The essentials: Communications - Message to members

Whether it's a newsletter produced on a shoestring or a glossy magazine published by professionals, the way you communicate with your members says a lot about your organisation. Alex Coxon looks at the options available.

Members are the lifeblood of most charities. Without them, many would struggle for funding and volunteers to work for their causes. And without the clout of a supporter base, few could bring local, national or international awareness to their campaigns.

But some charities, while acknowledging the importance of members, pay little attention to how they communicate with them. They seem to believe that the cost and effort of creating and distributing magazines, newsletters and emails outweigh the potential benefits.

But it's simply not the case that strong member communications are the preserve of more affluent charities. There's a range of publishing options available to voluntary organisations, whatever their size and spending power.

Keeping it in-house

Like many voluntary bodies, the National Trust communicates regularly by direct mail to its members to request donations, update them on matters such as Gift Aid and seek subscription renewal. It also sends a monthly email to back up a printed newsletter - relevant to the member's region - that lists major projects and issues in the locality, plus details of events.

Its chief communication channel, however, is the National Trust Magazine, published three times a year. Like some other large charities, the trust chooses to produce this in-house. The editorial team is fairly small, with an editor, a deputy, a freelance designer and two freelance sub-editors.

But by having its own team the trust can retain complete control.

"Because the magazine is based at our headquarters, we have access to all the specialists at the trust," explains Sue Herdman, editor of the magazine. "I have editorial control over content but I decide on what that will be only after communicating with key people, such as the director general, the communications team - both in-house and in the regions - and heads of departments.

"The magazine also reveals that there is so much more to the trust than beautiful houses and gardens," she continues. "We cover things such as environmental issues, food, farming and wildlife. As a result, we can deliver strong steers at times - for example, when the trust is launching a new campaign or policy and needs to have that communicated in a lively, engaging way through the magazine."

Costs are tightly controlled by employing only two full-timers and calling on freelancers solely when the publication is close to printing. The trust also benefits from some high-quality graduate interns who are paid a small fee in return for the experience of writing on a broad-reaching lifestyle magazine.

A reader's view Trust member Elizabeth Bayarti comments: "It's the magazine's features and photographs that particularly appeal to me - especially when they focus on different properties or gardens. It keeps me up to date, as well.

"The magazine is very glossy and attractive but, considering the membership fee, I think it's reasonable to expect something of that quality three times a year.

"Among the other information provided, the regional newsletter stands out. I tend to look through that for local news and places to visit."

Estimated cost The trust allocates 2 per cent of its total expenditure to producing and distributing its main magazine to 3.4 million members three times a year. The biannual title that it aims specifically at its volunteers costs £26,000 to produce.

Full contract publishing

Those without the resources or desire to produce in-house could consider a contract or 'customer' publisher. Money can be saved on in-house functions such as editorial, design, production, print, publishing management and advertising sales. And in cases where in-house contributions might previously have been supplied by staff on top of their regular workloads, the quality should improve when produced by dedicated specialists.

However, charities wanting to work with a contract publisher should not be beguiled by production values and glossy looks. "As well as demanding good editorial and design skills, customers should choose a contract publisher that can maximise commercial revenues to help offset the cost," says Ian McAuliffe, publishing director at Think Publishing, which works for organisations such as the Scouts and the Wildlife Trusts.

"Generally, a good contract publisher will charge no more than the fees it generates for advertising revenue. So look for strong and proven skills in advertising and sponsorship generation."

A good example can be seen in the deal Think recently brokered for Countryside Voice, the magazine for the Campaign to Protect Rural England. To commemorate the 80th birthday of the charity, Think persuaded BBC's Homes & Antiques magazine to give away free the anniversary issue with its August edition.

"CPRE's magazine usually goes out to 35,000 members," says McAuliffe.

"But an additional 110,000 copies of this special issue were distributed with the BBC title. Most of the cost was covered by us selling increased advertising and by persuading Homes & Antiques to pay for the covermounting of the special issue and contribute towards the extra print run.

"But the most important thing is that, because we ensured the demographic of Homes & Antiques readers matched that of CPRE members, Countryside Voice has now reached 110,000 potential new recruits.

"In essence, we've acted as an extension of CPRE's marketing department."

A reader's view "Countryside Voice is an asset to us in CPRE Northants," says Peter Hopkins of the county branch team. "In general, our members like it and feel it is part of the value they get from their subscriptions. It also fosters a sense of belonging to an organisation that campaigns for the things they care about."

Estimated cost: For 50,000 copies of a 68-page A4 title, the full service, which includes posting, would be about £32,500, a unit cost of 65p.

