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I’m getting unsolicited bulk email from Care2 – how can that be?

November 11, 2011

Baseball cap with the embroidered slogan "cognitive dissonance"I’ve got a bad case of cognitive dissonance right now.

On October 18th, I received an email from Holly Ross, the executive director of NTEN, urging me to sign an online petition that was co-sponsored by Care2 and Network for GoodThe petition itself was hosted by Care2.

I signed the petition, and since then, I’ve been receiving unsolicited bulk email about a variety of issues from Care2.  I can’t get my mind around this.

Can it be that Care2 decided that signing one petition that they hosted was tacit permission to flood me with other unsolicited calls to action?  How can that be?

My experience of NTEN, Care2, and Network for Good is that each of these organizations has high standards of integrity; Care2 in particular has a reputation for managing lists for online activism with utmost regard for upholding the opt-in policy for bulk email.

I’ve written to my buddy Joe Baker, who is Care2’s vice president of causes and advocacy, to ask him to look into this, and will post here about whatever comes to light.

Meanwhile, I’ll try to co-exist with the notion that I might have received spam from Care2.  Perhaps I can parley my cognitive dissonance into negative capability.

UPDATE:  Please see the comment section below, for Joe Baker’s response, which I greatly appreciate.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE:  I’ve just received unsolicited bulk email from someone named Ellyn S. at Care2.  I haven’t been able to ascertain her surname or email address, so I don’t know how to get in touch with her to let her know I should be removed from her list.

Once Upon a Donation

April 12, 2011

When I was heralded into the status of having a working wage and expendable income, I finally was able to extend myself to the responsibility of donating. I was able to donate hard cash instead of my time. It felt great. So one of the first organizations I chose to join was the ACLU.

Within a few months, an onslaught of direct mail campaign pieces – PHYSICAL SNAIL MAIL, NOT SPAM – from liberal nonprofit organizations arrived to my mailbox. I had just moved to San Francisco, so I knew something was up. After weeks of about a dozen organizations appealing to my pocket book- most of which I had never heard of, I finally decided to call one of them.

I waded through the series of options on a phone tree until I reached the marketing department. The woman was very polite when I expressed my frustration at receiving her mailer and proceeded to guide me through the process of identifying the origin of my mail. What I learned horrified me: the ACLU had “shared” my address. How did I learn this?

In order for organizations to segment and keep track of their direct mail campaigns to their many constituents, they create codes in their databases. These codes actually appear on the label of the piece next to where your address is printed. Typically, they indicate the time period, the type of list, the type of campaign and who shared your address (or origin) like so:

SP08LOa/SP08LOb:  Spring, 2008, Loyal Donor Group A/Group B
SP08OTa/b:        Spring, 2008, One Time Donor  GroupA /Group B
SP08LAa/b:        Spring, 2008, Lapsed Donor, Group A / Group B
SP08VT:          Spring, 2008, Volunteer
SP08BV:         Spring, 2008, Bereavment List.

You can see an example of such segmentation theories on this Blackbaud Forum thread.

After calling a few of the organizations, all the mail codes led back to the ACLU.

At first I thought, “Man, I must have forgotten to Opt-Out of some checkbox.” But I went back through the entire membership sign-up process and realized there was no opportunity to declare any mailing preferences. I was unnerved at discovering that my address was shared by an organization I trusted. My response was to let my membership lapse and include a note describing the above in the renewal letter I was rejecting. I was sorry to not be able to support an organization I value so much however, I felt better in light of their hard stance on privacy and supposed protection of private data in their privacy statement.

To the brethren on this blog who experience the annoyance of having to click “Spam” on their email client to report unsolicited email- I dare you to take up the challenge of going through the above process. I think unsolicited communication of any sort is annoying. But at least in the digital realm you have some real options to bring consequences against those that don’t respect your communications preferences. 🙂

Consenting adults only.

March 31, 2011

(Note: this article was originally posted to my own blog.  I have agreed to republish it here to the “No Nonprofit Spam” blog.  -N.C.)

There’s a reason that sex with children or animals is highly unethical: there are always grave doubts that consent is fully informed and freely given.(1)

Likewise with sending unsolicited bulk email. Ixnay on the spam, whether or not the sender is a nonprofit organization.

I’m not going to argue that nonprofits that send spam belong in the same circle of Hell as baby rapers.(2) But I do believe that any bulk email newsletters, fundraising pitches, and calls to action sent by nonprofits without the fully informed consent of the recipients is spam, and therefore unethical. Don’t do it.

A group of nonprofit professionals is now on a tear about this, and rightly so. Apparently, they are not so much worried about their own personal email in-boxes, as concerned that they are asked to be complicit in unethical behavior, and concerned about the effect of nonprofit spam on the reputation of the entire sector. Good for them. I particularly like their “Meet the Perps” page, in which they list names of nonprofits (and the email service providers) who are spamming them.

