DonorElf's Blog For Missionaries

Mobile App for Missionaries

I can’t believe it’s been almost three years since I first started work on DonorElf. And in that time I have made over 1,000 updates to it (1,098 to be exact). Needless to say, DonorElf has changed a lot over the years as I have constantly been tweaking and adding new features to it.

One of the most requested features for DonorElf has always been a mobile app … and now I’m excited to say that DonorElf will finally get its most requested feature!

DonorElf’s mobile app will allow missionaries to download and view all their support account information directly on their mobile phone. They’ll have all their [automatically updated] DonorElf contacts on their phone so calling, texting or emailing will be quick and easy.

Users will also be able to quickly see their dashboard and know how healthy their support account is and which contacts they need to be communicating with. And they’ll be able to see their transactions and filter them, just like on the website.

We’ll have two native mobile apps: one for the iPhone and one for the Android. And because these will be native apps instead of just a website optimized to view on the phone, missionaries will be able to view their DonorElf account even when they don’t have a connection to the Internet.

The mobile app is just in the beginning stages of development, and I’m hoping it will be ready to download come late summer or early fall!

Of the thousand updates made to DonorElf, I believe the mobile app will be one of its biggest updates. And after the mobile app has been built, I look forward to making the next thousand updates to DonorElf as I continually work at making it the simplest software for missionaries to keep track of their support account!

Writing a Support Letter eBook

Over the past few months, we have published a series of articles sharing how a missionary can effectively write support letters. We’ve covered suggestions for what to share in those letters, tips on writing in general, and even some guides to designing them.

Now we have combined all these articles into a single eBook to make them even easier to read.

You can download the free Writing a Support Letter eBook here.

Please feel free to pass it along too! We believe this will be a helpful tool for you and your other missionary friends.

We want our DonorElf blog to provide useful support-raising resources for missionaries and organizations that train and send missionaries. Let us know what other blog topics we could cover to help train you and your missionaries!

Writing a Support Letter: Apps for Designing a Newsletter or Email Blast

Layout and design used to be reserved for professionals. Nowadays, design technology is so readily accessible that even children can create compelling layouts.

We’ve compiled a list of some applications to try and an idea of the price. Some of them are strictly design programs, which you could use to lay out your newsletter either for print or to save as a PDF and attach to email. Others are email programs that let you design nice-looking emails.

Standard layout programs (that may even come with your computer)

Microsoft Word  (available for PC or Mac) — $109.99microsoft word
(also available in Microsoft Office)

This basic word processing tool has come a long way in its layout capabilities. You can create a simple letter and pretty easily add photos. Many of us are familiar with this program, so it’s a good one to start using for layout.

Microsoft Publisher  (available for PC) — $109.99microsoft publisher

Microsoft says: “Publisher 2013 helps you create, personalize, and share a wide range of professional-quality publications and marketing materials with ease.”

Publisher has templates to help you design your documents. The interface is similar to other Microsoft products, so it should seem familiar and fairly easy to use.

Pages  (for Mac users; compatible with Microsoft Word) — $19.99

pagesFrom Apple: “Pages is a word processor and a page layout tool that helps you create great-looking documents, newsletters, reports, and more.”

Pages has several templates you can use, or you can design your own layout and create graphs and charts. It’s also a word processor and includes photo-editing software — this integration is really convenient.

Layout for the serious

Adobe InDesign  (available for PC or Mac) — $699 (also available in Adobe Suites)

adobe indesignAdobe: “InDesign® CS6 software is a versatile desktop publishing application that gives you pixel-perfect control over design and typography. Create elegant and engaging pages for print, tablets, and other screens.”

Many design professionals use InDesign and the other Adobe products. If you’re an amateur, it is probably an expense you don’t need, unless you’re going to get really into design. However, if you are serious about publications design, it is a very good product. I prefer it to anything else I have used.

Quark — (available for PC or Mac) $849 quarkxpress 9

“QuarkXPress® is design software that lets anyone create and publish rich, compelling materials for print, the Web, e-readers, tablets, and other digital media in one easy-to-use tool — no coding or programming required.”

Again, this isn’t a necessary expense for an amateur.

Free* email programs with design capability
*A basic plan is free. You can pay for more advanced plans.

MailChimp — free for 2,000 subscribers, up to 12,000 emails per month; other monthly plans or pay-as-you-go also available

mailchimpMailChimp is an online program, so there’s no download. You send email directly from MailChimp, but the sent-from address is your own email address.