Partial contract publishing

Another client, the Ramblers' Association, has opted not to go for a full service. Instead, it employs a dedicated in-house editor to produce its Walk magazine, using Think to undertake design and advertising sales.

The company also handles Walk's regional sister title South East Walker, which is produced by two local volunteers, and the members' annual handbook Walk Britain.

The association's rationale for keeping the editorial of its main magazine in-house is similar to that of the National Trust. "Nearly everyone is accessible to me here at head office, so I can go to anyone in any department to discuss news and feature angles," says Chris Ord, editor of Walk. "Stories can also be much more easily agreed with the relevant people."

However, the financial benefits of delegating design and advertising sales to a third party are considerable. The publications all have a consistent, co-ordinated style representing the organisation. And sales of the handbook alone have doubled since the contractor started working on it.

"The publishers have increased advertising revenue for us quite substantially since they took it over about three years ago," says Dan French, publications co-ordinator at the association. "In fact, predictions are looking cost-neutral for us, thanks to the revenue they've generated."

Nevertheless, French believes the decision to use a contract publisher to fulfil only certain functions needs to be treated just as judiciously as when the magazine is farmed out in its entirety.

"Be sure about what you want to achieve before you put it out to tender," he advises. "Be very clear about your organisation's objectives to ensure the magazine enhances and complements the direction your organisation is moving in as a whole.

"You might end up with a wonderful, glossy magazine, but this will be counterproductive if it bears no resemblance to the work you're actually doing. It's important to have a firm strategy right from the start and to be in the driving seat and not get carried away with fanciful ideas."

A reader's view Michal Evans, a new member, says: "Walk is attractive, with a variety of articles. There are lots of reviews and plenty of material on campaigns. All in all, it's very useful as well as interesting. We expect something decent and that's what we get."

Estimated cost With the client supplying an in-house editor, a sub editor, all content and pictures, the remaining partial service would cost roughly £22,500, a unit cost of 45p.

On a shoestring

Although contract publishing services can work for charities with larger member bases - especially those whose demographic appeals to potential advertisers - it isn't necessarily a format that suits more niche organisations.

This doesn't mean smaller charities can't produce effective member communications, though. Take Trafford Carers' Centre, for example. This north west-based charity has about 3,000 members, many of whom rely on the centre's bi-monthly newsletter for information.

Jo Bryan, manager of the centre, keeps overall costs, including staff time and printing, down by contributing articles herself and asking staff and volunteers to help the centre's administrator to collate and proofread material.

The newsletter's success isn't simply the result of cost-effectiveness, though. It always carries a 'fun page' and aims to get its members involved by supplying letters and articles. The centre's team also works hard to find relevant and useful information.

As well as passing on news from outside organisations about issues such as ad hoc funding for carers, Bryan's team will scour the national press, the Carers UK website and recent ombudsman reports to ensure content is relevant. This information is condensed into short and easy-to-read segments.

Bryan's advice for smaller charities in the same situation is simple.

"Ring up other organisations and ask them to send you copies of their newsletters," she says. "You can learn a lot from what other people are already producing and then pinch their good ideas."

A reader's view Member Janet Bruce says: "It can be quite isolating being a carer. If you don't have the opportunity to get to meetings, the newsletter is a great way of making sure you're up to date on issues and know who to call and where to go for help. Everything in it is about you as a carer or the people you're caring for - and that alone makes it a worthwhile read."

Estimated cost Printing 3,000 copies if the 12-page newsletter costs £500, with a 5 per cent discount if it's done during the mid-month lull.

The total cost is £5.80 per member per year.

HOW TO DO IT YOURSELF

Producing and editing a newsletter, a one-day course in London, covers content, writing style and design. Contact: Directory of Social Change. Tel: 08450 777 707.

An introduction to charity magazines and newsletters and Improving your charity magazines and newsletters are two-day courses at the London College of Communication, part of the University of the Arts. Tel: 020 7514 8193.

The Publishing Training Centre provides about 70 open courses, covering the complete range of publishing skills. For those outside London, there are distance learning and online options covering topics such as proofreading, copy-editing and picture research. Tel: 020 8874 2718.

The Periodical Publishers Association runs many one-day training courses on most aspects of magazine publishing. Charities with larger magazine teams should check out the PPA's in-house training programme, which can be tailored to organisations' needs and products and carried out in their own offices. Tel: 020 7400 7533.

A Quick Guide: Newsletters deals with content, mailing issues, costs and advertising. Published by the DSC. Tel: 08450 777 707.

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