Here’s the statement from the new “No Nonprofit Spam” blog(3):

“Your mission is noble, and your intentions are honorable. But if you subscribed us to your organization’s bulk email list without our permission, then you are sending us spam. That is discourteous, unethical, illegal, and ineffective – so please stop.”


I also like the idea of a Spam Manifesto, so here is mine.

Why your nonprofit organization should not put my email address in your database for bulk messages:

  • I really, really believe in freely given and fully informed consent. You need to confirm that I have opted-in before you add me to your email blast. You will have my consent to send me your precious little electronic bulletins, or you will have my eternal enmity.
  • I work in the nonprofit sector. This means three things, especially in the case of unsolicited bulk email appeals for money. First, I have a good grasp of what would be worst practices in your job. Spamming falls into that category, and I’m not going to condone it. Second, I’m already working for less money than I could be making in another sector, so you are seriously mistaken if you think that I have a lot of discretionary income that I’m willing to give to people who send me fundraising pitches every hour on the hour. Third, I already have done careful research about the issues that interest me and planned my charitable giving for maximum impact, and am unlikely to send money on impulse in response to random spam.
  • I will bitch and moan. That means that I will not only report your nonprofit to Spamhaus and SpamCop, I will also talk trash about you to people who are grantmakers, nonprofit professionals, your current or future donors, and community leaders. If the grant or strategic alliance that you were counting on has fallen through inexplicably, consider the possibility that the word on the street is that your nonprofit is a sleazy operation.
  • I’m anonymous. You don’t know who I am. That means that I could be anyone or everyone in your contact database, so you really should operate as if all of us are as easily offended as I am.

You undoubtedly already know the Golden Rule and the Silver Rule, so I will now invoke the Vitriolic Rule for your contact database: “do unto others as if they are snarky anonymous bloggers who will take pleasure in scourging and thwarting you if you spam them.”

1) Exception: with porcupines, it’s consensual sex or nothing.

2) Unless it’s a nonprofit that is sending spam to me.

3) The cadence of this opening sentence rings a bell. I think I’ve been promoted to the rank of a Literary Influence.

“Knock, Knock”

March 28, 2011

Cartoon by Rob CottinghamCartoon by Rob Cottingham, who very kindly granted us permission to post it here.

Although “Noise To Signal” is the general name of Rob’s cartoon series, it also suggests one of the persistent problems with unsolicited bulk email from nonprofit organizations.  Thanks, Rob!

“Every Time You Buy an Email List – A puppy dies!”

March 23, 2011

We are forever indebted to Brett Schenker for bringing this important public awareness announcement to our attention.



Many thanks are also due to The eMail Guide for producing it.

Our Hall of Shame: Meet the Perpetrators

March 20, 2011

The No Nonprofit Spam Hall of Shame


We’re taking no prisoners, but we are naming names!

Please check out our “Meet the Perps” page.  We’ll be listing nonprofit organizations that have subscribed us to their bulk email lists without our permission. Whenever possible, we’ll also list that organization’s ESP.

If you are receiving unsolicited bulk email from a nonprofit, please feel free to forward it to us with all headers intact.  If it checks out, we’ll add your nominee to our Hall of Shame.  Our email address is nononprofitspam AT gmail DOT com.

Is It Only Spam If The Other Guy Does It?

March 15, 2011

You work for a great org.  What you do is important and meaningful.  To you, it’s not just a job — it’s a mission.  And it deserves funding and support from the public.  I get that.  But if your next logical step in that progression is to assume that I want to be on your email list, you’ve stepped over a line.  It’s a line that does not invalidate your mission, or your devotion to it.  But it doesn’t serve your mission, or your goal of garnering my support for it.  Because I reserve my support for organizations that merit my attention, not ones that abuse it.

We live in a world where most of us wrestle with two common priority-setting challenges:

  1. Most of us are not Bill or Melinda Gates; we can only afford to financially support a handful of the organizations that we would like to support.
  2. Our inboxes are already overflowing.

I spend as little time as possible assessing unsolicited emails before I delete them or mark them as spam. It takes longer if the email is from a nonprofit, because I never assume that an NPO is deliberately spamming me, although it does, sadly, prove true on occasion.  It’s time that would otherwise be spent doing a lot of things, many of them in service of the causes that I work for. Accordingly, the message that a nonprofit sends when they subscribe me to their list (without my approval) is: I am willing to set your priorities for you.

That’s not an appeal — it’s an edict.

It’s not an engagement — it’s invasive.

