CN#5. Donations and "pay what you can" strategies


◾️Donations and “pay what you can” options are increasingly popular additional income sources for newsletter publishers, alongside advertising, subscriptions and affiliate commissions.

◾️To promote these options, publishers use multiple price points, additional member benefits, emotional appeals, and highlight the positive effects of contributions.

◾️The trend can shift the publisher-reader relationship from commercial to personal/moral and is another example of putting readers first, offering more control over the level and timing of financial support they provide.

◾️Voluntary support requests sit most easily with cause-based newsletters, those broadly political, campaigning, local community focussed, or steadfastly independent.

◾️Some publishers appeal to early adopters, strong supporters and fans to pay more as founders or “super-supporters”.

◾️Successful donation-based tactics employed by publishers such as The Guardian, Wikipedia and The Daily Maverick can be mimicked by newsletter publishers.

Offering multiple subscription price points.

Most newsletter subscription offerings start with a fixed minimum subscription fee, establishing a baseline.

Some are introducing stepped options which extend to a level several times the minimum.

Additional benefits are offered to back up the higher price points at relatively low cost to the publisher.

The effect is to blur the distinction between a membership fee and a donation, with those selecting higher levels voluntarily paying more than “the going rate”.

The most supportive and engaged customers can be comfortable paying more than "the going rate".

All the newsletters in the examples below offer free and monthly options as well.

Making suggestions for different levels of support helps to remove a decision barrier by increasing the chance a subscriber willing to pay more will alight on a level they are comfortable with.

Although data on actual donation levels is not available and beyond the scope of this piece, a prevalence of high price points indicates there are takers for this level of support.

One newsletter's highest price tier is 15 times the minimum

Subscription models pre-suppose the most supportive and engaged customers customers, although there will be relatively few of them, are comfortable paying extra for content and connection with subject matter they love.

At $720 for a year, The Browser, a UK based curator of quality reads, offers its highest tier of membership at 15 times the minimum cost. This includes additional benefits (see below).

In local news, Axios Charlotte in North Carolina, US, suggests a $500 fee level, 10 times the minimum, for those backers most committed to supporting coverage of community affairs.

Tangle, a US politics newsletter committed to objectivity, looks for four times the minimum, setting $250 as its suggested upper price point.

eBiz Facts, which publishes creator business success stories, gets donations through a Patreon page with four levels of monthly support available.

They are Legend £2, Absolute Legend £4, Absolute and Utter Legend £8, and, my favourite, Absolute And Utter Feckin Legend, £15.50 per month. This approach, if not the language, could be offered by any newsletter operating a free model.

Providing additional member benefits

Adding member benefits provides more value for a higher tier subscription, often at relatively low cost to the publisher

This allows publishers to charge significantly more for the added perception of elevated reader status.

The variety of benefits offered is limited only by the imagination of the publisher.

Here’s a selection from my research:

✅ Membership of an online group

✅ Full archive access

✅ Uber Ride and Eats vouchers

✅ Birthday shout outs

✅ Member-only events

✅ Online seminars

✅ Access to comments

✅ Insider notes from reporters

✅ Merchandise

✅ Meet the editor

✅ Guided Tour of London

✅ Additional newsletters

✅ No advertisements

✅ First to see new products

Membership of a community is a commonly offered premium benefit.

This gives exclusive access and connection with like-minded individuals sharing love of the subject matter through a private Facebook group or other private online group.

Access to editors is another favourite, tapping into a desire among the most committed readers to know and understand editorial decisions and get closer to how these are made and executed. Some may aspire to having some influence.

Axios Charlotte offers quarterly members-only events, birthday shout-outs in the newsletter, and insider notes from reporters.

As a member of The Browser’s Order of Cecily subscriber tier, members get a bespoke designed guided tour of London and access to the editors, as well as the benefits of the other membership tiers.

The Daily Maverick in South Africa provides a free-to-all news service, including 8 newsletters, with a voluntary paid membership operating in tandem.

For those who sign up to pay 200 rand ($11) a month, there are Uber and Uber Eats money-off vouchers every month. There’s a sliding scale of voluntary support, so the more you pay the more vouchers you get.