MailChimp lets you design your own or use templates for your newsletters. It’s easy to integrate with social media. It helps you maintain your mailing list, like allowing you to split your list into groups and not letting you have duplicates. It tracks how many people open your email, so you know if you’re having an effective outreach.

I would say that if you are looking for a free email service, MailChimp is very good. I highly recommend it.

GroupMail — free for up to 500 contacts; one-time fee of $99.95 for personal editiongroupmail

This is a downloadable program to which you can import your contacts. One of the downsides to this free edition is that you can’t manage multiple lists, and the managing you can do is very limited.

Paid email programs with design capability

mad mimiMadMimi — up to 500 contacts, infinite emails for $8/month; more plans available — including a free plan for up to 100 contacts

Looks like a really excellent app, but I haven’t used it personally. I think this is the one I’d check out if I were to pay for an email service.

MyEmma — 1,000 emails per month for $35/month; more plans available
I have helped a friend with this before. It’s nice enough, and my friend says their help has been invaluable. I think they have been working on growing the functionality of their design (not that it was bad before). But I wasn’t overly impressed with it for the price and for what support-raisers would need it for. I just didn’t think it was worth $35/month when you could have most of the same features for free with MailChimp.

Constant Contact — 500 contacts for $15/month; more plans availableconstant contact

I have used this while working at a small company. Again, I don’t know that the $15/month offers you much more than MailChimp gives you for free. It was fine. I wasn’t overly impressed. Constant Contact does send resources via email — little marketing encouragements and tips. But those may or may not be helpful, as they are more directed at businesses doing marketing.

iPad Apps

iStudio — (design software) $17.99 for iPad; $49.99 for computer

iStudioThis would be another design program that you could use for print documents or to attach in email. I haven’t used it, but the company says this:

“iStudio Publisher is an easy-to-use page layout application for Mac OS X. It allows you to be a designer, easily creating stunning documents, ranging from a simple letterhead to professional magazines, adverts, reports, greetings cards and yearbooks. Whether you’re writing a simple note or a full on brochure, you can use iStudio Publisher for anything and everything you need to layout and print.”

Swift Publisher 3  — (design software) $19.99swift publisher 3

Again, this is a design program that I haven’t used.

“Packing a streamlined interface and powerful layout and design tools, Swift Publisher provides all of the tools you need to create effective materials for your clients, partners, and friends. Fliers, brochures, letterheads, booklets, menus, and more, right on your Mac.”

Hoolie — (email design software) $39.99 (one-time fee)

hoolieHoolie is an email program that you download to your iPad. It uses your Apple Address Book for your mailing list, so you can use groups you already have set up.

The company says this: “Hoolie makes it easy to design, send and manage email newsletter and marketing campaigns right from your computer with no limits, monthly costs or per email fees.”

On the App Store, a reviewer who works with a non-profit had this to say: “Hoolie is the perfect app for our nonprofit to use in sending email blasts to all of our supporters. When you compare it to web services like iContact or Constant Contact, hoolie is both smoother to operate and far, far less expensive.”
We’d love to hear from you. What do you use and why?

Writing a Support Letter: Print vs. Email—Review the Options

Many organizations have a system for sending newsletters already in place. But let’s consider the pros and cons of print vs. email newsletters.

Pros for print

Print letters are often nice for your supporters to receive. There’s that tangible reminder of you that they have in their hands. It’s like how so many people prefer the weight and feel of a book in their hands to a tablet.

Many argue that people are more likely to read a piece of mail, because they’ll see it rather than it getting buried in their email inbox. And you don’t have to worry about getting caught in a junk filter.

Email perks

One of the most obvious benefits to using email is that it’s free. With print, you have to pay for printing costs as well as shipping fees, and someone (you, a volunteer, or someone you or the organization pays) has to do the work of stuffing envelopes.

You would greatly reduce the amount of paper waste you’re creating each year by using email.

Email can be scheduled, so you can do the work ahead of time and let it go out on the right date and at the right time.

There’s less restriction on how much you can include. Good judgment rather than page number will be all that limits your text. And photos will take up only kilobytes, not physical page space, plus there’s no extra fee for printing in color. Plus you can include video links.

Electronic letters are easy to share on social media, which are becoming more and more legitimate for connecting to supporters. It would also be simple to coordinate your periodic emails with a blog you post to more frequently.

