Every week I volunteer at a local free store to sort through donated goods and put them on shelves and racks. The next day 500 “shoppers” come through this very small space and get what they need. The place operates on a shoestring budget and relies heavily on volunteers.
Every month I get a four-page, black and white, laser-printed newsletter from this free store. It’s not particularly attractive–no big photos, no beautiful typography or lay-out, no fancy envelope. But I read every word. The same is true for the newsletter of another very small nonprofit I support that runs organic gardening programs for low-income youth.
I’m someone who winces when I see a poorly done nonprofit newsletter. But there’s a difference between poorly done and cheaply produced. Both these newsletters have tremendous impact on my loyalty to these two organizations—although they are probably the cheapest, least “slick” publications I receive. They’re a great reminder to me that: 1) print still has a place in marketing and 2) authenticity trumps sophistication.
They are models of “impact” storytelling, offering a first-person glimpse of the effect a small organization has on its beneficiaries. You can see very clearly what your support makes possible. The free store newsletter is written by the director—every word. In addition to less-than-perfect, fun, impromptu photos of volunteers, she shares two or three stories about the people who’ve been helped by the store that month—including their moving reactions of gratitude.
She writes like she’s talking to you, and each story takes you into a world where the smallest kindness can tip the scales, can literally save someone’s life. The homeless woman who needed warm clothes, sleeping bags, and yes—a few toys—for her children. The man who needed clothes for a job interview, who upon leaving—asked why the store’s workers were being so nice to him. The woman who returned with donations two years after the free store helped her get back on her feet. The family that marveled at unexpectedly being given free Easter baskets for their four children. The many magical instances where just what someone desperately needs is donated the next day.
The gardening newsletter packs the same punch. Amid homey recipes are interviews with kids who do the gardening—again, written by the director. You hear in the kids’ own words how the experience has led them to eat better, become good cooks for their families, understand basic business practices, and think about their future with more hope and direction. (Some even invent recipes!) There are wonderful, amateur, black and white photos of planting season, the harvest festival, and the program’s booth at the farmer’s market. And, like the free store newsletter, there’s always a “wish list” of in-kind goods the organization needs at that moment. A donation response envelope is included, but there’s no other ask…only proof of impact.
It’s so real. That’s all I can say. These newsletters focus on changes in everyday lives, not lofty missions or sweeping programs. I get dozens of professionally created nonprofit newsletters every month and toss most without a second thought. But these two poor cousins—in all their humble enthusiasm—are read and remembered. Small nonprofits—take heart!
This is not to say that nonprofits should abandon well designed, well written publications—only a reminder not to rely on high production quality in an age where content, impact, and authenticity rule.
CC photo credit: Oddsock
NEWS: In a few weeks, I’ll be publishing my second free eBook here–Best Practices: Nonprofit Direct Mail.