If their goal is to make it on my short list of organizations that I support, then the way to do that is by being the organization that pops up when I’m looking to add to my list. Those orgs have websites with solid descriptions of their work; metrics and testimonials to back it up; and good ratings with the organizations that assess non-profits.  My friends and family advocate for them. They garner support by being good at what they do, as opposed to being good at getting in my face, or inbox, as the case might be.

I know that it seems like it might be less effective.  And I know that we all want to be effective, because the missions we work for are critical.  But I support organizations that address their missions with good strategies and tactics.  Spam is not a strategy, and it’s an abhorrent tactic. And the fact that what a nonprofit is spamming is important doesn’t change the nature of it.

First, Do No Harm

March 14, 2011

Nonprofits need to take a page from the medical practice’s book: first, do no harm.

If years of watching Grey’s Anatomy have taught me anything, it’s that it’s really hard to know what helping is sometimes. So if all else fails, try to make sure you aren’t hurting anything.

That’s how I think about email. We can all agree that spam makes people unhappy, right? And an unhappy person is unlikely to support an offending nonprofit with time, talent or treasure. If the person is unhappy enough, he may share his thoughts publicly and – knowingly or not – contribute to others to withholding or withdrawing support.

If that’s not harm, I don’t know what is!

So why do nonprofits spam people?

No nonprofit professional sits down at her desk in the morning and says, “I’d like to spam some people today!”

Part of the problem is in agreeing what constitutes spam.

There are different definitions of spam, from the (generally) industry-accepted (I like Spamhaus’ UBE definition), to an individual’s own personal definition, which may range from a reasonable level of tolerance to downright outrage at being sent anything unexpected. I won’t advocate for one definition over another here because ultimately, whether or not an email meets one definition or another doesn’t matter.

If someone thinks you’ve spammed him, the outcome is the same as if you had.

It’s not enough to pick a definition of spam that you like, then operate within (or stretch!) that definition. Nonprofits get the most support not when we communicate the greatest quantity of messages, but when we communicate the best quality messages. This means sending the right messages. At the right times. To the right people. In the right ways.

The Right People, The Right Ways

Given any email communication and group of potential recipients, this is my personal list of right-people-right-way questions:

  • Do we know that these people want this type of email?
  • Do we know that it’s okay to email these people this often?
  • Do we know that our email provides something of value to these people? Will they feel good about receiving this email?
  • Will these people know why they are receiving this email?
  • Do we know that these people want email from us? Do we have EXPLICIT PERMISSION to email each person with this type of email, this often?

If you can’t answer yes to these questions – particularly the last one – for any given email communication, then you’re probably running a significant risk that your email will be regarded as spam. Your potential for doing harm increases, and for doing good (getting the desired result, be that a donation or a volunteer, etc.) decreases.

I think there’s a strong temptation to think that failing to send various or sundry email represents a missed opportunity. This kind of fear-based thinking doesn’t ultimately serve a nonprofit in its mission. When you send spam, your only missed opportunity is to communicate with the small percent of people who welcome unsolicited email from you. In the meantime, you’ve likely alienated a much larger percent of your recipeints who may block future emails, report you for spamming, and generally spread bad mojo via word of mouth. In short: you stand to lose more than you may gain. Primum non nocere.

Instead, I would encourage nonprofits to feel good about doing the hard work and taking the time to capitalize on a much greater opportunity – to be strategic and to create a plan to reach out to constituents in a meaningful and engaging way! It’s difficult to tick people off by sending them quality content that they value and have asked you to send. 🙂

What’s your experience with nonprofit spam?

I write both from personal experience receiving nonprofit spam and as a professional in the #nptech community. Do you have personal experiences to share? Have you been sending spam (or do people tell you you are)? What have your outcomes been?

You’ve bothered to read my thoughts on the issue, and for that, I thank you. Why not go one step further & share yours in the comments?

Nonprofitspam makes it difficult to give!

March 14, 2011

My neighbor is an aging woman living on a fixed income. A few years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (early stages) and not too long after had difficulty deciphering between solicitation and actual bills. Because she gives to one cancer research group on a regular basis, she gets constant solicitation by phone and by snail mail and had since started giving donations to other organizations because she thought she was obligated to pay them.

We called a few of the numbers listed with these solicitations and explained the situation. We asked that they discontinue any and all solicitation so that she wouldn’t be confused about them, pay them and then have less money for the necessities. In all cases, the person on the other end was very helpful and understanding. After a few months, almost all of the solicitations had stopped. We even got her on the “do not call list”.

The year turned and she contacted the one cancer research organization that she mainly supports to make her yearly donation. Of course, we figured this was no big deal. Surely donating to one organization would be alright!

