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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 Good. The 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.
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.
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)
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.”
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.