Bottom Line

So much of our world is online now it doesn’t make sense not to have an online presence with your supporters. Even if you do send out a print letter (or if you send a print version once a quarter or something), you could pretty easily do an email version, too. This would give your supporters the option to read your letter in the format they prefer.

P.S. If you do send an email, make sure you have a compelling subject. Give a hint at what’s included in your letter. This gives readers incentive to open it, as well as helps keep it out of the junk basket.

Weigh in: What’s your opinion on the print vs. email issue?

Writing a Support Letter: Remember CRAP Design Principles

Most of us haven’t taken a design course. So here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when you’re putting together your newsletter.

Your design should use CRAP:

1.    Contrast

Contrast means you need to make different items different. Design that makes items look similar but slightly different just makes your design look sloppy. This applies to size, color, font, shape, spacing, etc. One simple way to illustrate this point is with font size. If your body copy is size 12, your headers should be 18 to give happy contrast. Don’t just use 14. The size is too similar, so it will not stand apart. Or, use 12-point font but bold it. The size is the same (not similar), but the thickness of the letters will set it apart.

2.    Repetition

Repetition gives your letter a consistent theme. Use the same font for all body copy. Use the same font size for all related headers. Repetition is a very simple way to unify your letter and strengthen its organization.

One of the ways newsletters often break the repetition rule is with fonts. If there are three different pieces, six different fonts will be used—each header and section of body copy will have its own font.

Your letter should use no more than two fonts. TWO. One for headers and one for body. You can even just use one font, contrasting the heading with size and weight.

If you choose to use two fonts, here’s a good rule for you. There are two general families of font: serif and sans serif. Serif is Latin for “feet.” So serif fonts have little feet (like Times New Roman, Cambria, or Georgia), and sans (Latin for “without”) have no feet (like Helvetica, Arial, or Myriad Pro).

Feet make smaller font slightly easier to read, because they help create a line your eyes can follow. Choose a serif font for your body and a sans serif for your headings. This gives you great contrast. Now, be consistent throughout the document. Really, really: You can use just one font throughout. This is just a guideline if you want to use two.

Fonts to avoid: Comic Sans, Papyrus, Courier, and Bradley Hand. Just trust us. They are overused by amateurs, they’ve become a joke, and just, please, don’t use them.

3.    Alignment

Items on the page should be connected to other elements on the page visually. Alignment again helps give your letter a clean, cohesive look.

Centering text is commonly used, but it is actually a sloppy look. Left alignment of both your body copy and your headings is better.

trapped white space

This is trapped white space. The boxes or text create awkward space. Design is claustrophobic. Please, for your own good, don’t trap it.

white space

This layout is much cleaner. The heavy items put the weight on the inside or top and allow for flow and breath.

4.    Proximity

Related items should be close together. So if you have two articles, keep the heading, the body, and photos for one article grouped together. Give a little breathing room between it and the other article’s components. That breathing room is called “white space.”

White space is a design principle that is hard for newsletter writers to employ. It tells you to leave some space empty, but we have a lot of items to include. We want to fit as much in as we can, and to print as few pages as possible. But your letter will look cleaner, seem more professional, and be more accessible to your readers if you allow some space for the eyes to rest.

One thing to know about white space is that you don’t want to trap it. Don’t have a box of negative space in the middle of your design, or it will look like a mistake. Margins are good. Some extra space between separate articles. But not odd blank spaces in the middle, trapped by text and images.

Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. Just remember CRAP when you’re designing your support letter.

Do you have any other rules of thumb that you use for design?

Writing a Support Letter: Make Your Letter Look Readable

You don’t have to be a designer to know a good-looking newsletter when you see one. And newsletters that are nice to look at make them more compelling to read. Even if you use mainly text, you can make it look nice.

The basic idea is: Make it visually accessible.

Keep paragraphs and articles shorter — they look more readable

Did you know journalists are trained to break paragraphs every sentence or two? The shorter paragraphs look more accessible to readers (particularly when laid out in skinny news columns).

Bloggers and web-content creators are encouraged to keep articles short overall. People’s attention spans are getting shorter all the time.

Use subheadings to break up the text

It’s also a good idea to break up your support letter into sections. Maybe this means you have separate boxes for different items. Even adding subheadings will help. Write them as mini-summaries of what’s coming in that section. This allows you to write for skimmers as well as for readers.

Another way to get your point across to skimmers is to bold your main points. Bolding main points let’s people see what’s important at a glance. Don’t overuse bolding, though, or your whole letter will look like a giant ink spot.