Making an emotional appeal

An emphasis on what a donation can mean to the publisher and its specific cause, and how it makes a difference, taps into emotional reasons to support or subscribe other than self-interest.

One of the main approaches is to highlight how voluntary contributions keep a free newsletter free for others who might not be able to afford to pay.

In local news, publishers are realising that people have multiple motivations for keeping up with the news and highlight the following triggers:

✅ The link between caring about your community and paying to make sure everyone knows what’s going on.

✅ Highlighting how your contribution helps by supporting coverage, public debate and campaigns to get the “right” community decisions made.

✅ The importance of keeping local news journalism independent and free from undue influence, in particular campaigning journalism.

✅ Donors may have their own reasons for supporting a local news organisation. At the point of sign-up, Axios Charlotte readers are asked to affirm “why are you supporting us” to verbalise the emotional connection they are making.

Among independent newsletter writers there are frequent appeals to back the entrepreneurial spirit of journalists striking out on their own to build a businesses.

Tech writer Casey Newton says part of his Transformer offering is that paying readers get “the knowledge that you’re directly supporting independent journalism [and] powering scoops.”

The Mill, in Manchester, UK, readers are asked to “support the rebirth of high quality journalism” in the city and “pay what you can afford”.

Media commentator Simon Owens implores potential subscribers to support his Media Newsletter because he is “a hard-working journalist busting his ass” providing value to the sector.

Just ask

In the past, requesting donations for a commercial service would appear inappropriate, but as publishers move to describing themselves as reader-supported, the notion of a non-contractual contribution seems more acceptable.

Tangle invites readers to “drop some love” by PayPal or Credit Card whenever they feel like it.

Lessons from other news organisations

News and information organisations with a commitment to free information use highly successful tactics to raise donations that can be adopted or amended for use by newsletters.

The Guardian, UK-based free global news site with more than 50 newsletters, gets more cash from voluntary recurring subscriptions and one-off donations than from paying readers of its UK print newspapers.

The 499,000 one-off contributions in the last financial year came from those supporting the newspaper’s liberal, democratic and left-leaning credentials.

The Guardian stresses how donations can “power” open independent journalism, and even protect the environment.

At the top level, Guardian Patrons are invited to choose one of three levels of suggested contribution: £1,200, £2,500, or £5,000 a year.

Or, you can “support our journalism with a contribution of any size”.

Guardian Patrons get free tickets to live events, a free digital subscription, discounts on masterclasses and regular newsletters about Guardian journalism. At higher levels, there are opportunities to attend editorial morning conference with the editor, and exclusive awards events.

Most of us are familiar with the guilt-inducing Wikipedia pop-up seeking donations.

The non-profit global encyclopaedia more than covers its $111m annual operating expenses with donations, corporate grants and gifts with regular pop-ups asking for support.

In addition, it has received more than $100m in endowments and legacies from supporters of its mission to provide free information to the world.

Now other big newspaper brands are looking the same way. The Chicago-Sun Times is dropping its paywall and moving to a reader-supported model that relies on donations.

And finally, emotional blackmail is not unknown among news providers, something we've yet to discover among newsletter publishers.

Danish local news publisher Zetland highlighted the jobs that would be lost if newspapers were forced to close.

The publisher proved the case by publicly sharing dire financial information. Since then, an annual appeal for financial support has recruited 10,000 additional paying members over 3 years.


Securing important funding voluntarily is working for many newsletter publishers today, and a growing trend in the news sector as a whole.

It's still early days, and hard financial facts are hard to come by in the emerging newsletter sector, but we do have real and impressive case studies of voluntary support for The Guardian and Wikipedia.

The bottom line is that some readers will donate, sometimes at extraordinarily generous levels, to a cause or service that resonates with them emotionally.

Expect to see more examples of emotional button-pressing for cash.

This is the 5th issue of Champion Newsletters. Thank you for reading and sharing this reader-supported venture as a free member.

It only seems appropriate at the end of a piece on reader contributions to ask if you'd consider upgrading to a paid subscription. And while I'm not going to pull any emotional triggers, I will point out that your support can help ensure I'll continue to produce regular deep analysis of newsletters and newsletter strategies.

An annual subscription is great value at $50 and guarantees every newsletter in your inbox. Hit the subscribe button now! Thanks again.

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