I have the privilege of knowing and working with people around the world. Many of these people are expats serving in humanitarian, faith-based, or other service-driven fields that rely on connection and resources back home to thrive.
I love seeing humanitarian work going on around the world. The work is important, urgent, and compelling. The human stories sometimes break my heart, frequently inspire my spirit, and often make me want to get involved.
Sadly, some of the most gifted servers struggle to connect with folks back home. It’s understandable! With the work being so important and urgent, communiques and newsletters get brushed off and are often thought of as a task to be done only if the “real” work gets done first. Let me push back against that! As a person who wants to support, send money, pray, or advocate for you on this side of the world, telling your story and giving me a chance to get involved are part of the work, too.
In a spirit of love, here are a few tips – some do’s and don’ts – to help you communicate effectively to those who love and support you back home. Some of these are small, but they can make a big difference in the response you get from your fans and supporters.
Communicate in a regular rhythm. I would urge you to get your message out monthly. It might help you to calendar this in as a recurring activity during your “work hours” (I know, I know, you don’t have regular work hours). Sometimes something big happens that warrants it’s own news blast, but that is probably the exception.
Include pictures! A couple of large, crisp photos are preferable to 10 small ones. I don’t want to open a newsletter that looks like the front of my refrigerator.
Use good formatting. Create a nice-looking document and attach it as a PDF, or use a Mailchimp newsletter template.
Ask for funds. Yes, really. If your work relies on donations, ask for them and give a super easy way for people to donate. You are not begging for money, you are sharing your vision and giving people an opportunity to get in on that vision. Never be ashamed or apologize for asking for what you need, just be clear and reasonable in your ask.
Share what you are learning and reading. What’s challenging, shaping, and developing your thinking? What’s giving you fresh vision for the next season? Bring us along in your growth journey.
Keep it short. Just because people love you and want to know what you’re doing doesn’t mean they are prepared to wade through multiple pages every month. Really. I hate to break this to you. People will open your letter and then close it in defeat if it looks really tedious and long. Discipline yourself to be brief – 1-2 pages tops (unless there’s some really big event, a birth of a baby, or catastrophe that warrants a photo essay).
Be clear about your call to action. If there’s something you want us to know, pray about, give towards, or do, make it super plain and clear. Don’t leave any doubts in our minds what you are asking us to do. Remember, we Americans can’t hold a list of 9 to-do’s in our minds. Give us one or three at the very most.
Mix it up. On occasion, send a link to a video update in lieu of your regular newsletter attachment. Keep the video brief. Don’t worry about adding background music (please don’t, actually!) or doing a lot of editing. Just tell your story and, if possible, let us see some of what your eyes see during the course of your work. Raw and honest is good (so long as we can hear the audio and your filming style doesn’t make us nauseous, haha). We don’t expect a polished video production.
Flood the channels with quantity over quality communication. It doesn’t matter how lovely you are or how important your work, there is such a thing as communication overload. While you might have multiple communication channels, not everyone needs to be on every one of those (email, text group, Facebook, Instagram, blog, etc.). You might consider a chat group just for your relatives who want to talk multiple times a day, send memes, or attach videos of the kids being silly. But don’t overdo that with supporters. This will wear them out and they will tune you out.
Wait too long between updates. On the flip side, do not expect people’s hearts and minds to track with you if they only hear from you once or twice a year. They will not remember your stories or engage with your work. I’ve found that an effective rhythm of communication is once a month.
Use a non-standard newsletter format. I can’t tell you how many newsletters I’ve gotten that are actually image files. They are unbelievably annoying. You have to zoom in to read them – if you can read them at all. Please do not do this. A standard document format is much preferable.
Violate ethical or security protocols. Yes, we want to be in on the action of your work and see compelling pictures! But please do not cross ethical boundaries or endanger anyone by using photos that should not be shared. We understand if you need to pixelate a face or other details to make an image safe to share.
Over-sell or under-sell. We get it; if you’ve put your heart and soul into an event only to have 20 people show up, that’s disappointing. Let us be disappointed with you and learn with you. Don’t “sell” us camera angles to make the event look like the largest gathering on earth. We can see through that stuff. At the same time, don’t under-sell your work, either. Let us rejoice with you when things go great and you score a victory. Sometimes humanitarian workers think they have to constantly self-flagellate. You don’t! Just keep it real.
Say “no” for people. Maybe your life doesn’t feel all that interesting or amazing (especially if you’ve been doing the work for a long time). But it is to many people. Some folks will read your stories and be so inspired they will want to partner. They may offer to Venmo you money to go out to eat, ask if your kids want something special in a care package, offer to buy you a plane ticket to see family, or even propose to take time off to travel to where you live. Don’t say “no” for them! Maybe their original offer isn’t what you actually need. You can still affirm their generosity and enthusiasm while redirecting them to a more pressing need.
Please know: We love you! We often are not good at replying to your newsletters or staying in touch with you on this side of the world (a topic for a future blog post, perhaps). Please forgive us for this. We know (if you use newsletter services such as Mailchimp) that you can see who opens your newsletter and how many of us let them lay untouched in our inboxes. This has to be discouraging that so many don’t open – let alone read or engage with – your newsletters. But I promise you, there are those who do and who want to stay engaged. Write for them. And ask them who else they know needs to hear your story.