Bullet-point lists are our allies

Bullet points are one more way to help break up text. They add some white space relief to the page (so it’s not all text), and they are easy to skim. They also allow you to cut some words, since you don’t have to write complete sentences for each point.

Bullet points can be complete sentences (in which case you should end each one with a sentence), or just a few words (no period needed) — but be consistent. Each point in the list needs to be in the same format as its buddies.

Everyone loves photos

Another great way to break up text is to include photos. And many people connect more visually. Your friends and family want to see you and the work you’re doing. Color is usually best, but use your discretion with the cost if you’re printing your letters.

Have you seen any particularly lovely newsletters? What about them looked good? How do you make sure your letter looks good?

look readable

Writing a Support Letter: Comma[n] Mistakes

We all make mistakes. Here are some common grammar mistakes involving commas with explanations of the rules, so you can make fewer mistakes — at least in the grammar department.

Comma splice

Two complete sentences cannot be merged with a mere comma.

Incorrect: This song is awesome, it’s one of my favorites.

You can use a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so), a semi-colon (;), a dash (—), or a good old-fashioned period to split them up.

Correct: This song is awesome, and it’s one of my favorites.

Correct: This song is awesome; it’s one of my favorites.

Correct: This song is awesome—it’s one of my favorites.

Correct: This song is awesome. It’s one of my favorites.

However and therefore

The word “however” is one of the biggest accomplices in comma splices. It is not a coordinating conjunction like “and,” “but,” etc. “However” is a conjunctive adverb, on par with “therefore” or “furthermore.” As such, it cannot simply link two complete statements with a comma.

Incorrect: I wish it worked that way, however it doesn’t.

You can fix it the same way you would with any other comma splice.

Correct: I wish it worked that way; however, it doesn’t.

Correct: I wish it worked that way—however, it doesn’t.

Correct: I wish it worked that way. However, it doesn’t.

When “however” or “therefore” is used inside one complete statement, it should be set off with commas.

Correct: Therefore, I will write my sentences correctly.

Correct: I would be interested, however, to see how these grammar rules evolve.

Identifiers and [non]essential clauses

Commas are used to set off unnecessary details — these are called nonessential clauses. A nonessential clause gives information that doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. Its nonessential, because you don’t need to know it.

These clauses need to be set off with two commas, or an opening comma and a period (if it’s the end of the sentence).

Correct: My husband, Hank, sells propane. (Correct because I only have one husband—I don’t have to include his name to identify which husband.

Correct: I went to visit my brother, John. (Correct if I only have one brother.)

Correct: Jenny Thompson, a senior, works with campus life.

No commas are needed when the information is necessary to clarify a part of the sentence.

Correct: My friend Angela is on the swim team. (I don’t need commas around Angela because I have more than one friend. I need her name to clarify which friend I’m talking about.)

Correct: I saw the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with my friend Angela. (I didn’t include commas around the movie title because there are more movies than this one, and I have more than one friend — in both cases, you need to know the information.)

Correct: I saw the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with my wife, Angela. (Like the above example, only now I used a comma before Angela because I can only have one wife, so her name isn’t necessary.)


Correct: Acclaimed author Henri Nouwen has dozens of books available.

In that last example, “acclaimed author” is the identifier. It needs no comma before the name. However, if the identifier follows the name, it does need commas.

Correct: Henri Nouwen, acclaimed author, has dozens of books available.

Here are some more examples of correct and incorrect identifier commas.

Incorrect: Henri Nouwen, author of The Inner Voice of Love and dozens of other books passed away in 1996. (Incorrect because the closing comma is missing.)

Correct: Henri Nouwen, author of The Inner Voice of Love and dozens of other books, passed away in 1996.

Incorrect: The film, The Artist, won the 2012 Oscar for best picture. (Incorrect because the film’s title is necessary to clarify which film.)

Correct: The Oscar-winner for best picture in 2012, The Artist, is a black-and-white silent film. (Correct because you don’t need “The Artist”—it is one and the same as the identifier that precedes it.)

Correct: An Omaha man, Paul Yoder, developed DonorElf. (Correct because you could omit “Paul Yoder” because of “an.”)

Correct: My dad, who lives for Thanksgiving, was devastated when the turkey burned. (Correct because the “who” clause is nonessential, so it’s set off with commas.)

