Guidelines for producing NCCR Volunteer Newsletters

Background related to current design, production process:

The newsletters for volunteers from the Northern California Coastal Region of the American Red Cross are produced by members of the region’s Volunteer & Youth Services (VYS) and Marketing & Communications (MarCom) teams, who receive considerable support on the project from the volunteers themselves. The newsletters are produced in and hosted on the Constant Contact platform.

In February 2016, then-MarCom lead Cynthia Shaw asked Jim Burns (then a new member of her team) to oversee her department’s work on the newsletters. At the time, the region had been producing 7 newsletters, with each relating to a particular Disaster District, for about a year.

After working with VYS team members and a number of volunteers for several months on the project, Jim made two suggestions for improving the newsletters:

  • Convert to “responsive design” templates — By mid-2016, the first-generation newsletters were using an out-of-date Constant Contact template. The template, which had two fixed-width columns, was not built on “responsive design” principles, which meant that it didn’t adjust to display well on the readers’ device of choice. As a result of this deficiency, the newsletters were very readable on computers with larger screens; however, they were almost unreadable on mobile devices. Compounding that problem was the fact that about half of our readers at the time were accessing the newsletters on mobile devices. (Note: Responsive-design sites make a determination about the device accessing them and efficiently display content accordingly. For example, content accessed on mobile devices, because of their relatively small size, makes the font size larger and stacks the content so that is is more accessible.)
  • Develop a process for sharing a baseline amount of content with newsletter teams. At the time of this evaluation, every team was making independent decisions about content and doing their own researching, writing, and securing art for their particular newsletter. This approach was resulting in a lot of time being spent collectively on the project.

Steps that led to a redesigned template:

We scheduled and led 24 meetings, mostly on Webex, with regional leadership, newsletter teams, and their volunteer editors to discuss the goals of the project, solicit input on design, receive feedback on a draft design he created, and to train people who VYS designated as people who would help build the newsletters in the new design.

The Central Coast team agreed to pilot the newly designed template, with their first redesigned newsletter coming out in October 2016. With a successful launch, the other 6 newsletters followed soon thereafter.

Scope of the newsletters, their frequency, and schedule:

Since the first redesigned newsletter was distributed in October 2016, the region has altered the number of newsletters it produces by thinking of them as chapter-based newsletters. This led to a reduction from 7 to 4, with newsletters being produced for volunteers from the Bay Area, California Northwest, Central Coast, and Silicon Valley Chapters.

In April 2020, boundaries for Red Cross regions were adjusted nationally, resulting in the loss of the CalNW Chapter and the gain of the North Bay Chapter in our region. In addition, a 5th newsletter was added — for the newly created Heart of the Valley Chapter. The HOV newsletter debuted in May 2020.

The newsletters are distributed on the 2nd Wednesday of each month by the designated VYS lead.

How volunteers can help with the project:

The first step is to receive approval from the VYS lead responsible for the newsletter you are interested in supporting: Nicole Massey (North Bay and Heart of the Valley), Jonathan Bernier (Central Coast and Silicon Valley), and Eva Marquez (Bay Area).

Once that has occurred, people (employees or volunteers) need the MarCom lead (currently Jim for this project) to add their name and email address  — making them a User — to the regional list in the Constant Contact system.

Process for producing each issue:

Developing baseline content for the chapter teams —

  • Our region’s Volunteer Newsletter Coordinator, Argentina Lario-Lago, contacts newsletter leads and selected members of our region’s Leadership Team to share info on the coming month’s production schedule.
  • Argentina and Jim prepare a half-dozen or so regional, national, or international items (teasers, links, and related art) that are appropriate for use in the upcoming newsletter. This content is then edited by Jim, with Argentina sharing it with newsletter team members.

Work by the chapter teams —

  • Chapter teams typically duplicate the prior month’s newsletter to begin work on the new one.
  • Chapter teams use that content for any of the three primary sections, per their preference. (The next section describes the editable sections in more detail.)
  • Most often, they use the content that Argentina and Jim share in the “Other Updates” section of their newsletter.
  • Chapter teams develop their own local content or use one of the regional items developed by Argentina and Jim for the “Up Front” section.
  • Chapter teams develop their own local content for the “News & Notes” section.
  • By noon on the Monday before each chapter’s newsletter is to be distributed (on the 2nd Wednesday) of each month, the local teams inform Argentina and Jim that their newsletter is ready for final review. Jim completes his review and lets the local teams know what he has changed and what, if anything, still needs their attention.
  • The VYS lead for each chapter is responsible for distributing their chapter newsletter(s) before the COB on the 2nd Wednesday of each month.

Primary content areas designed into our volunteer e-newsletters:

  • To, From, Subject Line block. The subject line needs to be changed each month to reflect the current month.
  • Month and Year in the Masthead. This needs to be changed each month by the local team.
  • Up Front. This is the lead boxed area, designed for one feature item. This can be a local item that the local team produces and places in this space or it can be pulled from the “Other Updates” content that is described below.
  • News & Notes from your local chapter. This is typically chapter news and info about upcoming events and local activities that is created and placed in the template by local teams.
  • Other Updates from the Red Cross. This space is typically used for the regional, national, and international content items that are produced by Argentina and Jim (see previous section); the items in this section are typically copied from the doc that Argentina sends to the teams and entered into the content blocks in this section by local teams.
  • Footer area that includes address, chapter web site, regional social accounts. This was done when each chapter’s template was created and should not have to be updated.

Common design:

These 5 chapter-based newsletters were designed as a set. So local teams should not change the design (e.g., layout, font type and size, box design, color choices, line weight, etc.)

Font type and size:

  • Font type: Arial
  • Font size: 16 point for lead-in text; 14 for any sub text or bulleted items.

Color specs:

The colors for the backgrounds, text color, link color, red areas, etc. are all integrated into the template design. These should not be changed.

Tips and reminders:

Writing and Uploading docs —

  • Don’t overwrite. Just think in terms of a series of short teasers with hotlinks to more content (if having more content is helpful). If you are unsure about the length of your item, please use the preview function in Constant Contact and select Mobile.
  • Uploading of “Read More” documents is encouraged, rather than including a lengthy item in the newsletter. Write a teaser and link to the lengthy version of it. When uploading reference docs, please upload PDFs (not Word docs), as PDFs open a new window while Word docs download in a somewhat confusing manner. Plus, PDFs are more universally accessible than Word docs.
  • When uploading a photo, please remember to fill in the Description field. In our newsletters, this field serves as the Alt Text. (The point of using “alternative text” on an image is so that there’s text describing the image that appears if the image doesn’t show — some people turn off image loading — or if a recipient of the email is using a screen reader, which can be very helpful for sight-impaired people.)
  • It’s important that only one regional person (volunteer, VYS lead, Jim) be working on any given newsletter at the same time, so as not to “clobber” each other’s work. For example, once the VYS lead informs Jim that a newsletter is ready for review, they should not go back into the newsletter to do any work until after they receive Jim’s email that his review is complete.

Design —

  • Don’t change the template to fit your design preferences.

Deadlines —

  • Make the Monday-before-distribution deadline for final review or let Argentina and Jim know as soon as possible if you aren’t going to miss that deadline.

Questions and training:

Do not hesitate to email Jim Burns if you have any questions, other comments, or concerns about the content in this guide! Jim would be happy to schedule a Teams or Zoom training session if doing so is helpful to a member of one of the chapter newsletter teams.


This guide was updated in November 2020.