters that are tangible and tell the story of what is happening with our students. Here are some of our favorite e-newsletters: Fall 2020, Spring 2021, Winter 2022

What is one piece of advice for effective donor communications?

Shauna: Keep it regular but not annoying, and don’t only communicate when you need money. 

Rowena: Creating a balance of communications between funding asks and no-ask touchpoints is important to reduce generosity fatigue. In particular, we time communications with a giving ask for periods when donors are not getting a lot of requests (e.g., avoiding Giving Tuesday asks) and include really tangible areas of need. When possible, we follow up a mass email with a personalized one, whether it is with an ask or no-ask touchpoint.  

  • For example, some of our best engagement with donors has come from follow-up emails such as,  

“Hi donor, You may have seen our recent email about our feature in the Hechinger Report. It made me think of our last conversation about early learning practices and play-based instruction. We would love to give you a tour in-person this spring, is there a time/date that works for you?”  

  • Even if they don’t take us up on the tour offer, they often respond to the personalization. 

Rini: Storytelling is key! Donors like to see their contributions in action. Show tangible examples for how your organization benefits from donations through stories, without explicitly mentioning it in your messaging – “show, don’t tell” approach. Be very mindful of doing justice to the individuals and communities you are “using” for donor communication by following ethical storytelling practices and honoring the voices and perspectives of those whose stories you are telling. 

Gillia: Know your audience. No data without stories, no stories without data (although this isn’t always possible, it’s good to keep in mind – people want to understand the numbers and the personal connection.) I recommend using photos, videos, and ‘pop out’ key points like numbers and quotes to communicate your impact.

Email marketing platforms used by schools:

  • Mailchimp – best for skilled email marketers looking for access to advanced reporting and  testing capabilities and has a free plan for small audiences 
  • Constant Contact – best for email marketing beginners who need simple features, ready-to-send templates, and phone support 
  • Smore – simple collaborative newsletter tool that teachers can use to send information to parents; there are fewer features for tech-savvy comms professionals 

BONUS: Schools have used Canva to create and design their newsletter and other donor communications materials. It is a simple online graphic design tool with many professionally designed selections of templates