There are all kinds of reasons to start sending out email newsletters: keeping in touch, sharing updates, promoting volunteer or donation opportunities, etc.  But a good newsletter is more than simply a paragraph of updates.

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Once your nonprofit starts composing regular email newsletters, your formatting choices can contribute to failure or to success.  Here are four formatting considerations to keep in mind to improve the chances your newsletter is a success.

1. Make Your Newsletter Readable and Scannable

Whether your audience is reading on a 2” Blackberry screen or a 20” desktop computer screen, there are some things to keep in mind to make sure your message gets across.  And your message has to compete with dinner being made, that television show in the background and running on the treadmill.

The following suggestions will help you reach all the multitaskers out there.

  • Font – Choose a standard font.  No one wants to spend their time stumbling through a cursive or calligraphy font or trying to discern one letter from the next in a narrow, squished font.  Not only will this save your readers from a huge headache and lots of squinting, but it will also make your newsletter look more professional.
  • Headings – In this time-crunched world, many people don’t have time to read every word of your text.  Having sections and headings will draw your readers’ eyes so that they can easily find and read the sections they’re interested in.
  • Bullet Points and Lists – Like headings, bullet points and lists make text easier to scan.  They also force you to make your message clear and concise, making it very easy for the reader to digest.

2. On the Go: Mobile Formatting

480.6 million people used mobile email in 2010 according to Portio Research.  And as if that wasn’t enough, they expect that number to quadruple by 2015.  If your email newsletter isn’t formatted for smartphones, for tablets, for eReaders, then you and your nonprofit are potentially missing a large portion of your audience.

Here are some suggestions to make your newsletter smartphone friendly.

  • Nix the Columns – Consider using only one column in your newsletter layout.  Mobile devices like to reformat data to fit the smaller screen.  This means that your sidebars might get cut off, or relocated to the bottom of the email.  If you want to go for the column look, consider tables.  Using tables can ensure that your layout remains unbroken.
  • Go Skinny – Be sure to design your newsletter in a skinny frame—600 pixels wide or less.  Not only will this fit many mobile devices, but it will also fit the preview screen in desktop email services like Outlook.
  • Font Size, Go Big or Go Home – Make sure you are using a font size that is legible on a small screen.  If your font is too big or too small, it might also be automatically re-sized.  This might mess with your formatting in unexpected and unwanted ways.  Make sure to test your email newsletter on a smartphone and tablet to make sure everything is in tiptop shape.
  • Focus Your Links – Don’t put more steps (links) between you and your message, because your reader likely won’t click through a maze of links to find what they’re looking for.  Include the most important information in the email’s text, then link to a part of your website where they can find more information.
  • Space Your Links – If you include more than one link, space them out.  Remember, your mobile users are using their fingers to click, so make your links easier to access by keeping them at least finger’s width apart.
  • Use Contrasting Colors – Be careful with your color palette choices if you want to get fancy.  Remember that mobile screens are small and have varying brightness.  Choose sharply contrasting colors to ensure that your message is readable
  • Test It – Send a draft to a smartphone near you.  Check it out; make sure everything looks the way you want it to before sending it off to your readers.

3. Images: Balancing Form and Function

After reading the mobile formatting section, you might think it’d be best to forgo images altogether.  However, creating an aesthetically pleasing newsletter can be just as important as having one that can be read on a mobile device.  A good-looking newsletter is often easier to read, shows professionalism, and is a great opportunity to show your nonprofit’s fun and creative side.

When designing your email newsletter, images are a good addition, but keep in mind that many popular email services (for example, Gmail and Outlook) will not automatically load the images in your newsletter.

Here are some suggestions to make your newsletter look great, even for clients that might not enable images.

  • General Image Use – Don’t rely on the image.  Because many of your readers will not see the images, make sure the text can still speak for itself.  This way you don’t have to worry about images not loading.
  • Avoid Background Images – Don’t use background images and be careful with background colors—make sure that your font can be read even without the contrast against a background image.  If your newsletter is yellow font on a blue background image, half of your readers might only get yellow font on the standard white background, at which point they’ll likely delete your unreadable message.
  • Minimize Image Size – Keeping image size small will ensure that your newsletter will download fast while still looking great.  Resize your images before putting them in the email.  This will cut down on the file size of your newsletter and its download time.
  • Use Descriptive Alt Text Provide alt text for images.  “Alt text” is the text that shows up if the image doesn’t load.  This way, readers who choose not to download the pictures can see what they are missing.
  • Online Archive – Include a link to the newsletter online.  Having a web-based version of your email newsletter is great backup for any email services that don’t properly format your newsletter.

4. Legal Considerations: Abiding by CAN-SPAM


The CAN-SPAM Act is a law that sets both restrictions and expectations on commercial emails.  What does this mean for you and your nonprofit’s email newsletter?  The most important considerations are outlined below.

The Unsubscribe Button

Legally, your email newsletter must contain a way to easily unsubscribe from your email list.  This is not just a thoughtful gesture to your readers; it’s the law.  It will also ensure that your email is reaching the people you want it to reach, people who will gladly open the newsletter and are happy to stay in touch with you and your nonprofit.

A Clear and Sincere Subject Line

CAN-SPAM requires you to be honest in the subject line about the contents of your email.  Consider using the title of one of your articles in the newsletter to garner more interest.  For example, “Nonprofit November: Kids volunteer to plant trees.”  Remember, the ultimate goal is to get more people to open your email newsletter while telling them what to expect when they do so.

A Straightforward “From”

Just as your subject line must clearly refer to the content of the email, your mailing address must clearly refer to who has sent the message.  Letting your readers know who sent them the email before they open it establishes trust.  Your readers will know what to expect when they open your newsletter and you will know that the people who are opening and reading your message are truly interested in the news that you have to report.

Include Your Physical Mailing Address

Your email newsletter must include a valid physical mailing address.  This address can be your current business location or a registered post office box.  You can click to learn more about the CAN-SPAM Act and keep your nonprofit from collecting undue fines.

Ultimately, keep it simple.  Trust in your nonprofit and your message—that honesty, coupled with these four best formatting practices, will not only get your newsletter more readers, it will also lead to the many other benefits of an email newsletter: more interested readers, more informed volunteers, and even more donation opportunities.


The CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Businesses – Bureau of Customer Protection

Make Your HTML Email 5½ Times More Mobile Friendly – Web Designer Wall

Image Best Practices for HTML Newsletters – Social Source Commons

8 Email Newsletter Design Tips for Mobile Devices – Office Hero Headquarters

Image courtesy of ShironekoEuro, Flickr