For more information on commas, check out:

Writing a Support Letter: Anecdotes — Give Your Letter Character

Sharing a short, interesting story is one of the most basic ways to add character to your writing. And readers love anecdotes. These little stories are often what people remember after reading an article or listening to a speech.

A few of the key attributes of a good anecdote:

1.    Brief
You’ll need to determine how much of the story needs to be told, and cut out unnecessary elements to keep it short and to the point. Also, make sure it supports the main point but doesn’t take over. Anecdotes are supporting characters to the overall story you’re telling.

2.    Relevant
Don’t cram a story in that doesn’t fit. That’s a good rule of thumb for any type of writing. With a support letter, you can always include a story you want to share at a different point in the letter. Just don’t try to prove a point with a story that takes away rather than adds to your meaning.

3.    Detailed
Writing is better when it’s specific—remember to show not tell. Again, you’ll have to weigh detail against brevity. Be as specific as you need to be to make the anecdote clear and crisp, and cut out the rest. It’s often helpful to write out the whole anecdote first, and then go back to trim the unnecessary pieces—possibly even making several read-throughs.

Using the right anecdote — one that fits, one that’s short, and one that is specific — can add that perfect pop of color to any message.

Do you have any favorite writers or speakers who use anecdotes well?

character - abe lincoln
editing kills creativity

Writing a Support Letter: Write First, Edit Later

  • This is a mantra among writers, especially in the creative realm.

    There are two main reasons to write first and edit later.

    1. Your inner writer needs the space and freedom to say what she or he needs to say. Sometimes you need to write badly for a while to get through to what you’re really trying to say.

    Take writing an anecdote for example. You’ll probably need to write out the whole (or most) of the story in detail. Later you’ll be able to determine more and more details that can be trimmed out for brevity and clarity.

    2. When editing, you need fresh eyes to see the words you’ve been laboring over. 

    As an editor of a magazine, I also occasionally wrote for the publication. In one piece that I wrote, another editor pointed out an error in my article. I couldn’t see it as an error, even after three or four rereadings. The next day, I looked again, and was able to see it. It actually read as the exact opposite thing I was trying to say! I’d just been looking too closely for too long to be able to see its incorrectness.

    A good rule of thumb for preparing your support letter: Give yourself enough time before that deadline to have at least 20 minutes between typing your last sentence and editing. More time is better, and coming back to it the next day is even better.

    Do you have any tips as to how you edit your own writing?

Writing a Support Letter: Think of Your Readers While You Write

Your readers are real people. You need to remember that when you’re writing.

  • They’re busy.
  • They won’t read something that bores them.
  • They read things that interest them. It may be because of art, information, relationship, or just curiosity.
  • You need to work to capture their attention.

Writing to your audience is a key skill for all writers. Magazine writers, for instance, need to know if they’re writing to women, ages 45-65, upper-middle class, living in the Midwest.

The good thing is you know the specifics of your readership better than anyone. You need to write to that readership. Not everyone will love everything you write about, so mix it up. Keep them coming back, even if they don’t read this letter all the way through.

You can mix it up by providing some variety in topics and content:

  • Write stories.
  • Provide data and research.
  • Display it with charts and graphs.
  • Include photos.

Avoid overly controversial topics

(This advice is strictly for support letters, not necessarily all writing!) Because you know your audience, you probably know some topics to avoid. It’s not that you have to hide anything. Just focus more on what you all have in common than on differences.

If you do broach a controversial topic, always handle it delicately and with respect. While newspapers and magazines thrive by publishing opinion pieces that rile up readership, support letters really aren’t the place for that.

The truth is, it doesn’t really matter if your supporters all agree. You don’t want a cookie-cutter supporter. You have a unique relationship with each supporter, because each supporter is unique. A diverse mailing list is an asset. What does matter are the core values that bring you all together. Just keep that in mind.

Don’t use jargon

One other thing to avoid: jargon. In our organizations, we develop our own languages that can be confusing and even off-putting to readers. So remember to simplify.

It’s also helpful to remember those supporters who may not share the same belief system as you. The language you use might be jargon to them.

You can always define terms that have many different meanings to different people. “I’m using ‘community’ in this context to mean … ” “What I mean by ‘inclusive’ is … ”

“‘Debriefing’ is common language for us—intentional time to process through what you’re going through with people who want to know.”

Just remind yourself to keep your readers in mind while you’re writing. Do you have any methods or filters that you use to help you write to your audience?


Ready to get started?

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