Not a week went by and she suddenly began receiving mail and phone solicitations again. Not just from that cancer organization but from many different campaigns. It quickly became apparent that there is no easy way to simply give a one time donation to one organization and not be bombarded with further solicitation.

Next year, when she asks to do her annual donation, we are going to have to do the donation in my name, so that I can more easily remove myself from the impending onslaught of solicitation or simply have her not donate at all.

This type of sharing of information between nonprofit organizations is, in fact, nonprofitspam. The experience has caused me to second guess who I personally give to. Yearly pledge calls from the organization that you’ve already given to is one thing but, when that donation triggers a flood gate of solicitation from sometimes unrelated nonprofit organizations, it makes for a horrible giving experience.

Nobody likes spam, this is not new but nonprofitspam is the worst disservice to both the donor and the solicitor.

So, I’ve joined a team of folks on the web, dedicated to calling attention to the need to get rid of this type of spam. Hopefully, we can make the giving experience a pleasure once more!

Nonprofit & Activism Spam: Still Not Kosher

March 14, 2011

Not that long ago, I worked for a religious organization. The director routinely asked that lists of emails from conferences or emails with lots of people cc’ed should be added to the general mailing list. Of course I would always ask: do you know that these people want to be on your list?

Ha. Of course not. And he didn’t care. Really! He super didn’t care.

As time went on, I realized that he was adding people who had repeatedly unsubscribed, as well as emails that linked to listservs he had subscribed to with his general email address. This meant that folks who had repeatedly unsubscribed would sometimes get our mass email 3-4 times, because that person was on a few shared listservs. If that person wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand that the email wasn’t delivered through a list, they would try – in vain – to unsubscribe again using the link, and fail, because they were no longer subscribed. And they would call me and use bad language.

It’s been a few years now, but when I mention this group’s name, people still ask me how the fuck can they unsubscribe from that list.

His argument was that in a world dominated by corporate media and messaging, righteous words of the sort he provided had to fight to be heard by enough people. Adding email addresses without their consent was akin to standing on the lawn of an evil corporation with a banner: civil disobedience. Explaining to him that this was wrong on oh so many levels didn’t help. He knew better than the internets, better than angry, unwilling subscribers, better than irate ESP’s chiding him for all the spam complaints. He knew that what he had to say was IMPORTANT.

But you know what? He’s not alone. That kind of arrogant, self-centered, and counter productive approach is quite common among folks who in almost any other context would be howling at the lack of privacy and respect. And we probably can’t persuade them on ethical, legal or utilitarian grounds. It’s 2011, people. They know that ‘other’ people think it’s shameful. And they don’t care.

So here’s what I do – especially with super progressive, well-meaning, often older folks trying to run some little nonprofit or campaign: I figure out what service they are using to send emails (usually constant contact, icontact, and the like) and file a formal complaint at the ‘abuse@’ address. If I don’t get a reassuring email letting me know that this is being looked into, I start emailing other addresses from the firm. In one case, I had to reach staff at a regional ISP on the phone, and insinuated that their company probably didn’t have enough technical staff or chops to fuck with me, so they better act polite even if they didn’t mean it. (That actually worked.)

What I never do is politely ask to be removed from their list, which is what I used to do a few years ago. At this point, the problem is no longer my ability to manage unwanted emails. It’s the toll that unwanted messages take on the entire progressive and nonprofit movement. To the extent that spam is associated with the movements and causes that I hold dear, it is causing damage to an otherwise upstanding sector. Spam is noise, and too much noise kills appropriate messaging. My hobby is to try and kill spam. In support of the good guys.

You might think this is extreme. Last month I got an email that boasted of how the author had researched 1000 other progressives by scraping emails from various sites and aggregating them to his opt-out list. He was bragging! Last week I was solicited for donations by a candidate in Philadelphia. He added me to his list. I have never lived near his district. I left Philly years ago. WTF? Dude, that’s an email to NGP/VAN right there telling them YOU SUCK.

From time to time, I get an email back promising that I will be unsubscribed from the offending list. My response is: I didn’t complain for ME, I complained for YOU! Obviously I could have hit the unsubscribe link. Then you’d have no idea that someone is violating your ToS, and probably thinking that it’s not actually a problem, because they only scraped ‘appropriate’ emails and ripped off lists from groups they are actually connected to. Not like real spammers, the kind who sell Viagra….

It’s not like I’m a fanatic or anything. I only go ballistic on someone every 2-3 weeks, maybe 20 times a year. And it only takes a few minutes. But if just ONE MORE PERSON joins me, and ONE MORE PERSON joins the two of us, together we can ban those SOB’s from any ESP that actually delivers email on time, get their domains blacklisted, and know that whatever dreams of improving the world they had, those dreams are dead or dying for having committed the crime of spam.


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