Social Impact Newsletters Are Stuck in the 00’s. It’s Time to Rethink Your Approach.

A newsletter that’s a thoughtful component of your digital strategy can increase awareness, drive fundraising, grow your community, and elevate subscribers from advocates to champions who are actively promoting your cause from a deeply informed perspective.

Matt Steele
June 6, 2022

Substack, an online subscription newsletter platform, has revolutionized and reinvigorated newsletters. Major news outlets such as the New York Times and Politico have followed suit and adopted a paid subscription-based model for their newsletters.

The high quality and perceived value of this content is such that many subscribers are willing to pay a fee to receive their newsletters. Valued at around $650M in 2021, Substack’s success has raised the profile and perceptions of newsletters.

Social impact leaders can take a page from the substack playbook by transforming your newsletter into a coveted item in your supporters inboxes. A newsletter that’s a thoughtful component of your digital strategy can increase awareness, drive fundraising, grow your community, and elevate subscribers from advocates to champions who are actively promoting your cause from a deeply informed perspective. In this article, we’ll dig deeper into how you can rethink your newsletter to make it a more effective tool in your communications and fundraising toolbox.

The Newsletter Grows Up

Newsletters that are rising to the top tend to be in-depth, carefully curated, personalized, and highly relevant. They also tend to be simple and minimalist in their presentation, while still feeling branded.

Because people opt in and even pay for this content, they are much more likely to be interested and engaged when it hits their inbox. At its core, this seems obvious. People are going to be more inclined to open it, read it, and even wait to savor it over their beverage of choice at their leisure.

Reading at Your Leisure

We’re all inundated with communications. Newsletters come into a crowded space: your supporter’s email inbox. But it’s different from a lot of other communications. They opted in. They chose your content. No algorithm chose it for them. They can opt out if it doesn’t suit them. And they can opt back in when they miss your perspective.

Your newsletter isn’t demanding. It’s not a problem that needs to be solved or a fire that needs to be put out. It’s a respite from the noise. It waits until the subscriber is ready to open it and dive in. And when they do, it’s because they genuinely want to hear what you have to say.

Take advantage of this relationship readers have with your newsletter to provide them with deeper nuances of your work, cause, and theory of change. This educational content can be geared towards providing supporters with information and expertise that helps them advocate on your behalf. Supporters who are well informed can articulate your message and draw in new supporters from their networks.

You’re In Control

You have full control over two channels of your content — on your website and in your email. Your newsletter can inform the reader and inspire them to action without them being distracted by ads or other content jumping into their feed.

As you probably know, Apple has made email open rates unreliable. But your newsletter can contain internal actions and prompts that help you judge engagement. It can be an important component of your email strategy that should also include calls to action and updates on setbacks and wins.

Pros and Cons of Using a Newsletter Platform

Using a platform such as Substack might seem like a perfect addition to your digital strategy. Here are some factors to consider when deciding if you want to host your newsletters on your site or on a platform.

  • Building Community: You can activate and engage with your community of supporters by having active comments as a component of your newsletter. If you’re looking to build or expand a connected community that can be an effective tool. If you send your email through an email service, such as Mailchimp, or directly, you may not want to activate the Comments feature.

    Using a platform makes it easy to turn Comments on and off and curate them. Know that you will need to curate them. If you don’t have resources to curate your community, you may want to avoid comments. A platform gives you this built-in flexibility.

  • SEO Impact: We think of websites as digital media hubs. They are the centerpiece around which all elements of your digital presence and strategy revolve. If your newsletter isn’t integrated into your digital hub, you might take a hit to your SEO. Of course, you can link to your website from your newsletter — in fact, you should — but it’s one more click that introduces a little friction into the engagement process.

Content is King

Depending on your type of organization, there are multiple types of content you can produce. Let’s look at some that can elevate yours above typical news digest-style newsletters.

  1. 1.

    In-depth, long form content is what is currently getting the best play on Substack. It’s content with inherent value to the reader that lets them in on your solutions and connection to the overall cause ecosystem.

  2. 2.

    Thought leadership content helps move the larger conversation forward and establishes you as an expert in your area. It’s a powerful part of content marketing in the social impact space that builds over time.

    This type of content allows your organization to speak with a more personal or individual voice while remaining within your brand and messaging framework. Social impact leaders can put out opinion pieces or stances on topics from your “lane” or the perspective of your organization — even if it is not exactly what your organization is doing. For example, a food scarcity organization could write about how climate change affects their work.

    Thought leadership articles allow you tap multiple experts in your organization to create this content: board members, leaders in different departments, high profile donors, etc. You even have the option of welcoming guest writers who are relevant and add credence to the work. Invite them to do a newsletter take over.

  3. 3.

    Newsletter groups can create audience expanding synergies. Let’s look at the food insecurity space as an example. Let’s say there are three organizations. One is a food bank doing boots on the ground work, One is a policy organization working in passing legislation, and the other is a farming coop built around making locally grown food more accessible.

    These three organizations can combine efforts, guest on each other’s newsletters and grow all of their audiences. Connect the dots for all of the audiences to get everyone who cares about food insecurity a full picture while raising awareness at the same time. This participatory style of content production builds connection and community and guarantees investment in new content.

    If you lack the bandwidth to guest post, or host guest newsletter writers, you can still use this strategy by working with organizations in your ecosystem to cross promote each other via your aligned digital strategy components.

  4. 4.

    Your theory of change is a rich source of content ideas. Break out each component and write about how each element drives impact or creates change. Bring your theory of change alive with human-centered impact stories for your supporters so that they feel more involved and remain engaged.

Drive Fundraising With Your Newsletter

Do more than just ask for donations through your newsletter. Exclusive newsletters can be a component of your fundraising themselves. You can offer premium content to major donors. This can be on a quarterly basis and work in concert with the tried-and-true letter from the Executive Director. Dig deep into the details about how funding is used, what’s working in your programs, and tell stories about the change you’re making.

If your social impact organization leverages a membership model, different tiers of membership could include a newsletter that’s just for those members. It should feel very personal, as if the newsletter they receive is just for them. We see this as a good strategy for keeping those members included and involved on an ongoing basis.

Inspire More Action

Leverage your newsletter to encourage your supporters to get involved, build community, and get feedback that fuels your digital content strategy. Use it to expand awareness and deepen engagement.

Supply your fans with regular doses of thoughtful content that takes advantage of the benefits of the Substack revolution. Your newsletter can be something rare and powerful — an addition to their inbox that gets them smiling and anticipating a good read that they curl up and enjoy with a cup of coffee or pot of tea.

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